Hollywood brims with tragedy, and its unpredictability can be confounding. On 24 January, in a Santa Monica beachside condo, Chris Penn was found in bed, according to Santa Monica police, deceased of natural causes. He was 40 years old. To many, Chris Penn was but a footnote: younger brother to Sean, never garnering the same notoriety or critical acclaim. But to those of us who appreciate a nice piece of prime rib (to paraphrase Nice Guy Eddie), Chris Penn was the real deal: affable, sincere, and satisfying.
Penn was one of three children born to TV director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. Naturally gifted and exposed to acting studios by age 12, he played supporting roles in All the Right Moves and Rumble Fish (both 1983), before landing the buddy role opposite Kevin Bacon in 1984’s Footloose. As Willard Hewitt, the endearing young farmer who learned to dance, awkwardly, Penn stole the show. It was the first time I remember seeing him on the big screen. He didn’t have the brooding good looks of his older brother, but was equally versatile and persuasive. He could trade laughs for intensity, appear unpretentious or aggressive. He appeared as likely to throw back a Bud as crack open a bottle of Cristal.
Penn inhabited his characters with zeal. With an imposing build (six feet tall, 300 pounds), he was often cast as the heavy in films like Pale Rider (1985) and Best of the Best (1989). Penn cemented another sort of legacy in 1992, as part of Quentin Tarantino’s band of doomed criminals in Reservoir Dogs. Nice Guy Eddie exhibited an explosive mix of humor and ferocity; but Penn also made him a blue-collar antihero, at once good-natured and menacing. He worked a similar tension in True Romance (1993), as overzealous cop Nicky Dimes.
In the years that followed, Penn chose vivid characters on both sides of the law, guys named Pulasky, Manetti, Turk, Duke, and Bubba. He worked convincingly opposite giants like Clint Eastwood and Christopher Walken, and yet Penn was relegated to tertiary roles throughout much of his career. While Sean emerged as a critical sensation, Chris seemed to recede into the shadows. Their paths diverged, with the brothers appearing only once together on film, playing siblings Brad and Tommy Whitewood in the 1986 drama At Close Range. Fittingly, that story portrays a family fated to tragedy.
Chris Penn’s presence always punctuated a film, his inimitable style commanding attention even in minor roles. His most acclaimed work came finally with a shared Golden Globe for Best Ensemble Cast (Robert Altman’s Shortcuts ), then with a Venice Film Festival win for Best Supporting Actor, as a depression-era mobster in The Funeral (1996). Afterwards, Penn began a slide into mediocrity, eventually parodying himself in Corky Romano (2001) and Starsky & Hutch (2004).
Recently, his career had taken a promising turn with the independent Mexican film, Juarez: Stages of Fear (2005), for which he was star and producer, his first such credit. We can only wonder what he might have done next. Rather than fixate on what he didn’t do, we should thank him for what he did: He burned with a fire both reckless and exhilarating. In a family of stars Chris Penn was the underdog, and I loved rooting for him.