Seldom has cinema seen a more controversial figure than Sean Penn. Breaking through as a Brat-Packer at the beginning of the Eighties, he looked set for a mighty mainstream career but, having married Madonna in the first burst of her phenomenal success, instead spent much of the decade flailing at the paparazzi, desperately battling for privacy at the eye of a media storm, even getting himself jailed. Quitting acting altogether, he reinvented himself as an art-house director and, returning to the peripheries of the Hollywood fold, as a consummate character actor, being nominated twice for Oscars, then winning Best Actor for Mystic River. Yet the fire of rebellion still burned as, publicly rubbishing most of Tinseltown's output, as well as America's foreign policies, he was constantly on the edge of a mighty furore.
His refusenik roots were deep. His father, Leo Penn, was an actor, writer and director during the McCarthy era. Called before the Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to name names, was branded a Communist and blacklisted - forcing him to move into TV. One of Sean's earlier memories is of his father taking him to the set of The Last Tycoon - starring Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson - near to the family home. Passing through, Leo was hailed by the movie's director, Elia Kazan, who HAD named names. But Leo, normally warm and friendly, walked straight past, his passionate integrity leaving an indelible mark on his son.
As far as Sean's later career went, Leo was not the only one to draw him towards movies. For Sean's mother was Eileen Ryan, a well-known TV actress who appeared in most of the big shows - Bonanza, Marcus Welby MD etc. She'd take a near-two-decade gap to raise her three children - Sean, younger brother Chris (also a fine actor), and Michael (now a musician, he soundtracked Boogie Nights and is married to Aimee Mann). Then she returned in the likes of ER, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue and CSI, as well as Parenthood, Magnolia, and many of Sean's projects.
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