9 Milestones in the Evolution of Johnny Depp

In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Johnny Depp reprises the most popular and beloved character of his career, Captain Jack Sparrow. How did Depp transform himself from an '80s teen TV idol to one of the most talented and idiosyncratic actors in film today?

You can always trace a direct line through a few important roles to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. So let's look at nine pivotal performances that track the evolution of Johnny Depp.

21 Jump Street (1987)

After a few small roles (including Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Platoon and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street), Depp got his big Hollywood break when he was chosen to replace Jeff Yagher in Fox's '80s cop series. As Tommy Hanson, a baby-faced undercover agent who investigates high school crimes, Depp became a teen idol almost instantly. As soon as his contract expired in 1990, however, Depp fled the series to explore more substantive work -- only, as it turns out, to return 20 years later for a cameo in Hollywood's big screen adaptation.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Following John Waters' kitschy '50s musical Cry-Baby, Johnny Depp stumbled upon one of the most important milestones of his career: his first project with career collaborator Tim Burton. As the scissor-limbed lead -- a part the studio originally wanted for Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks or Robert Downey, Jr. -- Depp drew positive critical reviews for the first of his many "misunderstood" roles. Grossing over $55 million domestically, Edward Scissorhands was declared a box office success allowing Depp to continue his work as leading man.

Ed Wood (1994)

With two more critically-approved performances under his belt (in Benny & Joon and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), Depp paired up with Tim Burton again for his first biographical role. To prepare for the part of cross-dressing cult filmmaker Ed, Depp studied the upbeat mannerisms of Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney and Casey Kasem, and turned in a performance that the New York Times called evidence of him being "certified great actor."

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Depp went undercover again in the late '90s, this time to play real-life FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco) in Mike Newell's crime drama. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and Depp proved that he could hold his own opposite Hollywood heavyweights like Al Pacino, who played Brasco's mob mentor Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero.

The Brave (1997)

On the heels of Donnie Brasco, Depp made his directorial debut with The Brave, a bleak film that he and his brother adapted from a Gregory McDonald novel. Depp also starred in the project as a poor American Indian, who after being released from jail, agrees to be tortured and killed in exchange for $15,000 that will be awarded to his family following his death. (Marlon Brando co-starred as the eccentric making Depp's character this grim offer.) The film premiered at Cannes and received mixed reviews before being released in theaters outside of the U.S. Nearly 14 years later, Depp has just agreed to direct again, this time a Keith Richards documentary.

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  • The Winchester says:

    I realize I'm getting up there in age, (a fact I'm reminded of everyday I look in a mirror) but there is no way that Depp's returning to 21 Jump Street after 30 years.

  • Laurie says:

    Johnny has had an incredible career. These are all good movies, but there are several others that he is just unbelievable in. It's too bad you were only pointing out 9 of them. I hope this will encourage others who are not so familiar with his earlier work, to seek out those movies and watch them. He is a force to be reckoned with. Oh, and by the way, the clip you have there for "The Brave" is actually from "Arizona Dream".

  • judy says:

    Going to see POTC 4 today, JD is my favorite....love all hie movies.. Libertine was so good!!

  • Mark says:

    No mention of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? What a role that was.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I never did care much for him back in his "pretty boy" (as I call them) days. If anything it's his love of the "weird" that has turned me into a huge fan of his.
    If I had known, all those years ago, that he originally wanted to be a rock musician I might have been more interested in him.
    I can hardly wait to see him in The Night Stalker, and Dark Shadows.