Gifted actor who captured the ordinary guy

 

Chris Penn: Actor Chris Penn, best known for his role in the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, was found dead last Tuesday at his home in Santa Monica, California.

Penn, the younger brother of actor Sean Penn, specialised in working-class, regular-guy characters, and had roles in a long list of film and television programmes during a career that spanned more than two decades. Though less well known than Sean, Chris Penn won praise for a series of supporting roles in major films, including Footloose and Reservoir Dogs.

Possessed of a hefty build, protruding chin and slightly pouting lips, Chris Penn looked the part of the ordinary guy or small-time crook, though he had played cops as well. Penn came from a family devoted to drama and performing. His father, Leo Penn, was a television director, his mother Eileen Ryan an actress, and his other brother, Michael, is a musician.

Chris Penn began his career as a child performer in the 1970s at the age of 12 at the Loft Studio, and made his film debut in Charlie and the Talking Buzzard in 1979. He moved on to Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, which features Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke and, in 1983 to All the Right Moves, which starred Tom Cruise.

He played the role of an awkward teenager who says he can't dance in Footloose, and starred in one of that film's most memorable scenes, when Kevin Bacon ultimately teaches him some moves. He was also one of the bad guys in the Clint Eastwood western Pale Rider in 1985.

Perhaps his best known role, however, was as "Nice Guy Eddie" in the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. The character he brought to life - both disturbing and humorous - caught critics' attention. After that, Penn, who grew heavier through the years, played a series of sidekick roles, including in such recent movies as Starsky & Hutch and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.

In Robert Altman's Short Cuts, however, he was memorable as the pool cleaner who cannot come to terms with the fact that his wife earns her money as a phone sex operator.

He also appeared in The Darwin Awards which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival the day after his death. He was destined never to approach his brother's fame nor win anything like Sean Penn's critical acclaim, and in later years, especially, seemed to have settled into a steady, journeyman actor's career of modest distinction.

Throughout his work, though, critics marked striking moments in his performances and often called him underrated. "Just as talented as Sean - just a lot less cocky," one magazine critic wrote of him last year. He could play humiliation and vulnerability especially well and "makes you seamlessly believe in characters so much you barely even notice them".

A bar on New York's Lower Eastside called Nice Guy Eddie's was named for his performance in Reservoir Dogs. Owner David McWater, an acquaintance of the actor, said Penn attended the opening, easily mingling with bar patrons.

"He was real nice . . . approachable, just one of the guys. He wasn't standoffish, not trying to be star," McWater said, adding: "I always thought he was underrated. When he wanted to be, he was a really good actor."

Chris Penn: born June 10th, 1962; died January 24th, 2006