From exuberant sidekick to fully-fledged leading man, Jack Black has rocked Hollywood. King Kong thrust the multi-talented funnyman into the spotlight and there's more to come...
Born Thomas J Black, everyone’s favourite comedic hero is the only child of two rocket scientists, Judith Cohen and Thomas Black. With four elder siblings from his parents’ previous marriages, Black often found himself in the classic ‘youngest child’ scenario of having to battle for attention.
Raised in the Jewish faith (his father having converted to Judith’s religion after they married), Black’s parents divorced when he was aged 10 and he opted to move with his mother to an eight bedroom house in Culver City, Los Angeles. His mum would rent out the remaining rooms to earn some extra income and one particular tenant was a music-loving journo who introduced Black to the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel. This influence, along with Black’s older Sound Engineer brother, formed the early beginnings of Black’s future foundation in the music world.
It was also clear from an early age that Black possessed something of a flair for acting and by the time he reached his teens, his parents made the wise suggestion that he transfer from his public school to the privately run Poseidon School which specialised in educating students who struggled to fit into a more traditional schooling system. Excelling in drama, he soon gained a place studying theatre arts at the University of California in Los Angeles.
During his time at university, he joined an acting troupe called The Actor’s Gang, which was founded by a collection of thespians that included Tim Robbins. The gang’s motto, ‘dare to be stupid’, was the likely influence for Black’s signature style of acting. Whilst part of the group, he landed his first role treading the floorboards in Robbins’s production of 'Carnage' at the 1989 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The forging of a long-running collaboration with Robbins developed from the impression made while acting in 'Carnage', which soon led to Black’s first screen debut in the political satire, 'Bob Roberts' (1992), which was produced and directed by Tim.
Over the next four years, Black focused on increasing his prime time TV exposure. Small parts in well-known American series such as 'The X Files' and 'Life Goes On' helped establish a steady run of low-level roles.
Throughout the Nineties, Black also managed to notch up minor acting credits on the big screen in films such 'Demolition Man' (1993) and the ill-fated flop 'Waterworld' (1995), yet the parts weren’t quite meaty enough to allow him to show his true talent.
In 1995, old-time buddy Tim Robbins came to the rescue when he offered him a role in the Oscar winning film, 'Dead Man Walking'.
'Dead Man Walking' also starred Tim’s wife Susan Sarandon as a nun who befriends convicted killer Sean Penn, awaiting execution on death row. Contrary to his future ‘funny man’ typecasting, Black played the role of Craig Poncelet, brother to Sean Penn’s lead character. A key scene in the film featured Black meeting with the condemned Penn, allowing him the chance to properly showcase his talent.
In the years that followed, higher profile offers began to filter through. 'The Jackal' (1997) saw him take a credit on the same film as Bruce Willis, while the low-key hit 'Enemy of the State' (1998) earned him red carpet space alongside Gene Hackman and Will Smith.
But it was to be Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book, 'High Fidelity' that Black’s breakthrough A-list screen career truly began. John Cusack lead with the part of indie-record shop owner Rob Gordon who spends the film re-living and recounting tales of his doomed past relationships.
The role of Barry, Cusack’s pretentious shop assistant, was perfect for Black. Here, he evidently relishes the chance to play a guy so obsessed with music that he works unpaid in the shop purely to pass on his elitist views to unsuspecting and weary customers. Film critics around the world took note; Jack Black had arrived.
Further film roles followed, most significantly being the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy 'Shallow Hal' (2001) alongside Gwyneth Paltrow. Told by his dying father to only ever date beautiful girls, Black’s character eventually has to be hypnotised to discover inner beauty because of his inability to find true love. He subsequently falls for 300 pound fat-suit wearing Gwynnie, unable to actually see her real size.
Next up was the silent hit 'Orange County', in which the role of couch potato Lance had been especially created for Black by writer Mike White - an old Hollywood Hills neighbour of his. For several years, writer Mike White had lived next door to Black, who frequently popped round to nab cigarettes from Mike’s girlfriend.
After lending his voice as Zeke, the evil sabre-tooth tiger in the animated movie 'Ice Age', Black again teamed up with Mike White for the lead role in 'The School of Rock' (2003). The role of Dewey Finn stole close to Black’s heart thanks to the character’s persona (as a failed rocker) and the film’s plot which leads him to preach the ‘power of metal’ to youngsters when he sneaks a job as a relief teacher to earn some cash. The film took four times its budget at the box office and earned Black a Golden Globe nomination.
A cameo as a biker in the Will Ferrell comedy, 'Anchorman', was followed by a turn at another voice-only role in the animated 'Shark Tale' alongside Will Smith and Robert De Niro.
2006 became prime spotlight territory for Black when he landed the role of Carl Denham in Peter Jackson’s 'King Kong'. Denham’s character is pivotal to the main plot as an over-ambitious film maker who discovers the willowy Ann Darrow and takes her on an expedition to a strange island in the hope of reviving his flailing career- the island of course being home the mighty Kong.
Jackson’s directorial reputation was renowned the world over thanks to the acclaimed 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and the King Kong remake was tipped from the start to be his next big Oscar contender. It lived up to the hype by winning three.
To break away from his role as the straight-laced but conniving Denham, he once again turned to Mike White and cult classic 'Napoleon Dynamite' director, Jared Hess, to film the comedy 'Nacho Libre'. Playing the role of a Mexican monk who secretly enters a wrestling competition to win money in order to feed the monastery orphans, the film was only a lukewarm hit with the critics yet it sill managed to double its budget at the box office in the first fortnight.
The same year saw Black join a cast featuring some of the most sought after talent, including Cameron Diaz, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, for the romantic comedy ‘The Holiday’. This is also the year that his personal life took a happy twist as he married childhood sweetheart Tanya Haden, with their son Samuel Jason being welcomed a few weeks later. Their brood expanded later with the birth of second son Thomas David in 2008.
The computer animated film ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008), in which Black played a clumsy and overweight panda named Po, was a commercial success and landed him a Kids' Choice Award for Favorite Voice. He went on to share with co-stars Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cast for ‘Tropic Thunder’, which received mostly positive reviews and performed well at the box office.
After starring in 2009's ‘Brutal Legend’ and ‘Year One’, Black turned into a mega giant, at least as far as Lilliputians are concerned, when he appeared as Lemuel in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (2010). Ever the busy star, he is due to star in a number of movies, including ‘Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil’, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, ‘The Big Year’ and ‘The Muppets’, all of which have a 2011 release date.