As enigmatic as he is talented, Kevin Spacey has always kept the details of his private life closely guarded. As he explained in a 1998 interview with the London Evening Standard, "It's not that I want to create some bullshit mystique by maintaining a silence about my personal life, it is just that the less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen. It allows an audience to come into a movie theatre and believe I am that person."
There are, however, certain biographical facts to be had--for starters, Kevin Spacey Fowler was the youngest of three children born to Thomas and Kathleen Fowler in South Orange, New Jersey. His mother was a personal secretary, his father a technical writer whose irregular job prospects led the family all over the country. They eventually settled in southern California, where young Kevin developed into quite a little hellion--after he set his sister's tree house on fire, he was shipped off to the Northridge Military Academy, only to be thrown out a few months later for pinging a classmate on the head with a tire. Spacey then found his way to Chatsworth High School in the San Fernando Valley, where he managed to channel his dramatic tendencies into a successful amateur acting career. In his senior year, he played Captain von Trapp opposite classmate Mare Winningham's Maria in _The Sound of Music_ (the pair later graduated as co-valedictorians). Spacey claims that his interest in acting--and his nearly encyclopedic accumulation of film knowledge--began at an early age, when he would sneak downstairs to watch the late late show on TV. Later, in high school, he and his friends cut class to catch revival films at the NuArt Theater. The adolescent Spacey worked up celebrity impersonations (Jimmy Stewart and Johnny Carson were two of his favorites) to try out on the amateur comedy club circuit.
He briefly attended Los Angeles Valley College, then left (on the advice of another Chatsworth classmate, Val Kilmer) to join the drama program at Juilliard. After two years of training he was anxious to work, so he quit Juilliard sans diploma and signed up with the New York Shakespeare Festival. His first professional stage appearance was as a messenger in the 1981 production of 'Henry VI'.
Festival head Joseph Papp ushered the young actor out into the "real world" of theater, and the next year Spacey made his Broadway debut in Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts'. He quickly proved himself as an energetic and versatile performer (at one point, he rotated through all the parts in David Rabe's 'Hurlyburly'). In 1986 he had the chance to work with his idol and future mentor, Jack Lemmon, on a production of Eugene O'Neill's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'. While his interest soon turned to film, Spacey would remain active in the theater community--in 1991, he won a Tony Award for his turn as Uncle Louie in Neil Simon's Broadway hit 'Lost in Yonkers', and in 1999 he returned to the boards for a revival of O'Neill's 'The Iceman Cometh'.
Spacey's film career began modestly, with a small part as a subway thief in Heartburn (1986). Deemed more of a "character actor" than a leading man, he stayed on the periphery in his next few films, but attracted attention for his turn as beady-eyed villain Mel Profitt on the TV series "Wiseguy" (1987). Profitt was the first in a long line of dark, manipulative characters that would eventually make Kevin Spacey a household name: he went on to play a sinister office manager in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), a sadistic Hollywood exec in Swimming with Sharks (1994), and, most famously, creepy, smooth-talking eyewitness Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995).
The "Suspects" role earned Spacey an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and catapulted him into the limelight. That same year, he turned in another complex, eerie performance in David Fincher's thriller Se7en (1995) (Spacey refused billing on the film, fearing that it might compromise the ending if audiences were waiting for him to appear). By now, the scripts were pouring in. After appearing in Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996), Spacey made his own directorial debut with Albino Alligator (1996), a low-key but well received hostage drama. He then jumped back into acting, winning critical accolades for his turns as flashy detective Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997) and genteel, closeted murder suspect Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). In October 1999, just four days after the dark suburban satire American Beauty (1999) opened in US theaters, Spacey received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Little did organizers know that his role in _Beauty_ would turn out to be his biggest success yet--as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged corporate cog on the brink of psychological meltdown, he tapped into a funny, savage character that captured audiences' imaginations and earned him a Best Actor Oscar.
No longer relegated to offbeat supporting parts, Spacey seems poised to redefine himself as a Hollywood headliner. He says he's finished exploring the dark side--but, given his attraction to complex characters, that mischievous twinkle will never be too far from his eyes.