An actor whose remarkable versatility has often been described as chameleon-like, Kevin Spacey has made an art of portraying a gallery of morally ambiguous characters ranging from the mildly shady to the all-out murderous. His reputation as one of the best-respected actors of his generation was bolstered by an Oscar, a Tony, and an award as Best Actor of the Decade from England's Empire magazine in 1999.
The son of a technical procedure writer and a secretary, Spacey was born in South Orange, NJ, on July 26, 1959. His family moved a great deal thanks to his father's job, eventually settling for a time in Los Angeles. It was there that Spacey -- who had previously done a stint at military school -- attended Chatsworth High School, where he was very active in the theater. After an attempt at standup comedy, Spacey went to Juilliard, though his time was cut short after his second year, when he decided to quit school and begin his career.
He made his theatrical debut in 1981 with Shakespeare in the Park, performing alongside the likes of Mandy Patinkin and John Goodman. The actor continued to be a fixture on the theater scene throughout the decade, performing both on Broadway and in regional productions. It was through the theater that he got his first big break: While auditioning for a Tom Stoppard play, Spacey was approached by director Mike Nichols, who cast him in his production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly. The actor's work in the play led Nichols to cast him as a subway mugger in his 1986 Heartburn. Two years later, the director and actor worked together again in Working Girl, in which Spacey had a small but memorable role as a sleazy businessman.
By this time, Spacey was starting to work steadily in film, although he maintained his stage work, winning a 1990 Tony Award for his role in the Broadway production of Lost in Yonkers. He also did a substantial amount of television work, appearing on the series Wiseguy as deranged criminal Mel Proffitt. Criminal or morally questionable activities were to figure largely in Spacey's subsequent portrayals: His first starring role in a film was as the husband of a murdered woman in the 1992 Consenting Adults. The same year, he won acclaim for his portrayal of a foul-mouthed, leech-like real estate agent in James Foley's screen adaptation of the David Mamet play, Glengarry Glen Ross.
Spacey landed his next memorable film role as yet another foul-mouthed jerk in the 1994 Swimming With Sharks, which he also co-produced. He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his portrayal of an abusive studio executive, and he gained further recognition the same year for his entirely different role in The Ref, in which he played one half of a constantly arguing married couple. However, it was with his performance in the following year's The Usual Suspects that Spacey fully stepped into the spotlight. As the enigmatic, garrulous "Verbal" Kint, Spacey was one of the more celebrated aspects of the critically lauded sleeper hit, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. The actor won additional acclaim the same year for his role as a serial killer in the stylish and unrelentingly creepy thriller Seven.
Spacey went on to make his directorial debut the following year with Albino Alligator. A New Orleans-based crime drama starring Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway, and Gary Sinise, the film won some positive reviews, though it made little impact at the box office. In addition to directing, Spacey kept busy with acting, appearing the same year in A Time to Kill and Al Pacino's documentary Looking for Richard.
The actor went on to star in Clint Eastwood's highly anticipated 1997 adaptation of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and then had a sizable role in the big-budget The Negotiator in 1998. The same year, he also lent his voice to the computer-animated A Bug's Life and starred in the screen adaptation of Hurlyburly. While doing steady film work, Spacey also continued to appear on the stage, winning raves for his performance in an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, first on the London stage in 1998, and then on Broadway the following year. Also in 1999, Spacey won an Academy Award as Best Actor for American Beauty, director Sam Mendes' dark comedy about a man experiencing a mid-life crisis. Following up Beauty with starring roles in The Big Kahuna and Ordinary Decent Criminal, Spacey would later appear as a mental patient who claims to be from a distant planet in K-PAX. K-Pax proved to be a minor flop, as did the actor's other major film in 2001, Lasse Hallstrom's adaptation of The Shipping News. Although Spacey drew positive notices for his portrayal of a man trying to start a new life in Newfoundland, the film, which also starred Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench, quickly sank at the box office and received only a lukewarm reception from critics.
Spacey maintained a busy schedule throughout 2003, appearing in three disparate projects that reflected his extraordinary versatility. Besides cropping up as himself in the third Austin Powers outing, Austin Powers: Goldmember, he played the title character of The Life of David Gale, the story of a University of Texas professor whose anti-capital punishment stance assumes very personal meaning when he is convicted of rape and murder and lands on death row; the picture received a critical drubbing and faded quickly from view. That year, Spacey also starred in The United States of Leland, playing the father of a fifteen-year-old (Ryan Gosling) who murders an autistic child.
2004 marked a key year for Spacey. The actor -- who had dreamed of portraying crooner Bobby Darin since childhood, and spent years striving to produce a biopic of the late singer through his production house, Trigger Horse Productions, ultimately realized that goal in December '04. In addition to starring Spacey as Darin, the biopic, entitled Beyond the Sea, enlisted Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, John Goodman as Steve Blauner, and Brenda Blethyn as Polly Cassotto. Beyond earned a decidedly mixed critical reception.
In 2005, Spacey cut back on his acting schedule and devoted more attention to his role as artistic director of the legendary Old Vic Theatre in London -- a position he had assumed in 2003, under ten-year contract. In a Charlie Rose appearance c. 2005, the actor openly discussed his desire to use his position to revive a series of theatrical classics and reestablish The Vic as one of the world's premier stage venues. Unfortunately, Spacey's work here also earned some derision; under his aegis, The Vic mounted Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues in May 2006 - an effort helmed by Robert Altman - and it drew vicious critical pans, one from a reviewer who demanded that Spacey resign. Although Spacey listened to the complaints about the Altman effort, (shelving the production during the theater's busy summer tourist season), he vowed to continue his efforts at the Vic unabated.
Summer 2006 also saw the actor appearing in the highly anticipated big-budget extravaganza Superman Returns, playing Lex Luthor to Brandon Routh's Superman/Clark Kent and Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane. With a powerhouse supporting cast that includes Frank Langella (Good Night, and Good Luck.), and Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest), the picture predictably opened up to spectacular box office (becoming one of summer's top grossers) and enthusiastic critical notices. Those who did criticize the film singled out Spacey's interpretation of the Luthor role.
About a month prior to the Superman debut, Spacey signed with Warner Brothers to co-star in Joe Claus (originally titled Fred Claus), a Christmas comedy that reteamed Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin with funnyman Vince Vaughn, and enlisted Paul Giamatti (American Splendor, Sideways) as a co-star. Additional roles in the years that followed further reflected Spacey's penchant for the offbeat, such as his portrayal of an envious military man caught up in psychic phenomena in the satire The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009), corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the acerbic comedy Casino Jack (2010) and a sadistic boss with a taste for humiliation in Horrible Bosses (2011). Meanwhile, at about the same time, Spacey took on the role of one of Shakespeare's most iconic villains in the Old Vic's production of Richard III - for which he earned considerable critical praise.
In 2013, Spacey returned to television on Netflix's House of Cards, playing ruthless congressman Frank Underwood, earning Spacey nominations from the Emmys, SAGs and Golden Globes. In 2015, he earned both a Special Olivier Award for his work as the artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, and was awarded an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II (though, as he's not a British or Commonwealth citizen, he's not entitled to be called "Sir.")