Steve Zahn

Active - 1993 - Present  |   Born - Nov 13, 1968 in Marshall, Minnesota, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Comedy Drama, Drama, Children's/Family

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

Making an art out of portraying dysfunctional losers and likable freaks, Steve Zahn worked for years before getting his due as one of the most engaging and unconventionally gifted actors in Hollywood. Hailing from Marshall, MN, where he was born in 1968, Zahn was first introduced to improvisational acting in high school. Following a year at Gustavus-Adolphus College, he was accepted at the prestigious American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, where he trained for two years. After completing his tenure there, Zahn settled in Hoboken, NJ, and tried to support himself with acting in New York, working a variety of odd jobs on the side. He found work in various theater productions, including a 13-month road tour of Bye, Bye Birdie, which provided both steady employment and an introduction to his wife, who was a dancer in the musical.

Zahn's break came when he was cast in Sophistry, a play that also starred Ethan Hawke. His performance was seen by Ben Stiller, who offered him a role in his upcoming film, Reality Bites. Zahn took the part of Sammy, Winona Ryder's amiable, slightly conflicted gay friend. The film, which was released in 1994, was actually Zahn's second feature, the first being the 1993 drama Rain Without Thunder. Reality Bites met with relative success and helped to jump-start not only Zahn's career, but those of Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo, as well. Zahn proceeded to take a significant role in Eric Bogosian's play SubUrbia and his work in the production led to his casting in the 1995 submarine thriller Crimson Tide, starring Denzel Washington. The following year, he won a leading role in Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! and subsequently re-created his SubUrbia role for the play's film adaptation, which also featured Giovanni Ribisi and Parker Posey.

In 1998, Hollywood began to take notice of the actor, as he was featured in four different films. Three of them, You've Got Mail, Out of Sight, and The Object of My Affection, proved to be box-office successes; the other one, Safe Men, was released into general obscurity. The following year, Zahn made an appearance in the romantic comedy Forces of Nature, co-starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock, and had a leading role in Happy, Texas, which was released at Sundance. For his performance as a con artist forced to play gay, Zahn won a special acting award at the festival, a much-deserved token of appreciation for an actor as underrated as he is original.

In the years that followed, Zahn elevated his portrayal of lovable losers to a virtual art form. Though he would head up an impressive cast in the 2000 feature Chain of Fools, the film would be inexplicably relegated to cinematic limbo and audiences would next catch an unexpected glimpse of the rising star in director Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (2000). If the following year's Saving Silverman found Zahn back to his usual antics, abysmal reviews and poor audience reaction quickly sunk the romantic comedy and audiences would catch their next glimpse of him in John Dahl's edge-of-your-seat thriller Joy Ride (also 2001). His portrayal of Drew Barrymore's character's well-intending but hopeless husband in the 2001 comedy drama Riding in Cars with Boys showed a dramatic side many audiences had yet to experience from Zahn, and after a brief break from the screen Zahn returned in 2003 with a pair of high profile comedies. After joining comedian/actor Martin Lawrence as one half of a pair of hapless security guards in the 2003 comedy National Security, Zahn attempted to bring up baby opposite actor/comedian Eddie Murphy in the family friendly comedy Daddy Day Care. A series of supporting performances in Shattered Glass, Speak and Employee of the Month (all 2004) were quick to follow, ensuring that audiences who couldn't get their fill of Zahn's unique and endearing quirkiness wouldn't be left out in the lurch for long.

Behind the camera, Zahn has provided vocal work for such family films as Stuart Little (as well as its 2002 sequel), Doctor Dolittle 2 and Chicken Little (2005).

In 2006, Zahn again tried his hand at more dramatic work with a role in the Werner Herzog POW film Rescue Dawn, but soon he was going back to his comedic roots with 2008's Sunshine Cleaning and Strange Wilderness. He was one of the stars of the thriller A Perfect Getaway in 2009. Zahn then changed gears by taking on the role of dad Frank Heffley in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Movie Highlights

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  • Made his stage debut freshman year of high school in a community theater production of Biloxi Blues.
  • Met his wife, Robyn Peterman, while both were performing in a touring production of Bye Bye Birdie in 1991. She is the daughter of J. Peterman, a catalog founder and inspiration for the Seinfeld character of the same name.
  • Ben Stiller cast him in Reality Bites (1994) after seeing his performance in the 1993 off-Broadway play Sophistry (also starring Ethan Hawke). 
  • Gained 20 lbs. for Employee of the Month (2004). Ironically, his next role, as a treasure hunter in Sahara (2005), required him to be in excellent physical shape. 
  • Is an avid fly-fisherman.
  • His endearingly quirky role as Davis in the HBO drama Treme is punctuated by his musical contributions, which include the left-wing political song "Shame, Shame, Shame."