Actor Christopher Penn dead at 43

Christopher Penn
Christopher Penn

Santa Monica Police found actor Chris Penn dead in a condominium near the beaches of Santa Monica, California on Tuesday, January 24, 2006. He was 43 years of age. Initial reports showed no signs of foul play.

That was the official police statement. It will be a day or two, or even several, or maybe never before we find out what really happened. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a talented actor and good person has left this world and we are all poorer for his absence.

Matthew Chris Penn was born on June 10, 1962 to director Leo Penn and to actress Eileen Ryan (At Close RangeI Am Sam). His oldest brother Michael is a musician who happens to be married to Aimee Mann, while his other brother Sean was also married to a famous musician at one time. Sean has always been the brother with the “bigger” acting career, but Christopher Penn, as he was initially billed in the early days did alright for himself.

After roles in Rumble Fish and All the Right Moves, Chris scored with his role as Willard in Footloose, the film that made Kevin Bacon a star. It also demonstrated that Christopher Penn could act, as well as learn how to dance. He went on from there to enjoy a career of roles in feature films including Pale RiderAt Close Range, and Best of the Best.

Then, having gained a lot of weight and getting fewer and fewer roles, it seemed that his star was on the wane until he returned in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs with a great performance as Nice Guy Eddie Cabot. Right after that he was in True Romance, written by Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott. In recent years he has been in films such as Rush HourStarsky and Hutch and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. His most recent film was to debut at the Sundance Film Festival the day after the discovery of his body.

That’s the filmography, but it doesn’t describe the person. In spite of his stardom, Chris Penn was an ordinary guy who never really moved far from his origins. The condo where his body was found is only a few hundred feet from the Santa Monica beaches he enjoyed while growing up. He grew up on L.A.’s Westside, a contemporary of Emilio Estevez who is only one month older. He actually earned the black belt in karate that he wore in Best of the Best and Best of the Best 2. And while I’ll never know if he did or didn’t remember someone from the “old days” growing up in Santa Monica, he pretended to remember. That was nice. Last time I ran into him he even tried to buy me a beer. That was the kind of guy Chris Penn was, warm, generous and giving. Oh yes, and talented. Very talented.

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