Billy Bob's Biography
Academy AwardÒ-winning writer, actor, director, and musician, Billy Bob Thornton has an extensive and impressive career in motion pictures, television, and music. Charismatic and uniquely talented, Billy Bob has established himself as one of the most sought-after filmmakers of his generation as well as an acclaimed roots music artist.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Southerner
Billy Bob Thornton is the oldest son of high school basketball coach Billy Ray Thornton and Virginia Faulkner Thornton, a psychic who predicted his 1997 Oscar® win. Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas on August 4 (that makes him a Leo), Billy Bob was named after (respectively) his father (Billy) and his mother's grandfather (Bob). Yes, Billy Bob is his legal, given name. At the advanced age of seven months, he became a sensation in the local papers by setting a record as the heaviest infant in Clark County at 30 pounds. He was followed by two brothers: Jimmy Don and John David.
It was a different kind of South in the mid-1950s to early 1960s. Billy Bob can recall seeing the segregated water fountains and restrooms facilities of the pre-Civil Rights era, as well as the abject poverty of the rural corners of the state. Residing in a small cabin in the woods of Alpine, Arkansas (population 100), the Thornton clan often subsisted on the local game that Billy Bob's maternal grandfather, a forest ranger, culled from the surrounding wilderness. Their cabin had no electricity or running water, and sometimes up to 15 members of the family lived there.
When Billy Bob turned two, his uncle Don Faulkner, a charming, footloose musician whose expertise included playing the saw, gave him something every little boy of that era coveted: a Roy Rogers guitar! With Uncle Don's gift, Billy Bob would do his junior Elvis impersonation atop--of all things--a circus foot-stand for elephants that somehow wound up in the Thorntons' backyard.
In 1963, the Thorntons moved to Malvern, Arkansas, a quintessential all-American small town noteworthy as "The Brick Capital of the World." To make ends meet, Virginia did psychic readings from their home, taking trade in food when the clients had no money. Billy Bob has noted that, when your mother is a psychic and your father is a basketball coach, "It sets you apart."
In Malvern, third-grader Billy Bob began writing short stories, prompted by his mother (an English major), who introduced him to the works of such Southern writers William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Erskine Caldwell (a major influence on Billy Bob's work). He also took up acting for the first time, playing a wise man in a school nativity play. The first line he delivered in his acting debut was, "Hark!" (although it came out "Harp!"). His first directing gig was a grade-school production of Dracula.
As children, he and his younger brother Jimmy were eager participants in the family ritual of listening to albums each night before going to bed, absorbing everything from Elvis Presley, Ray Price, and Jim Reeves to The Beatles and other British Invasion stars. At one point, Virginia actually brought Billy Bob out to the highway so that they could wave at Elvis when The King's tour bus passed by. After lights out, Billy Bob and Jimmy would lie in their beds and listen to classic rock from station KAAY on their transistor radio. Billy Bob took his first crack at the drums when Virginia bought him his own drum set for his ninth birthday. A year later, he made his performance debut at a PTA meeting, delivering Barry Sadler's patriotic hit, The Ballad of the Green Beret. The members of the popular Malvern rock band, the Yardleys, allowed the twelve-year-old Billy Bob to try his hand on a professional set of red Ludwig drums. Inspired by the inventive and witty classic rock of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, he started forming his own bands, beginning with the British Invasion-inspired McCoveys (named after legendary baseball player Willie McCovey).
high school, Billy Bob became a popular local baseball star with a
talent for pitching (thanks to his father, Billy Ray, who hung a tire
from a tree so that Billy Bob could practice delivering sliders and
curveballs through the
center). His high school rock band, Stone Cold Fever, performed
Creedence Clearwater Revival covers. Throughout
high school, he would spend his weekends playing drums and singing in
the style of his musical idols wherever he could, from VFW clubs to
roadhouses where there was chicken wire across the front of the stage.
Shortly after Billy Bob's graduation from high school in 1973 and mere days after his 18th birthday, his father Billy Ray passed away at the age of 44 from lung cancer likely caused by exposure to chemicals at a factory job. During his father's final months, Billy Bob devotedly cared for him, often cradling Billy Ray in his arms as he carried him up to his room.
One Man, Many Hats
One of Billy Bob's favorite things to collect is baseball "gimme" caps--anything with a logo on it. The variety of hats make a fitting metaphor for his early adulthood.
Following high school, Billy
Bob joined a local soul group named Blue and the Blue Velvets and eventually
formed his own soul group Hot ’Lanta, after the Allman Brothers song
of the same name.
Eventually,he and his pals Mike and Nick Shipp formed Nothin' Doin'. Because the Shipp boys lived in Benton and Billy Bob lived without a car in Malvern, Mike would pick him up for rehearsals, and Billy Bob wound up working for a spell at the Shipp family's equipment rental company. Billy Bob played drums and shared lead vocals with the Brothers Shipp as they began performing for colleges and high schools throughout Arkansas and Texas.
He tried out as a baseball player for the Kansas City Royals, but a fateful, wild pitch during his first at-bat caught him in the shoulder and broke his collarbone, putting an end to his athletic career. He also did time as a roadie, setting up mikes for bands like Lighthouse and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. During this period, he let his hair grow really, really, REALLY long. Here's an amusing webpage put up by a former member of a short-lived band Billy Bob belonged to in the 1970s called Cottonwood. We weren't kidding about the long hair, were we?
Over the next few years, Billy Bob led an eclectic working life. At times he toiled in local businesses as a grocery store clerk, a painter, a drill press operator in a machine shop, assembled screen doors, made chains for bikes and chainsaws, drove a bulldozer, hauled hay, and managed to get through a stint at the local saw mill with all his fingers intact. Ask him to tell you a saw mill joke, and Billy Bob will hold up his index finger and his pinky and say, "This is a saw mill worker ordering five beers." At about this time, he also started acquiring the first of his trademark tattoos.
In 1977, Billy Bob and his lifelong best friend, aspiring novelist Tom Epperson, decided to take a crack at the Big Apple. Billy Bob would establish his acting career, and Tom would write the Great American Novel. They drove to New York and spent a terrifying ten hours in the city (which was then in the grips of the Son of Sam killings--check out Spike Lee's movie SUMMER OF SAM to get a sense of what New York was like back then) getting lost and hiding out in their motel room. The one thing they took away from that ill-fated trip was the fact that the Statue of Liberty was actually green, not white.
Billy Bob hopped a Trailways bus to the West Coast for the first time with Tom Epperson in 1978, living briefly with his Aunt Sally and her warm and friendly kin in San Diego as he tried to figure out if a career in acting or rock stardom was right for him. There, he did construction work and played briefly with a Mexican rock and roll band. Returning to Malvern, he married Melissa deBin, and they had a daughter, Amanda. They eventually divorced.
He studied psychology for two semesters at Henderson State University, where he psyched out HSU pool hustlers with his trick shot skills. With a little help from then-Governor Bill Clinton, he landed a job laying asphalt for the state highway department. He also worked as a recreation director for a health care facility (promoted from the entry-level position of painter and bedpan cleaner), where he first encountered the lives of people consigned to the "state nervous hospital."
a time, Billy Bob and the Shipp brothers relocated their Nothin' Doin'
act to Houston, Texas. During
a performance at the famed Houston rock 'n' roll club Carti’s,
the band was approached by Scott Weiss of Lone Wolf Productions, ZZ
Top’s management company.
Because their sound was identical to the bearded rockers, Weiss pitched
the trio on the idea of touring as a ZZ Top tribute band.
Nothin’ Doin’ became Tres Hombres (after the ZZ Top album of
the same name) and began touring and building a solid reputation.
In 1984, Billy Bob moved back to California with Tom Epperson to get his acting career off the ground. They settled on the Westside, near the studios. The pickings for a Southern boy with a genuine Southern accent and moniker proved slim. Casting directors hired actors from New Jersey instead of Billy Bob to play hillbillies and rednecks. He started taking acting classes with Hollywood's West Coast Ensemble and supported himself selling pens by the phone, working for an answering service, whatever it took. Malnutrition brought on by his struggling actor's lifestyle (all he could afford to eat were potatoes) landed him in the hospital with myocarditis, a serious inflammation of the heart. Fortunately, with the support of good friends like his West Coast Ensemble classmate Coby Lee (whose sofa became a frequent Billy Bob crash spot) and a kindly doctor (a fellow Arkansan who treated Billy Bob without charging him), Billy Bob recovered and settled in East Hollywood. From time to time, Governor Bill Clinton would call Virginia Thornton just to find out how her boy was doing out in Hollywood. Virginia encouraged her son by telling him that she could see him eventually making it in Hollywood. She envisioned him starring with Burt Reynolds, and she had a premonition of herself attending the Oscars with him.
Billy Bob married again, for a short time, to fellow actor Toni Lawrence (who is now a successful Los Angeles-based ceramicist and sculptor). He endured more struggling actor gigs as the manager of a Shakey's Pizza Parlour and a waiter at posh Hollywood gatherings. He started to land small parts on TV (on shows like MATLOCK, KNOTS LANDING, DIVORCE COURT) and in films like THE MAN WHO BROKE 1000 CHAINS, SOUTH OF RENO, and HUNTER'S BLOOD (which nabbed him the all-important SAG card). It was in a dressing trailer on the set of THE MAN WHO BROKE 1000 CHAINS that, in a fit of frustration over the direction of his career, Billy Bob created the character of state nervous hospital resident Karl Childers from SLING BLADE. He developed Karl in a one-man stage show he created titled Swine Before Pearls.
Tragically, Billy Bob's greatest artistic inspiration--his talented brother, Jimmy Don, who had settled in San Francisco where he worked as a chef for the Hard Rock Café--abruptly died from a heart attack in 1988. He was only 30. Because of Billy Bob's heart condition, his family back home assumed that it was he who had died when they got the call. Billy Bob was heartbroken by the loss of his brother, whom he has always considered far more talented than himself. Billy Bob would eventually help to keep Jimmy Don's genius alive by recording some of his songs for his two CDs, PRIVATE RADIO and THE EDGE OF THE WORLD.
One Christmas Eve, as he was handing out hors d'oeuvres to a swanky industry crowd, Billy Bob struck up a conversation with an older, German gentleman who advised him to pursue writing in order to make his niche in Hollywood. Only after he went back into the kitchen did Billy Bob learn that he had just received sage advice from Billy Wilder, the writer-director of SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE APARTMENT, STALAG 17, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Billy Bob took the advice to heart and focused on writing with his partner, Tom Epperson.
The acting career picked up in the early 1990s when Billy Bob--after a brief stint on the short-lived Fox series THE OUTSIDERS--connected with Harry Thomason, the producer of DESIGNING WOMEN and EVENING SHADE. A fellow Arkansan, Harry Thomason cast Billy Bob in a couple of episodes of EVENING SHADE, placing him opposite Burt Reynolds (and fulfilling Virginia Thornton's first prophecy!). Then, with the election of President Bill Clinton, came HEARTS AFIRE, the clever Washington D.C.-situated comedy starring John Ritter and Markie Post that ran for three seasons on CBS. Thomason cast Billy Bob as John Ritter's best friend and Beltway insider Billy Bob Davis. Billy Bob demonstrated tremendous comedy chops, prompting TV Guide Magazine's Couch Critic to comment that he was ". . . a sharp comic who, with his dry drawl, could make a telephone bill funny." He also established a warm and close personal friendship and solid professional relationship with the affable Ritter.
The Motion Picture Career
The Epperson-Thornton writing
team hit the big-time in 1992 with their gritty thriller ONE
FALSE MOVE, which was directed by Carl Franklin and also starred
Bill Paxton. An uncompromisingly brutal crime drama, ONE
FALSE MOVE wound up on many of that year's ten-best
lists. It is still regarded as one of the clarion warning
shots of the indie film boom of the 1990s. By then, Billy Bob was
married for the third time, to the gifted actress and singer Cynda
Williams, his leading lady in ONE
FALSE MOVE. While the marriage was short-lived, they both
received high marks for their performances in that film--he as the
vicious drug dealer Ray Malcolm and she as the haunting Fantasia. The team hit again with the 1995 HBO crime
LOOK BACK, in which Billy Bob appeared with Eric Stoltz, John
Corbett, Dwight Yoakam, Amanda Plummer, and Peter Fonda. They
followed up by scripting A FAMILY THING,
a highly regarded 1996 feature film that starred Robert Duvall and James
Earl Jones for United Artists.
While many actors in series
television are unable to sustain a serious career in motion pictures,
Billy Bob continued to make memorable appearances in such films as THE WINNER,
for director Alex Cox, Paramount Pictures’ INDECENT
PROPOSAL directed by Adrian Lyne, DEAD
MAN helmed by director Jim Jarmusch for Miramax, and in TOMBSTONE,
directed by George Cosmatos for Buena Vista Pictures. He has
also appeared in the films ON DEADLY
GROUND, BOUND BY HONOR, FOR
THE BOYS, and THE STARS
FELL ON HENRIETTA.
It during this period that he married Pietra Cherniak and started their family. They had two boys: sons William (in 1994) and Harry (in 1995). The boys were named respectively after an legendary Arkansas figure, William Langston, and TV Producer Harry Thomason. During the terrible Southern California wildfires of 1993, their Malibu home was burned to the ground. But that year also proved to be an important turning point for Billy Bob, as it was the year he brought Karl Childers to the screen in the award-winning short film SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE. Looking to develop the story of Karl Childers further, Billy Bob wrote out a feature-length screenplay in longhand, finishing it on Christmas Eve, 1994, at his mother's kitchen table in Little Rock.
In 1996, Billy Bob--backed by The Shooting Gallery production company and a budget of about $1 million-- returned to Arkansas to film SLING BLADE, choosing the town of Benton as the setting for Karl Childers' story. He assembled a dream cast that included his acting mentor Robert Duvall, J.T. Walsh, and John Ritter, newcomers Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, and Rick Dial (Billy Bob's pal since elementary school), and such music luminaries as Dwight Yoakum, Colonel Bruce Hampton, and Vic Chestnutt. Billy Bob directed and starred, turning in the performance that changed his life practically overnight. Distributed by Miramax, SLING BLADE became a critically acclaimed and phenomenally popular feature film and firmly secured his status as a preeminent filmmaker. He also delivered in Karl Childers an indelible character forever woven into the popular American culture lexicon. For his efforts, he was honored with both an Academy AwardÒ for Best Adapted Screenplay and an Academy AwardÒ nomination for Best Actor. When he attended the Oscar ceremony in 1997, Virginia Thornton's second prediction came true: she watched in person from the audience at the Shrine Auditorium as her oldest boy collected his award.
After the success of SLING BLADE, Billy Bob's acting career shifted into overdrive. He co-starred in the action-adventure blockbuster ARMAGEDDON with Bruce Willis for producer Jerry Bruckheimer (the top-grossing film of 1998) and co-starred opposite Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, and Nick Nolte in U-TURN, directed by Oliver Stone. He appeared in PRIMARY COLORS with John Travolta and Emma Thompson for director Mike Nichols and HOMEGROWN with Hank Azaria and Kelly Lynch for Stephen Gyllenhaal.
for his talent proved to be no one-time thing, as Billy Bob received a third Academy
nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his
celebrated work in the tightly woven 1998 drama A
SIMPLE PLAN for director Sam Raimi, as well as a Best Supporting
Actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a Best
Supporting Actor nomination from the Screen Actors Guild.
For his second and third
directorial outings, Billy Bob chose the comedy DADDY
AND THEM, which he again wrote and starred in, and the
best-selling Cormac McCarthy novel, the epic ALL
THE PRETTY HORSES, starring Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, and Henry
Billy Bob next starred in the dark comedy PUSHING TIN opposite John Cusack and Cate Blanchett. It was during the shoot of PUSHING TIN that he met Angelina Jolie, marrying her after her celebrated Oscar win in 2001. During their marriage, they adopted a son, Maddox, during Ms. Jolie's tour of Cambodia as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador.
Showing the versatility of his acting abilities, in 2001 Billy Bob Thornton starred in the caper comedy BANDITS for director Barry Levinson and co-starring Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchett; the Coen Brothers' comic-noir thriller THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, costarring Frances McDormand, Tony Shaloub, and Scarlett Johansson; and the heart-wrenching drama MONSTER’S BALL, with Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, and Heath Ledger. Each of the three performances drew unprecedented critical acclaim and resulted in Billy Bob being named Best Actor of 2001 by the National Board of Review, Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor in a Drama for THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE and Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for BANDITS, and an American Film Institute Award nomination for Best Actor for THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.
His other recent film credits include the comedy WAKING UP IN RENO (which he also produced), co-starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze, and Natasha Richardson for Miramax Films; the drama LEVITY, which costarred Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Kirsten Dunst; and the thriller THE BADGE, with Patricia Arquette, William Devane, and Sela Ward. Throughout all this filmmaking frenzy, he and his good buddy Dwight Yoakam have formed their own production company, Meathouse Productions, through which he hopes to develop worthwhile film projects.
Billy Bob Thornton received fresh and enthusiastic acclaim for THE ALAMO, in which he portrayed legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett. He starred in and garnered a Golden Globe nomination (Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy) for his role in the critically acclaimed box office hit BAD SANTA. 2003 also saw Billy Bob's appearances in the Coen Brothers' romantic comedy INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Richard Curtis' delightful romantic romp LOVE ACTUALLY (featuring Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, and Liam Neeson). In 2004, he played a larcenous nightclub owner in the black comedy THE ICE HARVEST with John Cusack and Connie Nielsen for director Harold Ramis in Chicago, and fielded the top role in Paramount's remake of the baseball comedy THE BAD NEWS BEARS. To celebrate the release of the real-life football drama FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS for Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures, Billy Bob was awarded an important career honor: his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Never one to stay idle for long, Billy Bob anchored the stepfather-from-hell comedy MR. WOODCOCK and teamed up with Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, to play a snarky motivational speaker in SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS. His next film, EAGLE EYE, in which he costarred with Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, opened at number one at the box office. In 2009, he played a studio boss in the idiosyncratic L.A. drama THE INFORMERS, sharing the screen with fellow OscarÒ nominees Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, and Winona Ryder.
Back to His Musical Roots
In 1995, during the shooting of
his film SLING BLADE in Arkansas,
Billy Bob got together with some of his old band mates and held jam
sessions for the film crew. He
comfortably settled behind the drum kit, and soon found
himself habitually setting up impromptu jam sessions for the crews on
While spending time in Nashville, and at the urging of many of his mostly musician friends, Billy Bob returned to the recording studio and began jamming with many of Nashville’s local session musicians. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he started to write the songs for what would become his debut album, the dark, profoundly personal, and moving PRIVATE RADIO.
Prior to the recording of
RADIO, he appeared on the album HOLLYWOOD GOES WILD (RPH
Productions), a benefit CD for the Wildlife Waystation animal sanctuary.
Bob wanted to pay tribute to his late brother Jimmy—who,
he admits, was a much better musician than he and credits as one of his
musical influences growing up--by recording one of Jimmy’s original
songs, Island Avenue. Asked why he contributed to the benefit project, Billy Bob commented, “Aside from it being a good cause, I wanted Jimmy to see
his name on the credits of an album.”
In addition to his solo albums,
Billy Bob has also appeared as a guest vocalist for the undisputed dean
of the banjo, Earl
Scruggs, on the album EARL SCRUGGS AND
FRIENDS, performing a rendition of
Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire; The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash’s
album DISTANCE BETWEEN, offering his take on Cash’s classic Long Black Veil;
singing the lead on Brad Davis' dark ballad Tell Me Son from Davis' album
GONNA LET MY BLUES BRING ME
DOWN; and most recently a rap (with a canned
beverage) called Bourgeois
Pig for Styx’s CYCLORAMA album.
He also performed back-up chores and recorded Bob Dylan's Knocking On
Heaven's Door in his home studio for Warren Zevon's Grammy-winning
final album, THE
He also performed back-up chores and recorded Bob Dylan's Knocking On Heaven's Door in his home studio for Warren Zevon's Grammy-winning final album, THE WIND.
For his sophomore album, Billy Bob recorded THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. A true child of the sixties and a self-described hippie, Billy Bob Thornton views his music as an extension of his desires to tell compelling stories of the everyday man. At its core, THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was born of that desire, in many ways reflecting a journey of loss, discovery, and redemption that everyone who listens to it can relate to.
In 2006, Billy Bob released HOBO, a complex, introspective look at the possibilities and pitfalls of life in California. Replete with tunes about wandering, homecoming, and trying to make one's way in a land about as far from backwoods Arkansas as you can image, HOBO received a solid critical reception and a warm welcome from fans. 2007 saw the release of Billy Bob's most successful solo album yet, BEAUTIFUL DOOR, which questioned the wisdom of war and fanaticism. BEAUTIFUL DOOR was voted one of the top 10 Americana albums by GRITZ magazine.
While touring to support BEAUTIFUL DOOR, Billy Bob founded the electric hillbilly band THE BOXMASTERS with J.D. Andrew and Micheal Butler to serve as his own opening act. Billy Bob has described The Boxmasters, in their Beatles-style suits, mod boots, and somewhat nerdy, clean-cut appeal, as a cross between the Monkees and the Green Bay Packers. The Boxmasters' first album (aptly titled THE BOXMASTERS), a double CD of original tunes and classic covers, was released in the summer of 2008 along with a grand North American tour. Billy Bob became the official face of the Dell Lounge, an exciting multi-media venture between Dell Computers and Guitar Center. The Boxmasters didn't let the grass grow under their feet, subsequently producing the CHRISTMAS CHEER (also in 2008) and double MODBILLY albums. MODBILLY topped the Americana charts in the summer of 2009. That's right, babies: Number One!!!!
Living the Dream
Billy Bob divides his free time between his home in Beverly Hills and his family in Arkansas. His mother Virginia, brother John David (a registered nurse whom Billy Bob calls "the brains of the family"), and much of their extended family reside in Little Rock. Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend, Connie Angland, are enjoying their delightful daughter, Bella (aka Daddy's Li'l Punkin'). A man who associates monstly with musicians rather than movie people, he can be found most days off the set working out new music in this basement recording studio--a state-of-the-art facility originally built by the home's previous owner, Slash. You can see him tooling around town in his dream car, a classic, mid-60s, midnight blue Chevelle, or watching Dora The Explorer with Bella in the family rec room. He also enjoys shooting pool (he remains an accomplished trick shot artist), playing foosball with his sons, rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals, shopping for music and vintage threads, and--on occasion--adding to his collection of tattoos. He also has his own line of stylish country-western-themed men's shirts, designed by Dave Cadison of CadZoots. He enjoys meeting and talking with his fans (especially his beloved Planeteers) as he encounters them and remains a popular public figure, loved and famous worldwide for his endearing eccentricities and phobias as well as his generosity of spirit and talent.
© 2005 by . . . Like the Wind Productions/Lonesome Rogues Design. This page is intended for entertainment and reference purposes only and is not intended to make a profit. Commentary reflects the opinions of the webmasters Amélie and Sage and not the opinions of Billy Bob Thornton or his representatives.