William James Dafoe is an American film and voice actor, best known for portraying dark and unconventional characters in films. He is a versatile actor who chooses his roles more on the basis of their artistic merit than on their box office potential. He has acted in a variety of roles that range from that of an idealistic FBI agent in ‘Mississippi Burning’ to the villainous green goblin in ‘Spiderman.’ His well-defined cheekbones and strong jaws give him a look that suits the villainous roles that he often portrays. But he is also careful not to be typecast as villain and believes in exploring different kinds of roles that would help him develop as an actor. He played negative roles in ‘To Live and Die in L.A,’ ‘The Loveless,’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ during the 1980s. Desiring some variety in the kind of characters he played, Dafoe portrayed the kind-hearted ‘Sergeant Elias’ in Oliver Stone's ‘Platoon’—a role which earned him an ‘Academy Award’ nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor.’ He depicted Jewish boxer ‘Salamo Arouch,’ a holocaust survivor, in the film ‘Triumph of the Spirit.’ Soon, he became popular as a character actor. He is also a voice actor and has made several television appearances.
Childhood & Early Life
Willem was born William James Dafoe on July 22, 1955, in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA, to William Alfred Dafoe, doctor, and his wife Muriel Isabel. He has five sisters and a brother. He is of mixed ancestry.
After studying at ‘Appleton East High School,’ he enrolled at the ‘University of Wisconsin’ in Milwaukee to study drama when he was 17. However, he soon grew tired of the university’s theatre department. He left the university and joined the experimental theatre company ‘Theatre X’ in Milwaukee.
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Dafoe was cast in a minor role in Michael Cimino's ‘Heaven's Gate’ in 1980, but his screen time was cut from the film during editing. He landed a role in an independent film titled ‘The Loveless’ in 1982 which was about a motorcycle gang.
He played a minor part in the romantic horror ‘The Hunger’ in 1983. He acted in three movies in 1984, but none of them did well at the box office.
He got his breakthrough in the 1985 thriller film ‘To Live and Die in L.A’ where he played the role of counterfeiter ‘Rick Masters.’ The film was a success and Dafoe got noticed for his acting skills.
Dafoe’s portrayal of ‘Sergeant Elias’ in the ‘Academy’ award-winning war film ‘Platoon’ (1986) cemented his place as a character actor. He was nominated for ‘Academy Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Actor.’
He experimented with a variety of roles in some of his subsequent films, notably as ‘Jesus Christ’ in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988), a Jewish boxer in ‘Triumph of the Spirit’ (1989), and a Lieutenant Commander in ‘Flight of the Intruder’ (1991).
In the 1990s, he starred in many films like ‘Tom & Viv’ (1994), ‘Victory’ (1996), ‘The English Patient’ (1996), and ‘New Rose Hotel’ (1998).
He enjoyed a very successful decade in the new millennium. He played ‘Max Schreck,’ a vampire, in ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (2000), a role which won him numerous accolades. He portrayed the villainous ‘Green Goblin’ in ‘Spiderman’ (2002) and lent his voice to ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003).
In 2005, he starred in the film ‘Before it had a Name’ which was directed by his wife Giada Colagrande. Dafoe and Colagrande had co-written the script. Towards the end of the decade, he appeared in a number of films like ‘Inside Man’ (2006), ‘The Walker’ (2007), ‘Adam Resurrected’ (2008), etc.
He went on to act in films like ‘Daybreakers’ (2009), a science-fiction horror, and ‘The Hunter’ (2011), an adventure thriller in which he played the title role.
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From 2012 to 2019, he was cast in several movies like ‘Tomorrow You're Gone,’ ‘Out of the Furnace,’ ‘Odd Thomas,’ ‘John Wick,’ ‘Bad Country,’ ‘My Hindu Friend,’ ‘A Family Man,’ ‘The Great Wall,’ ‘The Florida Project,’ ‘Opus Zero,’ ‘Aquaman,’ ‘At Eternity's Gate,’ ‘Tommaso,’ and ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’
Apart from acting in films, he has also voiced several characters in many films and television series. His upcoming films include ‘Nightmare Alley,’ ‘The Card Counter,’ and ‘The Northman.’
Dafoe’s role as the compassionate sergeant ‘Elias’ in the 1986 war film ‘Platoon’ is considered one of his best character portrayals. He earned a nomination for ‘Academy Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for this film and was also nominated for the ‘Independent Spirit Award’ for ‘Best Male Lead.’
David Lynch’s crime thriller ‘Wild at Heart’ (1990) had Dafoe playing the role of the criminal ‘Bobby Peru,’ who is hired to kill the lead character. He was nominated for the ‘Best Supporting Male’ at the ‘Independent Spirit Awards’ for his role.
He was nominated for ‘Screen Actors Guild Award’ for ‘Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture’ for his role as ‘David Caravaggio,’ a former thief, in the romantic drama ‘The English Patient’ (1996).
‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (2000) is perhaps Dafoe’s most appreciated film. His portrayal of ‘Max Schreck,’ a vampire in the guise of a theatre performer, won him several awards, notably ‘Saturn Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Actor,’ ‘The Independent Spirit Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Male,’ and ‘The Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award’ for ‘Best Supporting Actor.’
He played the role of ‘He’ in the dark art film ‘Antichrist’ (2009) for which he won the ‘Bodil Award’ for ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role.’ The film reaffirmed Dafoe’s reputation as an unconventional actor who prefers to play dark and unstable characters.
Awards & Achievements
He was awarded the ‘Special Award: For immense contribution to the art of film’ (2002) at ‘The International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Plus Camerimage,’ which is a festival dedicated to cinematography.
He won the ‘Stockholm Achievement Award’ (2012) presented at ‘The Stockholm International Film Festival,’ Sweden. This award was given to Dafoe for being one of the world's most talented and multifaceted actors.
Personal Life & Legacy
Dafoe was in a relationship with director Elizabeth LeCompte for many years before breaking up in 2004. They have a son. Currently, he is married to Italian actress, director, and screenwriter Giada Colagrande.
He is the only actor to be nominated for an ‘Oscar’ for playing a vampire.
His screen name ‘Willem’ was a nickname acquired in school.
He is famous for portraying dark, eccentric, and unstable characters.
He is very health conscious; he follows an organic diet and practices yoga regularly.