MOTW: James Franco: Hollywood's Heir Apparent

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
March 7th, 2013

MOTW: James Franco: Hollywood's Heir Apparent

-- James Franco is a modern renaissance man. While he is perhaps best known for his work on the television cult classic "Freaks and Geeks," he has spent the last fifteen years practically redefining the word prolific. Today, James Franco is an internationally renowned actor, author and teacher whose work has been appreciated by audiences and critics alike.

James Edward Franco was born in 1978, in Palo Alto, California to Douglas and Betsy Lou Franco. His parents met while students at the prestigious Stanford University. James Franco's father would eventually go on to run a successful Silicon Valley startup, while his mother found work as an actress and writer.

The young James Franco displayed an early talent for mathematics and would briefly serve an internship at the large defense contractor Lockheed Martin. While still a student at the upscale Palo Alto High School, the young Franco often found himself in trouble with authorities. As a teen, he was arrested for vandalism and underage drinking. Eventually he would be identified as a member of a shoplifting ring, consisting of other local teens, which specialized in stealing expensive designer fragrances from upscale department stores and reselling them to his classmates at a discount. These brushes with the law led eventually to Franco's classification as a ward of the state, a condition that would eventually be lifted by the court.

Franco appeared to have learned his lesson. After his legal battles his attendance and grades began to rise, and with them rose his ambitions. Franco is on record claiming that during this formative time he considered becoming a marine zoologist, but during his time in high school he discovered his true vocation: acting.

Having enrolled as a freshman English major at UCLA, Franco was eager to enter that university's prestigious acting program. However, learning that he was to be placed on a two-year waiting list, Franco opted to drop out of UCLA and study acting under Robert Carnegie at Playhouse West. The decision did not go over well with James' parents, who threatened to-and eventually did-cut him off financially. James, who was a vegetarian at the time, responded by getting a job at a local McDonald's to make ends meet. During his shift, Franco was known to practice his talent for voices and foreign accents on the customers. It is not known if the customers appreciated his early efforts.

James Franco's professional acting began in 1997. A number of minor roles followed and culminated in 1999 when he landed a leading role in the short-lived TV show "Freaks and Geeks." That same year, James landed a small role in "Never Been Kissed," and later made his breakthrough appearance as Chris in the popular teen comedy "Whatever It Takes." In 2001, James won the title role in the MTV television movie "James Dean."

In preparation for playing the legendary young rebel, Franco-a method actor-dyed his hair blond, started chain smoking, and learned to ride a motorcycle. While deep in the preparatory work for his role Franco cut off communication with his family, friends, and his girlfriend to better learn the character he would play. The role would eventually win Franco a Golden Globe, as well as nominations for several other awards.

After Franco's triumph in "James Dean" he landed a well-regarded supporting role in the wildly successful "Spider-Man," playing opposite Tobey Maguire. After this, he was recruited by Nicolas Cage for Cage's vanity project and colossal flop, "Sonny." The film was a financial failure and openly despised by viewers and critics alike. Franco managed to save his credibility as a box-office draw; however, at the same time "Sonny" was doing so poorly, Franco's other project, "City by the Sea," starring Robert DeNiro was released to a warm reception.

James Franco has remained steadily employed in television and film since these early pictures and in 2008 delivered an award-winning performance as Scott Smith, Harvey Milk's boyfriend in "Milk." Franco also landed a semi-regular role on TV's "General Hospital," in which he stretched his acting wings by playing a character named Franco; who, just like James, is an accomplished multimedia artist. Unlike James the character Franco was associated with shady figures involved in organized crime.

In July 2012, Franco abandoned work on an independent film to take a role with Disney in the major motion picture "Oz: The Great and Powerful." This movie is intended as a prequel to the events of L. Frank Baum's original 1900 book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Franco was brought into the project to replace Johnny Depp in the lead role.