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Billy Bob Thornton (1955–)

Billy Bob Thornton is an actor, director, screenwriter, and musician who began his film career in the late 1980s and has since starred in a number of popular and critically acclaimed films. He received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sling Blade (1996).

Billy Bob Thornton was born on August 4, 1955, in Hot Springs (Garland County), the oldest son of high school basketball coach Billy Ray Thornton and Virginia Faulkner, a psychic. At seven months of age, he set the Clark County record for heaviest infant, at thirty pounds. He has two younger brothers, Jimmy Don and John David.

Residing with over a dozen relatives in a shack with no electricity or plumbing, the Thorntons subsisted on the game caught by Virginia’s father. In 1963, they settled in Malvern (Hot Spring County). By third grade, Thornton was writing, acting, and playing the drums. At Malvern High School, he excelled in baseball as a pitcher and landed the lead in the school play, Egad, What a Cad.

After graduating from high school in 1973, Thornton lost his father to lung cancer. Over the next few years, Thornton and friends Mike and Nick Shipp performed as the rock trio Nothin’ Doin’. He tried out for the Kansas City Royals, but a wild pitch during his first at-bat cracked his collarbone. During the next few years, he worked as a roadie, drill press operator, bulldozer driver, and sawmill worker.

In 1977, Thornton (accompanied by his friend, writer Tom Epperson) sought his fortune as a rock singer in New York and then California. Returning to Malvern, he briefly studied psychology at Henderson State University (HSU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). Through a request from Thornton’s mother, Governor Bill Clinton helped him land a job paving state highways. Thornton eventually became a recreation director for a mental health facility (an experience that inspired his script for Sling Blade). In 1983, he and the Shipp Brothers toured the South as Tres Hombres, a ZZ Top tribute band.

Returning to California in 1984, Thornton studied acting and supported himself through menial jobs. Malnutrition triggered by an all-potato poverty diet landed him in the hospital with myocarditis. In 1988, his brother Jimmy Don died from a heart attack.

Eventually, Thornton landed his first movie role and his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card playing a hillbilly in the exploitation thriller Hunter’s Blood (1987). Thornton soon won parts playing disreputable characters on TV shows like Matlock and in low-budget films like Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1991). In a fit of frustration on one movie set, he created the character of mentally challenged killer Karl Childers by making faces at himself in a mirror. He eventually developed the character into the screenplay for Sling Blade.

During a chance encounter at a Christmas party, Thornton met filmmaker Billy Wilder, who advised him to write screenplays. Thornton pursued screenwriting with Tom Epperson. Their brutal thriller, One False Move (1992), became an acclaimed independent hit.

TV producer Harry Thomason cast Thornton in two episodes of Evening Shade opposite Burt Reynolds. Next came Thomason’s political sitcom Hearts Afire (1992–1995), in which Thornton played a sarcastic Beltway insider.

With a modest budget, Thornton returned to Arkansas to direct Sling Blade, costarring Robert Duvall, John Ritter, and Dwight Yoakam. Thornton’s Karl Childers became one of cinema’s most memorable characters. Thornton won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (he was also nominated for Best Actor).

Thornton received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his performance in A Simple Plan (1998). He directed the Western All The Pretty Horses (2000) and the comedy Daddy and Them (2001). Also in 2001, he earned double Golden Globe acting nominations for Bandits (2001) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). He received another Golden Globe nomination for the title role in Bad Santa (2003) and drew raves for his vulnerable portrayal of frontiersman Davy Crockett in The Alamo (2004) and for the football drama Friday Night Lights (2004). He also appeared in School for Scoundrels (2006), The Astronaut Farmer (2007), Eagle Eye (2008), The Baytown Outlaws, and Parkland (2013). He co-wrote, directed, and appeared in the movie Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012). In 2014, Thornton began a lead role in the television series Fargo.

Thornton has toured North America and Europe with his own band and has recorded four solo CDs: Private Radio (2002), The Edge of the World (2003), HOBO (2005), and Beautiful Door (2007).

Thornton has been married five times (most notably to actress Angelina Jolie) and has four children. He remains appreciated worldwide for his talent and known for his eccentricities (including his many tattoos and fears of antique furniture and reptiles), as well as his openness about dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder (which can affect anything from the direction in which he points a cigarette to the sequences in which he will obsessively count to himself until he is assured that his children are safe). His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, unveiled on October 7, 2004, is located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.

In 2012, Thornton published, along with coauthor Kinky Friedman, The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts. The book captures stories told by Thornton about his hardscrabble early life and celebrity adulthood.

For additional information:
“Billy Bob Thornton.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000671/ (accessed April 21, 2014).

BillyBobapalooza: The Official Billy Bob Thornton Website. http://www.billybobthornton.net/ (accessed April 21, 2014).

Gordy, Graham. "Attempts to Contact Mr. Thornton Went Unanswered." Arkansas Life (February 2011): 3437.

Thornton, Billy Bob, and Kinky Friedman. The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts. New York: William Morrow, 2012.

Wallace, Amy. “What I’ve Learned: Billy Bob Thornton.” Esquire (July 2005): 108–109.

Amélie Frank
Los Angeles, California

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Who's Who in Arkansas (Grades 5-8); Famous Arkansans

Last Updated 4/21/2014

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