An actor of unusual talent, Edward Norton attained almost instant stardom with his film debut in 1996's Primal Fear. For his thoroughly chilling breakthrough performance as a Kentucky altar boy accused of murder, Norton was credited with saving an otherwise mediocre film and further rewarded with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Remarkably disconnected from all of the hype that is usually associated with fresh talent, Norton has gone on to further prove his worth in such films as American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Fight Club.
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The son of a former Carter Administration federal prosecutor and an English teacher, as well as the grandson of famed developer James Rouse, Norton was born in Boston on August 18, 1969. He was raised in the planned community of Columbia, MD, and from an early age was known as an extremely bright and somewhat serious person. His interest in acting began at the age of five when his babysitter, Betsy True (who went on to become an actress on stage and screen), took him to a musical adaptation of Cinderella. Shortly after that, Norton enrolled at Orenstein's Columbia School for Theatrical Arts, making his stage debut at the age of eight in a local production of Annie Get Your Gun. Although young, Norton already exhibited an unusual amount of professionalism and took his subsequent roles seriously. After high school, he studied astronomy, history, and Japanese at Yale, and was also active in the university's theatrical productions.
After earning a history degree, Norton spent a few months in Japan and then moved to New York, where he worked for the Enterprise Foundation, a group devoted to stopping urban decay. Again, Norton continued acting at every opportunity and eventually decided to become a full-time actor. In 1994, he appeared in Edward Albee's Fragments after deeply impressing the distinguished playwright during an audition. Norton then joined the New York Signature Theater Company, which frequently premieres Albee's plays. With a number of off-Broadway credits to his name, Norton won his role in Primal Fear after being chosen out of 2,100 hopefuls. He nabbed the part after telling casting directors in a flawless drawl that he was a native of eastern Kentucky, the same area where the character came from; legend has it that the actor watched Coal Miner's Daughter to learn the accent. The intensity of Norton's screen test readings stunned almost all who saw them, and the actor became something of a hot property even before the film was released. The same year, Norton was cast as Drew Barrymore's affable fiancé in Woody Allen's tribute to Hollywood musicals, Everyone Says I Love You. Like all of the other actors in the film (excepting Barrymore), Norton did his own singing, further impressing audiences and critics alike with his versatility. Then, as if two completely different films in one year weren't enough, Norton again wowed audiences that same year with his portrayal of a determined defense attorney in Milos Forman's widely acclaimed The People vs. Larry Flynt.
In 1998, Norton turned in two more stellar performances. The first was as Matt Damon's low-life buddy, the appropriately named Worm, in Rounders. The fact that Norton's work was more or less overshadowed by the film's lackluster reviews was almost negligible when compared to the controversy surrounding his other major project that year, American History X. Norton's stunningly powerful portrayal of a reformed white supremacist won him an Oscar nomination, but the film itself was both a box-office disappointment and the subject of vituperative disassociation on the part of its director Tony Kaye, who insisted that Norton and the studio had edited his film beyond recognition. Despite such embittered controversy, Norton managed to emerge from the mess relatively unscathed. After serving as one of the narrators for the acclaimed documentary Out of the Past the same year, he went on to star opposite Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club in 1999. Though that film garnered a mixed reation at the box office, a stellar DVD release helped the film to form a solid fan base and Norton next moved on to the slightly more successful crime drama The Score (2001). After dropping a full-fledged bomb with his appearance as a naive children's show host in Danny DeVito's black comedy Death to Smoochy, Norton assisted love interest Salma Hayek by offering an uncredited re-write of the script. Norton would also make a brief appearance as Nelson Rockefeller in the film. Drawn to the mystique of screen villain Hannibal Lecter, Norton's next major film was that of FBI agent Will Graham in the well-recieved 2002 thriller Red Dragon. Though a virtual remake of Michael Mann's 1986 effort Manhunter, Red Dragon stood tall enough on its own terms to gain the respect of both fans of the previous version as well as fans of the book. His appearance as a drug dealer celebrating one last night on the town before serving a prison term in Spike Lee's 25th Hour drew decent enought reviews, though its ultimate take at the box office proved fairly disappointing.
An appearance in the high profile 2003 remake The Italian Job caused something of a rift in industry headlines when Norton made it publicly known that his participation in the film was strictly a result of contractual obligation, and in 2005 the actor would return to quieter, more challenging territory with his portrayal of a delusional cowboy wannabe in Dahmer director David Jacobson's Down in the Valley. A headlining performance as a turn-of-the-century Vienna magician who uses his powers to win the love of the woman he longs for in the romantic fantasy The Illusionist found Norton making a particularly powerful impression opposite Paul Giamatti and Jessical Biel, and later that same year he would return to the screen in director John Curran's screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Painted Veil. Meanwhile, the sneaking suspicion that Norton wasn't quite living up to early career expectations was growing difficult to ignore; though his turn as Bruce Banner in 2008's The Incredible Hulk drew generally favorable reviews (it didn't hurt that the film itself was markedly more exciting than Ang Lee's misguided 2003 take on the material), Norton's next film Pride and Glory proved somewhat forgettable, and his quirky duel role in Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass only received a limited theatrical release before getting lost in the shuffle. Poor reviews for Norton's 2010 film Stone didn't help much to reinvigorate his career, and when it was announced that Mark Ruffalo would be taking over the role of Banner in Joss Whedon's all-star comic book romp The Avengers, some feared that the actor's previous rift with Marvel Studios was had come back to haunt him.
In 2012, when he took high-profile roles in two eagerly anticipated films -- Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy, and two years later he earned rave reviews for his supporting turn as a monstrously egotistical and hugely talented actor in Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman, a part that earned him an Oscar nomination and a slew of other industry accolades. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi