Actor Edward Norton was born on August 18, 1969, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Edward Norton Sr., was a former federal prosecutor under President Jimmy Carter’s administration and his mother, Robin, was an English teacher. He grew up the eldest of three children in the progressive, multicultural community of Columbia, Maryland, which was founded by his grandfather, James Rouse (the real-estate developer behind Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall Marketplace). Norton was an extremely bright and serious young boy, deciding at the age of 5 to pursue acting, after watching a babysitter perform in the play If I Were a Princess. Shortly after, he commanded the stage in Annie Get Your Gun at Orenstein’s Columbia School for Theatrical Arts, and is rumored to have asked questions like, “What is my objective in this scene?” at the tender age of 8.
Norton continued acting (and playing basketball) throughout high school and, after graduating, went on to Yale to pursue studies in astronomy, history and Japanese. He acted in several undergraduate productions, often to campus-wide acclaim. Upon graduating in 1991 with a history degree, Norton moved to Japan where he worked for his grandfather’s company, Enterprise Foundation, a business devoted to establishing international low-income housing. It was not until his return to New York in 1994 that Norton decided to put all other interests aside and devote his energy and intelligence to acting.
While supporting himself as a waiter, Norton appeared in several off-off-Broadway productions including Brian Friel’s Lovers and John Patrick Shanley’s Italian American Reconciliation. After impressing celebrated playwright Edward Albee in an audition, Norton was cast in his next production, Fragments, and subsequently earned a place in the New York Signature Theater Company.
In the meantime, the producers of a Hollywood courtroom thriller were struggling to find a co-star for actor Richard Gere, who was threatening to walk away from the film. After Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role, casting proceeded to audition 2,100 actors—none of whom were able to capture the subtleties of a seemingly innocent Southern boy on the brink of insanity. Norton showed up to audition, sporting a flawless Southern drawl and telling casting directors that he hailed from eastern Kentucky. During the audition, he crouched in a corner and decided to give the young man a stutter, blowing away casting directors in the screen test with the convincing intensity of his performance. Norton was immediately cast, and was later credited for rescuing Primal Fear (1996) from the annals of Hollywood obscurity. He garnered a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role.
Regarding his success in the film, Norton commented that “the
potency of the revelation about who my character really was in that film was, in part, reliant on the fact that people had absolutely no prior knowledge of me. They had no reason to expect a different voice or anything different from what they were initially presented with.” Because of the vitality and importance of this “revelation,” Norton has chosen to remain as reticent as possible about his personal life, so as not to pollute the freshness of his portrayals.
On the power of Hollywood word-of-mouth alone, Norton had several serious film roles lined up before Primal Fear hit theaters. He charmed audiences (and added singing and dancing to his list of talents) as Holden, a preppy youth vying for the affections of Drew Barrymore’s Skylar, in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996). He then played a painfully loyal attorney defending America’s most notoriously crude pornographer in Milos Forman’s controversial film, The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996).
Norton later began dating his other Larry Flynt co-star, rocker Courtney Love. After Love was publicly trashed in a New Yorker article, Norton exhibited his real-life loyalty by jumping to her defense. He wrote in to the magazine in his typical eloquent manner, “Her [writer Daphne Merkin’s] only original contribution is her conclusion that Courtney was of more value as an icon of pain and self-destruction than she is as a complex, evolving, and healthy human being—a conclusion that is sexist, intellectually shallow, and spiritually bankrupt. In the end, Courtney’s achievements will speak louder than any of her critics.”
In 1996, tragedy overshadowed Norton’s new-found success. His grandfather passed away, and less than a year later, his mother died following surgery to remove a brain tumor. Norton subsequently organized a screening of Everyone Says I Love You in Baltimore to benefit the research of the Johns Hopkins Hospital oncology team, who operated on his mother.
Norton’s supporting turn in Rounders (1998), playing alongside fellow rising star Matt Damon, inspired yet more praise, but it was his emotionally fierce performance as a reformed neo-Nazi in American History X (1998) that earned him the second Oscar nomination—this time as Best Actor—of his relatively brief film career. Norton had again proven his ability to almost effortlessly switch psychological gears within a character. Janet Maslin wrote of his performance in The New York Times that “having made his electrifying screen debut with an essentially dual role in Primal Fear, Norton now plays a two-faceted character with even more fury.”
In 1999, Norton teamed up with Brad Pitt in another intense and
tumultuous role as a nameless young man in David Fincher’s Fight Club, based on the debut novel by Chuck Palanhiuk. Norton plays a lonely young professional who feigns illness in order to attend disease support groups and bond with others, until he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt), the founder of Fight Club—an underground group that discovers a cathartic release of aggression through brutal fist-fights. The film became a cult hit, and officially catapulted Norton to the realm of A-List actors.
Keeping the Faith (2000), a romantic comedy featuring Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman in an unusual love triangle, marked Norton’s producing and directing debut. In 2001, he co-starred alongside heavy-hitters Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in the crime film The Score.
The following year proved to one filled with highs and lows for the talented actor. He starred in the satirical look at children’s television, Death to Smoochy, which proved to be a critical and commercial dud. In Red Dragon, Norton played a retired FBI agent drawn back into his old investigative life in order to track down a serial killer with a little help from notorious murderer, Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). The film, a prequel to the hit Silence of the Lambs, was a remake of the 1986 film Manhunter. Norton then starred in director Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour as a drug dealer about to start a long prison sentence. The project was a dream come true for Norton, who had been a fan of Lee’s work since Do the Right Thing.
After such a hectic roll-out of films, Norton took a break for several years, accepting only two supporting roles—one in 2003’s The Italian Job, and the other in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven. “I didn’t want to go into something feeling less than totally enthused about it just for the sake of getting paid,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Norton expanded his role behind the scenes. In 2003, he founded Class 5 Films with Stuart Blumberg, a friend of his since his Yale days. The company produced Down in the Valley (2006), an independent drama starring Norton as a cowboy who moves to California and gets involved with a younger woman (Evan Rachel Wood). That same year, the company also produced The Painted Veil, a historical drama of betrayal set in China during a cholera epidemic. Norton played a bacteriologist who learns his wife (played by Naomi Watts) is involved with another man (played by Liev Schreiber).
Speaking on Norton’s reputation as a difficult actor to work with, his co-star Naomi Watts said, “I think that there’s no question that Edward is going to challenge every director that he works with. But if the director is smart, he will always listen to Edward’s ideas, because 99 percent of the time they’re brilliant.”
Also in 2006, Norton starred in the historical mystery drama The Illusionist. He played a magician who uses his talents to help the woman he loves (played by Jessica Biel) in turn-of-the-century
Vienna. Norton went through a very different type of transformation for his next role, starring as the title character in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. The film proved to be a summer box-office hit, netting more than $134 million.