Born July 22, 1955 in Appleton, Wisconsin, William J, Dafoe was one of eight children whose parents were a surgeon and a nurse who worked together constantly, leaving the future actor to be raised by his five older sisters. He became known as “Willem”, the Dutch name for “William”, while in high school.
Dafoe studied drama in college and joined an experimental acting company in the late 1970s. He made his film debut in 1980’s ill-fated Heaven’s Gate from which he was fired and most of his performance excised. After several small parts, he won kudos for his portrayal of a counterfeiter in 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. . His portrayal of the compassionate sergeant in the 1986 Oscar winner, Platoon, earned him his first Oscar nomination. He received even stronger notices for his portrayal of Jesus in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and co-starred opposite Gene Hackman in that year’s Oscar nominated Mississippi Burning. Over the next few years he alternated lead roles in such films as Triumph of the Spirit and Light Sleeper with major supporting turns in such other films as Cry-Baby, Born on the Fourth of July and Wild at Heart.
In 1994, Dafoe was T.S. Eliot to Miranda Richardson’s Vivienne Haigh-Wood in Tom & Viv for which she was Oscar nominated and he wasn’t. He rounded out the decade with mostly highly visible supporting roles in such films as Clear and Present Danger, Basquiat, The English Patient, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Affliction and Existenz.
In early 2000 he starred in The Boondock Saints and Animal Factory as well as playing a major supporting role in American Psycho. He ended the year with his iconic portrayal of Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire for which he earned his second Oscar nomination. His 2001 film, Edges of the Lord, was well-received outside the U.S. but didn’t appear here until its 2005 DVD release. In the meantime, the actor’s many fans were treated to his appearances in such films as Spider-Man, Auto Focus, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Control and The Aviator as well as his voice in Finding Nemo. He ended the decade with another voice role in The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The ever-busy actor’s most visible year in the current decade was 2104 when he had major roles in four of the year’s most talked about films, A Most Wanted Man, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Fault in Our Stars and John Wick. He 2016 he once again voiced his character from Finding Nemo in Finding Dory. His portrayal of the concerned motel manager in 2017’s The Florida Project earned him numerous awards as well as his third Oscar nomination.
With three supporting actor Oscar nominations behind him, Dafoe has his first nomination in the best actor category at age 63 for his portrayal of the dying Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. He has seven films in current stages of production.
PLATOON (1986), directed by Oliver Stone
Stone’s Vietnam war film was the first told from a grunt’s viewpoint, that of an enlistee played by Charlie Sheen. The film focuses on the horrors of war and the duality of man as seen in the characters of the opposing non-commissioned officers, Sgt. Barnes and Sgt. Elias, superbly played by Tom Berenger and Dafoe. Berenger and Dafoe’s characters are in a war of their own for Sheen’s soul. Berenger has the showier role as the deranged Barnes, but Dafoe’s compassionate Elias is equally affecting. Both actors were nominated for Oscars but lost to Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese
Only a director as fearless as Scorsese and an actor as brave as Dafoe could bring Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel to the screen. Hardly the blasphemy fundamentalists, who wanted a Jesus who was God, not man, claimed it to be, it’s a fascinating film in which an angel offers Jesus on the cross a choice between a short, unhappy life of deathless glory and a long, unheroic life of domestic happiness. Dafoe as Jesus chooses the latter only to learn at the end of it that the angel was Satan in disguise. Old and feeble, he crawls back to the edge of a burning Jerusalem and begs God to allow him to fulfill his mission.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000), directed by E. Elias Merhige
A sense of menace and impending doom hangs over every frame of this film as John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau and Dafoe as Max Schreck bring to life the filming of Murnau’s 1921 film, Nosferatu, his unauthorized version of Dracula. The film is a showcase for both actors as Malkovich plays Murnau as a control freak and Dafoe plays Schreck as a confused actor who thinks he really is a vampire. Nominated for two Oscars, Dafoe lost best Supporting Actor to Benicio Del Toro in Traffic and the film lost the Best Makeup award to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017), directed by Sean Baker
Dafoe won numerous awards for his portrayal of Bobby, the sympathetic manager of the Magic Castle, a garishly painted rundown motel in the shadow of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. He has a soft spot for the kids who stay at the motel with their parents, especially six-year-old Moonie but not so much for Moonie’s mother, a drug addicted prostitute whose behavior becomes more intolerable over the course of the summer in which the film takes place. I found the kid overly precocious and the mother irritating from the get-go, but Dafoe is wonderful and richly deserving of his third Oscar nomination.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018), directed by Julian Schnabel
Dafoe won the Satellite Award for Best Actor, Drama, and nominations for various other awards including the yet to be bestowed 2018 Oscar for his portrayal of the dying Vincent Van Gogh, his first in the lead category. Although he is considered a surprise nominee, he beat Ben Foster, Ryan Gosling, Ethan Hawke, Lucas Hedges and Robert Redford for the Satellite, none of whom are nominated for Oscar this year. His competition includes Satellite Actor, Comedy winner Rami Malek and fellow Satellite, Comedy nominees Bradley Cooper and Viggo Mortensen along as well as former Oscar winner Christian Bale. Can he be a surprise winner as well?
WILLEM DAFOE AND OSCAR
- Platoon (1986) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
- Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
- The Florida Project (2017) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
- At Eternity’s Gate (2018) – nominated – Best Actor