From 'Freak' to 'Franco': The Evolution of James Franco's Career
But as ubiquitous as Oscar nominee James Franco has become in the past 12 months, most of America probably knows him best as Tobey Maguire's BFF-turned-archnemesis in the 'Spider-Man' trilogy or, for TV fans with long memories, the star of the short-lived but well-loved 'Freaks and Geeks,' a dramedy that aired on NBC for one season from 1999–2000.
At 32, Franco has accomplished more in the past decade than most people achieve in a lifetime. Join us after the jump for a look back at where James Franco's been and a look ahead at where he's going, regardless of whether he wins that little gold statue on Sunday.
Before He Was Famous
Though it seems like the actor has been part of the pop-culture landscape for many years, he's only been active in the industry since 1997. Before that, Franco, the eldest of three brothers, had a relatively quiet childhood in Palo Alto, California (complete with prerequisite teenage rebellion that included drinking, graffiti and shoplifting). He began acting in plays during high school to overcome his shyness, and enrolled at UCLA as an English major despite his aptitude for math.
He didn't last past freshman year, dropping out to pursue an acting career against his parents' wishes to star in a number of TV movies and the Drew Barrymore rom-com 'Never Been Kissed'. Seemingly a born overachiever, it didn't take long for Franco to land an enviable breakthrough role after only 15 months of training at Playhouse West, that of "freak" Daniel Desario in the cult series 'Freaks and Geeks'.
Big Screen Dreams
After the premature cancellation of 'Freaks,' (thanks, NBC!) Franco effortlessly made the jump into movies full-time; his first major role came in the romantic comedy 'Whatever It Takes,' alongside then-girlfriend Marla Sokoloff in 2000. But it was the 2001 role of James Dean in TNT's made-for-TV biopic that secured him his sex symbol status -- and his first Golden Globe. Hot off that well-earned success, bigger things weren't far behind.
After narrowly missing out on the lead role in Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' (2002), Franco was content to play second fiddle to Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker's troubled best friend, Harry Osborn. It was a role he would repeat for another two movies of varying quality, and by the time 'Spider-Man 3' (2007) rolled around, the brooding star had graduated to full-time villain and bona fide celebrity.
between 'Spidey' stints, he'd been keeping himself busy -- Robert De Niro personally had him cast in the 2002 drama 'City by the Sea,' and he kept up that momentum with a string of movies (most of them little-seen), such as 'The Company' (2003), 'The Great Raid' (2005), 'Annapolis,' 'Tristan and Isolde,' 'Flyboys' and 'The Wicker Man' remake (all in 2006). None of them set the box office alight and few earned any critical praise, and his questionable roles were capped by the bloated 'SM3' -- which, despite poor reviews, still went on to gross $891 million worldwide.
Stoner Saul, SNL and Scott Smith
Franco's star apparently couldn't be tarnished by the letdown (if one can call such a box office smash a letdown) of the threequel, and in 2008 it seemed that Hollywood was finally ready to embrace him as one of their own. He earned high praise (ba-dum-bum-chh) as the pot-smoking Saul Silver when reunited with his 'Freaks and Geeks' co-star Seth Rogen for 'Pineapple Express,' scored his first hosting gig on 'Saturday Night Live,' and closed the year with an Independent Spirit Award for his role as Scott Smith, the lover of Sean Penn's political activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's 'Milk'.
In 2009, Franco made the fairly baffling decision to appear on ABC's daytime soap, 'General Hospital,' playing the role of psychotic artist "Franco." At first, it seemed like a prank of Joaquin Phoenix proportions, but the actor has already completed two stints on the serial and is appearing for a third both today and Monday to bookend the Oscar telecast (and tease a longer storyline coming up later in the year, according to TV Guide.) Check out the newly released -- and decidedly meta -- preview clip for his pre-Oscar appearance below.
When quizzed by New York Magazine about his motivation for pursuing the role, Franco finally explained that it began as research for a new film with the artist Carter, in which Franco will play a former soap icon. But what began as method acting became an enjoyable experiment for the adventurous star, who credits the soap for helping him land his Oscar-nominated role as Aron Ralston in '127 Hours,' after Danny Boyle asked him to memorize his audition pages with no preparation time. "Because I had just done General Hospital, where I was doing 77 pages a day, I can memorize like that," he told NY Mag.
In an interview with TV Guide, Franco described the 'GH' role as an outlet "where I can feel more a part of the creative core" than he sometimes feels in feature films. "I've come to realize that maybe this is my only life, so I'm pursuing everything I'm interested in."
In addition to unpredictable acting choices, Franco has also spent the past few years stretching his mental muscles as well as his artistic ones (and more often than not, both at once). Having always regretted his decision to drop out of college, and dissatisfied with the direction of his career, Franco re-enrolled at UCLA in 2006 to attain the English major he gave up on.
In an attempt to prove that he wasn't trying to coast by on his famous name, Franco enrolled in a number of extra courses during his time at UCLA, taking 62 units in one quarter when the usual maximum allowed for any student is 19 (we told you he was an overachiever). After graduating with a GPA of over 3.5 in June 208, he moved to New York and simultaneously enrolled in Columbia University's MFA writing program, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts' film-making class, and Brooklyn College's fiction writing course, in addition to his acting roles and occasional forays to North Carolina for poetry class at Warren Wilson. He received his MFA from Columbia in 2010, and is now enrolled at Yale, where he's studying for his PhD in English (seriously).
And if that wasn't enough to keep any regular human being occupied, in 2010 Franco published a collection of short stories called 'Palo Alto', and has written and directed a number of short films and a documentary chronicling the making of an episode of 'Saturday Night Live' in 2008 (the one hosted by John Malkovich). He's also a passionate poet and painter, having exhibited a number of paintings in various shows across the country since 2006; last month, he unveiled an art installation centered on the sitcom 'Three's Company' at the Sundance Film Festival. The student will also become the teacher later this year, when Franco teaches a class at Columbia College Hollywood based on ... himself. The course is called "Master Class: Editing James Franco ... With James Franco" and will see 12 of CCH's most promising editing students using footage of Franco's career to create a documentary under the tutelage of the actor and his frequent editing collaborator Tyler Danna. We've got to give him an A+ for imagination ...
Franco's most pressing commitment is his role as Oscar host alongside Anne Hathaway this Sunday. He's nominated for Best Actor for his grueling role as Aron Ralston in '127 Hours,' though he's not holding his breath for a win: "Nobody is shy about saying Colin Firth is going to win. I've accepted that. By hosting, it makes it easier to go to the events and not feel like a total schmo," he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week.
It's hoped that the pair can inject a little youth and vigor into the ailing awards show, now in its 83rd year -- and judging by the adorable promos the pair have been putting out, we think those crazy kids might just pull it off.
But regardless of the outcome Sunday night, Franco's dance card shows no sign of opening up any time soon. His upcoming films include another stoner comedy, 'Your Highness,' opposite Natalie Portman, 'Oz, the Great and Powerful,' and 'Rise of the Apes,' a reboot of the stalled 'Planet of the Apes' franchise. He also plans to direct an adaptation of William Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying,' and potentially an episode of 'General Hospital' later in the year. He'll also return to the stage for a Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams play 'Sweet Bird of Youth' opposite Nicole Kidman in the Fall.
And until then, you can always keep up with him on Twitter -- just another way to fill his empty schedule ...
The 83rd annual Oscars telecast airs Sunday, Feb. 27, at 8PM ET on ABC.
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