Born April 25, 1970, in Orange, CA; son of Greg (a car dealership manager) and Carol (a homemaker) Lee; married Carmen Llywellyn (an actress and photographer), 1995 (divorced, 2001); children: Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee (son; with Beth Riesgraf).
Actor in films, including: Mi vida loca—My Crazy Life, 1993; Mallrats, 1995; Chasing Amy, 1997; Enemy of the State, 1998; Kissing a Fool, 1998; Dogma, 1999; Mumford, 1999; Almost Famous, 2000; Vanilla Sky, 2001; Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, 2001; Heartbreakers, 2001; Stealing Harvard, 2002; Dreamcatcher, 2003; A Guy Thing, 2003; Jersey Girl, 2004; The Incredibles (voice), 2004; The Ballad of Jack and Rose, 2005; Drop Dead Sexy, 2005; Monster House (voice), 2006; Clerks II, 2006. Television appearances include: Weapons of Mass Distraction, HBO, 1997; Perversions of Science, HBO, 1997; My Name Is Earl, NBC, 2005—. Professional skateboarder, c. 1988-96; founder of Stereo Manufacturing (a skateboard company).
Jason Lee stars in the NBC sitcom My Name Is Earl, the surprise comedy hit of the 2005-06 television season. Retired from his career as a professional skateboarder, Lee was initially reluctant to take the small-screen job when it was offered to him, having carved out a solid niche as a film actor with memorable roles in such movies as Mallrats and Vanilla Sky. His "Earl"—a harebrained habitual offender determined to reform—scored well with audiences and critics alike, with Time's James Poniewozik asserting that "Lee plays the lead with a dazed, beatific air, like a man who's just been hit with a frying pan but realizes he probably deserved it."
Born in 1970 in Orange, California, Lee and his older brother remained with their homemaker mother, Carol, after their parents' divorce. A hyperactive child, Lee began skateboarding when his mother bought him a board with the hopes that he could use it to burn off some of his excess energy. Hooked instantly, Lee spent most of his free hours perfecting his craft, and eventually dropped out of Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach to turn pro. "My mom was a little upset about it, " he admitted to People's Michelle Tauber.
The choice proved a lucrative one, however. Lee's skateboarding talents netted him an endorsement deal with Airwalk for his own shoe, and he eventually formed a company with a friend that sold clothes and gear to other skateboard enthusiasts. He was active on the professional circuit for the better part of a decade, and his signature move was the 360 flip, which involved spinning the board underfoot into a full mid-air turn. Indie-rock video director Spike Jonze cast him in the video for "100 percent, " a song by New York City alt-rockers Sonic Youth. That led to an introduction to Allison Anders, who gave Lee a small part in her 1993 film, Mi vida loca—My Crazy Life. He played a teenage drug customer, standing next to Jonze. "What you see onscreen is me being nervous, " Lee joked when filmmaker Kevin Smith spoke with him for Interview. "All I had done before that was a music video."
The experience was thrilling for Lee despite his jitters. As he later recalled in an interview with Robert Abele for In Style, "I was thinking, Wow, this is what it's like to be in a movie. I'm in a scene right now, and I can see the camera. This is how it must feel for Robert De Niro!" Again, he was instantly hooked and began auditioning for television parts, but his efforts amounted to nil until he began dating a woman whose brother was the actor Giovanni Ribisi. The Ribisis' mother, in turn, was a talent manager who helped Lee land his first real part, a lead in the 1995 Kevin Smith comedy Mallrats. Lee was cast as Brodie Bruce in this second effort from Smith, who had scored box-office success a year earlier with Clerks. In Mallrats, Lee played one half of a dejected pair who head to the mall to take their mind off their respective girlfriend problems. Ken Tucker, reviewing the comedy for Entertainment Weekly, singled out Lee's performance as "an impressively charming acting debut."
Lee formally retired from the pro skateboarding circuit in 1996. His next project was in another film by Smith, Chasing Amy, in which he played Banky Edwards, best friend to Ben Affleck's Holden McNeil. The pals' comic-book authorship success and friendship is threatened thanks to Holden's crush on Joey Lauren Adams's character, who may or may not be gay. Janet Maslin, reviewing the 1997 release for the New York Times, noted that "Lee… was the best thing in 'Mallrats' and is again darkly funny here."
Lee ventured briefly into television that same year with an HBO movie, Weapons of Mass Distraction, and also appeared in one episode of a Twilight Zone ish series, also on HBO, called Perversions of Science. He broke into major-budget Hollywood flicks with a supporting role in the 1998 action thriller Enemy of the State, but continued to work with Smith in such fare as Dogma, in which he played a demon. Noted director Lawrence Kasdan cast him in Mumford, which seemed to mark his last appearance on film on a skateboard. He played Skip Skiperton, an eccentric software tycoon, in the little-seen comedy.
Many more would see Lee in his next picture, the 1970s rock-star epic Almost Famous. Filmmaker Cameron Crowe chose him to play Jeff Bebe, lead singer for the rock band called Stillwater whose on-the-road antics drive the storyline of the film. of his fellow on-screen bandmates, Lee was the only one who actually had some solid musical experience, having played guitar for a decade by then. He later said he modeled his stage persona after British rocker Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company. Crowe also chose Lee to play the pivotal role of Brian Shelby, best friend of Tom Cruise's character, in the much-maligned Vanilla Sky.
When Vanilla Sky's shooting schedule permitted, Lee helped out his friend Smith by taking on two roles in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, reprising both the Brodie Bruce and Banky Edwards characters. He went on to appear in Heartbreakers, his third film of 2001, and with Tom Green and Megan Mullally in Stealing Harvard the following year. Kasdan offered him a choice role in his alien thriller, Dreamcatcher, in 2003, which was released the same year as A Guy Thing, a romantic comedy that paired Lee with Julia Stiles and Selma Blair. In the latter film, he played a soon-to-be groom desperate to avoid any semblance of impropriety after he wakes up from his bachelor party with an unknown woman (Stiles) in his bed. "Most of the meager charms of the chaotic romantic farce, " wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, "spring from the deft comic contortions of Hollywood's ultimate nerdy sidekick, Jason Lee. As Paul Morse, a Seattle ad salesman about to marry his boss's daughter, Karen (Selma Blair), this 32-year-old actor expands from the blandly goofy Keanu-manqué he often plays into a variation on the comic leading man Ben Stiller has made into a specialty."
Lee had a small role in Jersey Girl, Smith's next studio project, and was the voice of Buddy Pine in the animated feature The Incredibles. He had a supporting role in The Ballad of Jack and Rose in 2005 and a starring one in a kidnapping caper, Drop Dead Sexy, which was also released that year. When his agent handed over a script for a new television pilot whose creators hoped to snag him for the lead, Lee read it with some reluctance, having vowed to stay away from television roles. He was surprised to find that the script for My Name Is Earl "read like a short film, " he told Dan Snierson of Entertainment Weekly. "It felt like its own world. That's what made it difficult. I went through a bit of hell making my decision. I would say maybe. Then no. Then yes. Then no. Then maybe. I really put them through the wringer."
Lee eventually agreed—on paper, and with ink—to play the harmlessly sociopathic trailer-park-dweller Earl Hickey in the wickedly funny NBC sitcom that debuted in September of 2005. The show's premise centers around Earl's revelation that bad deeds come back to haunt a person: he lived a life of petty crime and dishonest deeds, then won $100, 000 in the lottery but lost the ticket. Struck by a car, he hears MTV personality Carson Daly talk about karma from his hospital bed, and decides he needs to make amends for all his past transgressions, which total 258 in all. His attempts to reverse his karma are aided or thwarted by his dense brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee, who had a small role in Mall-rats).
My Name Is Earl scored impressive ratings during its first season, especially among viewers in their twenties, who had previously demonstrated a penchant for choosing reality shows over sitcoms. Critics liked it, too, and many even called it the best new sitcom of the network season. "Lee brings such a goofy, dimwitted earnestness to the role that it's hard not to smile at him, what with his hair perpetually disheveled and one eyebrow askew, " asserted Brian Lowry in Daily Variety. Lowry went on to note that My Name Is Earl was "blessed less with belly laughs than an amusingly wry tone, " and liked the way it "disarmingly focuses on an underclass that seldom gets much attention in the neatly manicured world of primetime."
Time 's Poniewozik made a film comparison that was echoed by other reviewers when he wrote that Lee's show "has the deadpan, off-kilter feel of a Coen brothers movie (specifically, Raising Arizona).… There's something sweet and innocent about his inept quest for purity." There were a few dissenters on the merits of Earl, however, with New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin one of them. "Over all, the show is charmless and patronizing, and as refreshing as dust, " Franklin wrote, but praised Lee as "an amazingly charismatic actor who can charm the blue off your jeans. Lee manages to make selfishness and monomania seem like delightful qualities."
Lee makes his home in Los Angeles, where he plays in a band with friends called Chiaroscuro, collects art, dabbles in automotive racing and photography, and lives with photographer Beth Riesgraf. The pair became parents to a son, whom they named Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee, in 2003, which is nearly always invoked in media reports about celebrities who give their offspring unusual names. Lee has said that the name came partly in homage to Peter Sellers' famous Inspector Clouseau character from the 1970s-era Pink Panther films, and partly from a song by a band he liked, Grandaddy, titled He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot.
Lee's next projects were Monster House, an animated thriller with an all-star cast that included Nick Cannon and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as a sequel to Clerks. His somewhat-famous young son would probably be old enough in 2007 to sit through Lee's next project, the animated feature Underdog, based on the 1960s cartoon series about a crime-fighting superhero canine. Though Lee may have regretted leaving high school early, he had no qualms about leaving the highly competitive world of pro skate-boarding. "Skateboarding is its own world, a much smaller world, but you've got to stay up to date like everyone else, " he told St. Petersburg Times writer Steve Persall. "People kind of start looking down on you if you aren't. The great thing about acting is that, when I'm not acting, I can do whatever I want to do. With skating, you've got to constantly be practicing, surrounded constantly by that world."
Daily Variety, September 20, 2005, p. 4.
Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 1995, p. 44; September 9, 2005, p. 66; January 20, 2006, p. 36.
Guardian (London, England) December 1, 2001, p. 15.
In Style, September 1, 2000, p. 511.
Interview, October 2002, p. 100.
Los Angeles Magazine, November 2002, p. 29.
New Yorker, November 7, 2005, p. 146.
New York Times, April 4, 1997; January 17, 2003.
People, April 7, 2003, p. 177.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), September 22, 2000, p. 1D.
Time, April 7, 1997, p. 76; September 19, 2005, p. 67.
Variety, September 20, 1999, p. 82.