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Jack Black: The Man-Child Who Was Happy Never to Grow Up

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

Eventually, everybody has to grow up — everybody except for Jack Black, that is. On screen over the last 20 years, he has largely remained the same actor we came to know in 2000’s High Fidelity: a boisterous explosion of youthful energy unencumbered by age, decorum or stardom. Black is now nearly 50, but in the public’s mind, he’ll always be our favorite man-child. It’s not all he can do — and he’s been great when he’s pushed against his own persona — but it’s the Jack Black we seem to want.

Born in 1969, Black grew up in Southern California. His parents separated when he was 10. “There’s something about a divorce in that even if your parents still love you, the fact that they can’t live with each other makes you feel there’s something wrong with you,” he later said, although he acknowledged that they were both supportive of his creative dreams from an early age. Still, he got into trouble as a teenager, doing cocaine and stealing from his mom to pay for his habit. (In addition, his older brother Howard died of AIDS in 1989: “He was so vibrant, creative, amazing,” Black said in 2015. “He shaped my taste in music.”)

Even as a kid, he’d wanted to be a performer. “I just prayed to the heavens that if I could just be on television and the kids could see me from school, that would be the answer to all my prayers and I wouldn’t need anything more,” he recalled thinking. The prayer was answered when he was 13, and he landed a part in a commercial for the Atari game Pitfall. He’s barely on screen, but this is the Jack Black we’ve known ever since:

He dropped out of UCLA after joining the Actors’ Gang, which was founded by, among others, Tim Robbins. And he started popping up in small roles in films like Airheads and Bio-Dome, although Robbins would give him more significant parts in his movies Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking. With Robbins, he got to be more than just a clown, playing a creepy devotee of a politician in the former and an immature brother of Sean Penn’s killer in the latter.

That wasn’t going to be how Black became famous, though. After a decade of tiny roles, he graduated to supercharged comic relief in High Fidelity, playing the opinionated Barry at the independent record store run by John Cusack. The director, Stephen Frears, believed Black was right for the part, even when Black didn’t. “Jack’s a bolter,” Frears said in 2000, “and I brought him back twice because I had faith in him.” As for Black, Frears made him anxious on set because he wasn’t someone who dished out a lot of praise. “I revered him, and I was very nervous around him. I just really wanted his approval,” Black recalled. “I wanted him to love what I was doing, and he wasn’t that kind of guy.”

When it came time for his big scene near the end — when Barry and his band slay the crowd with a cover of “Let’s Get It On” — Black was even more nervous. “I knew that there was a lot of pressure on that scene,” he said in the same interview, mentioning that the script essentially said, “And then he’s great at singing, and the song is great, and everyone loves it.”

Initially, he was going to sing another Marvin Gaye song, “Got to Give It Up,” but Black insisted that, for such an important moment, it had to be “Let’s Get It On.” The first time he performed it, he was too tentative, and Frears stopped the cameras, yelling at the crowd for not cheering enough. But Black knew Frears really wanted him to give the song more gusto. “I think I needed someone to uncork me — that’s what he did,” Black said. “If he had yelled at me, it would have shut me down. I would have gone into my shell.” Instead, he sang “Let’s Get It On” with full intensity — and made himself a star in the process.

Unlike Frears, though, just about everyone else he worked with didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Black still did serious roles, like in Jesus’ Son, but he was quickly plugged into a string of mediocre mainstream comedies to provide them with a wild-card spark: Saving Silverman, Shallow Hal and Orange County chief among them.

To fully utilize his talent, he needed to be paired with costars on his wavelength — like children. Enter the 2003 Richard Linklater comedy School of Rock, in which he played a going-nowhere rocker who teams up with a bunch of precocious kid musicians. His grade-school castmates unlocked his sweeter side but also made his character’s immature antics that much funnier.

Of course, School of Rock also incorporated Black’s other passion: rock music. If High Fidelity hinted at his love for performing, School of Rock was a G-rated extension of the rock-god excess he knowingly flaunted in his parody band Tenacious D, which he formed with fellow Actors’ Gang member Kyle Gass in the mid 1990s. The duo wrote songs that mocked the sexism and machismo of male-centric rock ’n’ roll — e.g., they wrote a deceptively sensitive acoustic ballad entitled “Fuck Her Gently” — but the music’s raucous spirit was clearly close to Black’s heart.

“I actually tried to rock sincerely in high school in a band and was a miserable failure,” he admitted while promoting School of Rock. “It wasn’t until me and Kyle figured out the key was to not take it so seriously and kind of, I mean, while embracing the rock, also kind of making fun of it.”

His stardom established, he’s spent the rest of his career striking a balance between remaining that zany kid and cultivating the more dramatic side of his personality. Not surprisingly, the zany kid has been his meal ticket, although his much more muted work alongside Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the caustic Noah Baumbach comedy-drama Margot at the Wedding is terrific — even if hardly anyone saw it. Instead, audiences have shown up in droves for the Kung Fu Panda films, Nacho Libre and Goosebumps. No matter how many adult comedies he does, like Tropic Thunder, his bread and butter is going to be the family crowd, serving as a 21st-century equivalent of some funky mashup between Animal and Fozzie Bear.

Still, Black has never gone full Eddie Murphy, sacrificing his edge for big paychecks. One of his riskiest against-the-grain turns was as Bernie Tiede, a small-town Texan who worked as a mortician and, in 1996, killed a much-older woman, Marjorie Nugent, with whom he was very close. That bizarre true-life tale formed the inspiration for 2012’s Bernie, a dark comedy that was Black’s second collaboration with Linklater. It also found Black portraying a fairly unlikable guy — a role he didn’t necessarily gravitate to playing.

“The big hurdle for me was playing a guy who murdered someone, you know?” he said at the time. “Someone who’s not a lovable loser, who’s not entirely sympathetic. That’s difficult for me because I love to be liked. So to play a role where there’s some gray area, that’s, uh, a vulnerable terrain to tread.”

This seems key to Black’s essence: No matter how many rascals and immature bozos he portrays, there’s a need for approval underneath. Deep down, we’re supposed to like these guys. It’s fair to say that most actors crave approval, but whether it’s Black’s comments about working with Frears or his anxiety about playing Tiede, that sweetness has always separated him from other comics of his era. (He’s never really had, say, Zach Galifianakis’ penchant for willful, distancing antagonism in his humor.) This is a guy who married his childhood crush years later in adulthood, and by all accounts, he has one of the more normal, stable marriages in Hollywood. He has two sons, although he insists that having Jack Black as a dad may not be as rollicking as some might think.

“In terms of schedules, I like them to get to bed on time, because I like them to get up on time and get to school on time,” he said in 2016. “I want them to keep up with their homework. But I love to play with the boys, I love to jump in the pool, and do Lego with them. I even play some video games. … You’ve got to keep them in line to a certain degree. I’m in trouble if they are like me when I was a kid when they are older! But I know they are probably going to be like me. … I hope they’re not like I was!”

That unabashed enthusiasm can be refreshing, but it also can get a bit tiresome. While he can be fun in a small indie like The D Train, where he plays a loser trying to convince his much-cooler high-school classmate (James Marsden) to come home for the class reunion, those nervier projects are overwhelmed by a Goosebumps or Gulliver’s Travels, which has made him a blander, family-friendly version of himself. “I get tons of me-with-a-bunch-of-kids [scripts],” Black told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “There’s a whole brand of cheese that comes along with that, obviously. I’m sure that Schwarzenegger was in the same boat after he did Kindergarten Cop.”

The two sides of Black — the crowd-pleaser and the more intriguing artist — continue to battle it out in 2018. Over the holidays, he was part of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which became his highest-grossing movie ever in the U.S., beating out the first Kung Fu Panda and King Kong. Meanwhile, on Friday, he’ll be appearing in Netflix’s The Polka King, a small character piece about a real-life Ponzi scheme orchestrated in the early 1990s by Jan “Lewan” Lewandowski, a Grammy-nominated polka performer.

Black may never grow out of being a larger-than-life man-child, but abandoning the desire to be loved might make his mature period his best yet.