The son of a Carter Administration, federal prosecutor and an English teacher, as well as the grandson of famed developer James Rouse, Edward Norton was born in Boston on August 18, 1969. He was raised in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, and from an early age was known as an extremely bright and somewhat serious person. His interest in acting began at the age of five when his baby sitter, Betsy True (who went on to become an actress on stage and screen), took him to a musical adaptation of Cinderella.
Shortly after that, Norton enrolled at Orenstein’s Columbia School for Theatrical Arts, making his stage debut at the age of eight in a local production of Annie Get Your Gun. Although young, Norton already exhibited an unusual amount of professionalism, and took his subsequent roles seriously. After high school, he studied astronomy, history, and Japanese at Yale, and was also active in the university’s theatrical productions.
Edward attained almost instant stardom with his film debut in the 1996 Primal Fear. For his thoroughly chilling breakthrough performance as a Kentucky altar boy accused of murder, Norton was credited with saving an otherwise mediocre film, and further rewarded with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Remarkably disconnected from all of the hype that is usually associated with fresh talent, Norton has gone on to further prove his worth in such films as American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Fight Club.
After earning a history degree, Norton spent a few months in Japan and then moved to New York, where he worked for the Enterprise Foundation, a group devoted to stopping urban decay. Again, Norton continued acting at every opportunity, and eventually decided to become a full-time actor. In 1994, he appeared in Edward Albee’s Fragments after deeply impressing the distinguished playwright during an audition.
Norton then joined the New York Signature Theatre Company, which frequently premieres Albee’s plays. With a number of off-Broadway credits to his name, Norton won his role in Primal Fear after being chosen out of 2,100 hopefuls. He nabbed the part after telling casting directors in a flawless drawl that he was a native of eastern Kentucky, the same area where the character came from; legend has it that the actor watched Coal Miner’s Daughter to learn the accent.
The intensity of Norton’s screen test readings stunned almost all who saw them, and the actor became something of a hot property even before the film was released. The same year, Norton was cast as Drew Barrymore’s affable fianc in Woody Allen’s tribute to Hollywood musicals, Everyone Says I Love You. Like all of the other actors in the film (excepting Barrymore), Norton did his own singing, further impressing audiences and critics alike with his versatility.
Then, as if two completely different films in one year weren’t enough, Norton again wowed audiences that same year with his portrayal of a determined prosecuting attorney in Milos Forman’s widely acclaimed The People vs. Larry Flynt. In 1998, Norton turned in two more stellar performances. The first was as Matt Damon’s lowlife buddy, the appropriately named Worm, in Rounders. The fact that Norton’s work was more or less overshadowed by the film’s lackluster reviews was almost negligible when compared to the controversy surrounding his other major project that year, American History X.
Norton’s stunningly powerful portrayal of a reformed white supremacist won him an Oscar nomination, but the film itself was both a box-office disappointment and the subject of vituperative disassociation on the part of its director, Tony Kaye, who insisted that Norton and the studio had edited his film beyond recognition. Despite such embittered controversy, Norton managed to emerge from the mess relatively unscathed. After serving as one of the narrators for the acclaimed documentary Out of the Past the same year, he went on to star opposite Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club in 1999.