Jeff Daniels was born on February 19, 1955 in Athens, Georgia. He attended Central Michigan University, and married Kathleen Treado in 1979. The couple have three children.
Daniels has appeared in over fifty movies1, and been thrice nominated for the Golden Globe. He is a capable actor, a sometimes great actor, and at times, he is able to rise above his material. He is adept at ensemble casts, period drama, comedic roles (as either funny man or straight man), and imbues every role with an understated quality. He is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. He primarily chooses three types of movie roles, and each reflect the station that he occupies with in the American film industry.
Family Films, Comedic Dreck, and Sentimental Tripe
The first category is what distinguishes him from other actors of similar talent and fame. After superb turns in Good Night, and Good Luck and The Squid and the Whale, his next two roles were in the family films Because of Winn Dixie and RV. In this we see one of Daniels' greatest strengths: he can do horrible movies and not be tainted by them. Jim Carrey, his Dumb and Dumber co-star, does not have this same ability. After building up major acting credibility in the unforgettable The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey chose to appear in the pathetic remake of both How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Fun With Dick and Jane. Clearly he has yet to learn a lesson that Daniels mastered years ago: if you are going to do crap, choose it carefully.
His resiliance is partly because he presents himself as, more than anything, a consistent actor. He will not bring down the house every time, but he is dependable. This can be seen in the role he took in the movie Cheaters,
which tells the story of a teacher who conspires with his students to cheat in an academic contest. His performance is nothing particularly astounding; his emotions are always appropriate to the scene, and he doesn't upstage the younger actors. His ability to become lost in the role calls to mind the work of Liam Neeson, and can be contrasted with that of an actor like Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is a great actor; at least one of the five greatest actors still working today. But to watch Hopkins is to watch him act, he does not lose himself in his roles.
Off-beat comedies, Bizarre Forays into the Unknown, Independent Films
This includes movies such as the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo and 2 Days in the Valley. He appears in a film of this sort every so often, and tends to be successful in them. Dumb and Dumber may be filled to the brim with potty humor (literally), but the perverse, demented glee that Daniels's injects into the film turns what would have been a forgettable Jim Carrey movie into something that is, at times, genuinely funny.2
These types of movies further prove his career’s resiliency. He can do an oddball movie here and there, and not be forever branded. Parker Posey hasn’t been half as lucky; her movie career seems to have convinced studio executives that although she may be a capable best friend or villain (Josie and the Pussycats, anyone?), she simply cannot carry a movie. Daniels’ doesn’t have this problem, and seems to pursue parts he likes, independent of where his name will go on the marquee.
Meaningful Drama, Historical Drama
This last category is the reason why Jeff Daniels is a relevant actor. Just when you're written him off as a less funny Jeff Goldblum, he does a movie like Imaginary Heroes or The Hours. In Pleasantville he was heartbreaking as the Diner owner with a passion for painting, and in The Squid and The Whale his portait of a narcissistic, petty academician reminds us why we watch independent films. He was amazing. Very few other actors could have withstood the nuanced, powerful performance of Laura Linney and not overshadowed the two younger actors. The Squid and the Whale is an ensemble piece because Daniels allows it to be.
His roles in historical fiction, such as Gettysburg and The Crossing are equally well done. Films that deal with the sacrifice and courage of war can be overplayed or maudlin; Daniels' adds an element of dignity that is sorely needed. He doesn’t allow himself to obliterate the story he is trying to tell (as Tom Cruise did in The Last Samurai). He plays a part in the film, but he doesn’t become the film.
Jeff Daniels is an actor that can be counted on to let the story tell itself, something most of his collegues can not or will not do. He might not be one of the best actors in Hollywood, but he is certainly one of the most valuable.
A Partial Filmography
Terms of Endearment (1983)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Something Wild (1986)
Radio Days (1987)
Sweet Hearts Dance (1988)
Love Hurts (1991)
The Butcher's Wife (1991)
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Fly Away Home (1996)
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
101 Dalmatians (1996)
Trial and Error (1997)
My Favorite Martian (1999)
The Crossing (2000)
Blood Work (2002)
The Hours (2002)
Gods and Generals (2003)
Imaginary Heroes (2004)
The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2004)
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Because of Winn-Dixie (2005)
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
The Lookout (2007)
1. Kthejoker sez: "He also runs a theater company in Michigan called The Purple Rose. He's prouder of that than any of his film work."
2. Kthejoker sez: "Daniels got his role in Blood Work because Clint liked Dumb and Dumber so much."