Spacey was born in South Orange, New Jersey, to Kathleen Ann (née Knutson; December 5, 1931 – March 19, 2003), a secretary, and Thomas Geoffrey Fowler (June 4, 1924 – December 24, 1992), a technical writer and data consultant. He has two older siblings: a sister, Julie, and a brother, Randy. He has English, Swedish, and Welsh ancestry. His family relocated to Southern California when Spacey was four years old. He attended Northridge Military Academy, Canoga Park High School (in 10th and 11th grades), and then Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, California, where he graduated co-valedictorian (with Mare Winningham) of his class in 1977.
At Chatsworth, Spacey starred in the school's senior production of The Sound of Music, playing the part of Captain Georg von Trapp with Mare Winningham as Maria von Trapp. He started using his middle name "Spacey", which is also his paternal grandmother's maiden name. He had tried to succeed as a comedian for several years, before attending the Juilliard School in New York City, a member of Group 12, where he studied drama, between 1979 and 1981. During this time period, Spacey performed stand-up comedy in bowling alley talent contests.
Spacey's first professional stage appearance was as a spear carrier in a New York Shakespeare Festival performance of Henry VI, Part 1 in 1981. The following year, he made his first Broadway appearance, as Oswald in a production of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, starring Liv Ullmann. Then he portrayed Philinte in Molière's The Misanthrope. In 1984, he appeared in a production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, in which he rotated through each of the male parts (he would later play Mickey in the film version). Next came Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. In 1986, he appeared in a production of Sleuth in a New Jersey dinner theatre.
His prominence as a stage actor began in 1986, when he was cast opposite Jack Lemmon, Peter Gallagher and Bethel Leslie as Jamie, the eldest Tyrone son in Jonathan Miller's lauded production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Lemmon in particular would become a mentor to Spacey. He made his first major television appearance in the second-season premiere of Crime Story, playing a Kennedy-esque American senator. Although his interest soon turned to film, Spacey remained actively involved in the live theater community. In 1991, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Uncle Louie in Neil Simon's Broadway hit Lost in Yonkers. Spacey's father was unconvinced that Spacey could make a career for himself as an actor, and did not change his mind until Spacey became well-known.
Some of Spacey's early roles include a widowed eccentric millionaire on L.A. Law, the television miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988), opposite Lemmon, and the comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He earned a fan base after playing the criminally insane arms dealer Mel Profitt on the television series Wiseguy. He quickly developed a reputation as a character actor, and was cast in bigger roles, including one-half of a bickering Connecticut couple in the dark comedy film The Ref (1994), a malicious Hollywood studio boss in the satire Swimming with Sharks, and the malevolent office manager in the ensemble film Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), gaining him positive notices by critics. His performance as the enigmatic criminal Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Spacey appeared in the 1995 thriller film Seven, making a sudden entrance late in the film as the serial killer John Doe after going unmentioned in the film's advertisements and opening credits. His work in Seven, The Usual Suspects, and Outbreak earned him Best Supporting Actor honors at the 1995 Society of Texas Film Critics Awards. He remarked in 2013: "I think people just like me evil for some reason. They want me to be a son of a bitch." Spacey played an egomaniacal district attorney in A Time to Kill (1996), and founded Trigger Street Productions in 1997, with the purpose of producing and developing entertainment across various media. He made his directorial debut with the film Albino Alligator (1996). The film was a failure at the box office, grossing $339,379 with a budget of $6 million, but critics praised Spacey's direction. He also voiced Hopper in the animated film A Bug's Life (1998).
Spacey won universal praise and an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as a depressed suburban father who re-evaluates his life in 1999's American Beauty; the same year, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Spacey won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor and earned another Tony nomination in 1999 for The Iceman Cometh. In 2001, Spacey co-hosted, with Judi Dench, the Unite for the Future Gala, a UK fundraiser for the British victims of 9/11 and Médecins Sans Frontières at London's Old Vic Theatre, produced by Harvey Goldsmith and Dominic Madden.
He played a physically and emotionally scarred grade school teacher in Pay It Forward (2000), a patient in a mental institution who may or may not be an alien in K-Pax (2001), and singer Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (2004). The latter was a lifelong dream project for Spacey, who took on co-writing, directing, co-producing, and starring duties in the biography/musical about Darin's life, career, and relationship with actress Sandra Dee. Facing little interest for backing in the United States, Spacey went to the United Kingdom and Germany for funding. Almost all of the film was made in Berlin. Spacey provided his own vocals on the Beyond the Sea soundtrack and appeared in several tribute concerts around the time of the film's release. He received mostly positive reviews for his singing, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. However, reviewers criticized the age disparity between Spacey and Darin, noting that Spacey was too old to convincingly portray Darin, particularly during the early stages of the singer's life depicted in the film.
Spacey hosted Saturday Night Live twice: first in 1997 with musical guest Beck and special guests Michael Palin and John Cleese from Monty Python's Flying Circus, and again in May 2006 with musical guest Nelly Furtado. In 2006, Spacey played Lex Luthor in the Bryan Singer superhero film Superman Returns. He was to return for its 2009 sequel, but the series was instead rebooted with 2013 film Man of Steel. Jesse Eisenberg has since replaced Spacey as Luthor for Man of Steel's 2015 sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Spacey also appeared in Edison, which received a direct-to-video release in 2006. In 2008, he played an MIT lecturer in the film 21. The film is based on Ben Mezrich's best seller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, a story of student MIT card-counters who used mathematical probability to aid them in card games such as blackjack. In early 2010, Spacey went to China to star in writer-director Dayyan Eng's black comedy film Inseparable, becoming the first Hollywood actor to star in a fully Chinese-funded film.
Spacey is well known in Hollywood for his impressions. When he appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, he imitated (at host James Lipton's request) James Stewart, Johnny Carson, Katharine Hepburn, Clint Eastwood, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Jack Lemmon. As a young actor in New York City, he used his skill to pretend to be Carson's son to obtain free theater tickets and enter Studio 54.
Capitol/EMI's album Forever Cool (2007) features two duets with Spacey and an earlier recording of Dean Martin: "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" and "King of the Road". Spacey is a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres. He also sits on the Board of Directors of the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
On March 18, 2011, it was announced that Spacey was cast as Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. He was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2013 becoming the first lead actor to be Primetime Emmy nominated from a web television series. He went on to win the Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series at the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards for his season 2 performance.
In July 2011, Spacey co-starred in the black comedy film Horrible Bosses, which grossed over $209.6 million at the box office. He executive produced the biographical survival thriller film Captain Phillips in 2013, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Spacey portrayed founder and president of the private military corporation Atlas Corporation, Jonathan Irons, in the 2014 video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare through motion capture. He became chairman of Relativity Media's film division, Relativity Studios, on January 6, 2016 after Relativity acquired his production company Trigger Street Productions. Spacey starred as President Richard Nixon in the comedy-drama Elvis & Nixon (2016). The film is based on the meeting that took place between Nixon and singer Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) in December 1970 wherein Presley requested Nixon swear him in as an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He next starred in the comedy film Nine Lives, as a man trapped in the body of a cat. The film was released on August 5, 2016.
In February 2003, Spacey announced that he was returning to London to become the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of the city's oldest theatres. Appearing at a press conference with Judi Dench and Elton John, he promised both to appear on stage and to bring in big-name talent. Spacey undertook to remain in the post for a full ten years. The Old Vic Theatre Company staged shows eight months out of the year. Spacey's first season started in September 2004, and opened with the British premiere of the play Cloaca by Maria Goos, directed by Spacey, which opened to mixed reviews. In the 2005 season, Spacey made his UK Shakespearean debut, to good notices, in the title role of Richard II directed by Trevor Nunn.
In mid-2006, Spacey said that he was having the time of his life working at the Old Vic; at that point in his career, he said, he was "trying to do things now that are much bigger and outside himself". He performed in productions of National Anthems by Dennis McIntyre, and The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry in which he played C.K. Dexter Haven, the Cary Grant role in the film version. Critics applauded Spacey for taking on the management of a theatre, but noted that while his acting was impressive, his skills and judgment as a producer/manager had yet to develop.
In the 2006 season, Spacey suffered a major setback with a production of Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues, directed by Robert Altman. Despite an all-star cast (including Matthew Modine and future House of Cards co-star Neve Campbell) and the pedigree of Miller's script, Spacey's decision to lure Altman to the stage proved disastrous: after a fraught rehearsal period, the play opened to a critical panning, and closed after only a few weeks. Later in the year, Spacey starred in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, along with Colm Meaney and Eve Best. The play received excellent reviews for Spacey and Best, and was transferred to Broadway in 2007. For the spring part of the 2007–08 season, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Michelle Kelly joined Spacey as the three characters in David Mamet's 1988 play Speed-the-Plow.
In January 2009, he directed the premiere of Joe Sutton's Complicit, with Richard Dreyfuss, David Suchet and Elizabeth McGovern.
In September 2009, Trevor Nunn directed Spacey in a revival of Inherit The Wind. Spacey played defense lawyer Henry Drummond, a role that was made famous by Spencer Tracy in the 1960 film of the same name.
Sam Mendes directed Spacey in a Shakespeare's Richard III; Spacey played the title role. The show began in June 2011, commencing a worldwide tour culminating in New York in early 2012. In March 2014, it was announced that Spacey would star in a one-man play at the Old Vic to celebrate his 10 years as artistic director. He took on the part of Clarence Darrow in the play.
Spacey is a Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton. Having met the former U.S. President before his presidency began, Spacey once described Clinton as a "one of a shining light" of the political process. According to Federal Election Commission, Spacey had contributed $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees as of 2006. . He additionally made a cameo appearance in the short film President Clinton: Final Days, a light-hearted political satire produced by the Clinton administration for the White House Correspondents Dinner.
An article in the Sunday Times, it was once stated that Spacey's love affair with acting, and the absence of a visible partner in the life of an attractive 40-year-old, has resulted in misunderstanding and Esquire magazine's "bet-hedging" assertion two years ago that he must be gay. He responded to such rumors by telling Playboy and other interviewers that he was not gay, and telling Lesley White of the Sunday Times, "I chose for a long time not to answer these questions because of the "manner" in which those questions were asked, and because I was never talking to someone I really trusted, so why should I do now? I chose to participate because I realized it's a little hard on the people I loved. "
In 2007, Gotham magazine quoted Spacey saying that : "I've never believed in pimping my personal life out for publicity. Although I'm might be interested in doing it, I will never do it. People can gossip all they want; they can speculate all they want. I just happened to believe that there's a separation between the public life and the private life. Everybody has the right to a private life no matter what their professions are."
In 2000, Spacey took -what he considered- his girlfriend to the Academy Awards, and he thanked her during the awards' acceptance speech for his Best Actor award. Reports in 1999 and 2000 suggested that she was a script supervisor named Dianne Dreyer.
In September 2006, Spacey said that he intends to take up British citizenship when it's offered to him.
Spacey met Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in September 2007, and he never spoke to the press about their encounter. However; a few hours later, he visited the Venezuela government to fund the film studio Villa del Cine. In December 2007, Spacy cohosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert along with Uma Thurman. This was the year when Al Gore was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his proposal on studying and raising awareness on Climate Change through an "intergovernmental panel".
In March 2011 - following Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on the Belarusian democracy movement - Spacey joined the movie Jude Law crew on the street in a protest against Lukashenko's regime. Beyond the Sea: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2004)
That Old Black Magic (1997)
From the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil soundtrack
"Mind Games" – Come Together: A Night for John Lennon's Words and Music – October 2, 2001, Radio City Music Hall
Over his decade-spanning career, Spacey has won two Academy Awards, a Tony Award and a Golden Globe Award. He was nominated for a Grammy Award as well as eleven Primetime Emmy Awards. Spacey received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999, and was named an honorary Commander and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2010 and 2015, respectively.