Bobby Sherman. David Cassidy. Davy Jones. Shaun Cassidy. Each name is a step in the funeral march of burned-out television heartthrobs. Johnny Depp, 25, currently holds the pole position in budding fantasies all over North America, thanks to his lead role on the Fox Broadcasting Company’s baby-cop show 21 Jump Street. As Tom Hanson, a copy who goes undercover in high schools to break up drug gangs and pornography rings, Depp is a sexy guidance counselor, the older guy in every neighborhood who takes you around and shows you the ropes but keeps you out of real trouble. And he has everything that makes little girls wriggle: a forest of eyelashes, sensitive eyes, spiked locks stiffened with several hair-care products of the Eighties, dangly earrings.
But Depp doesn’t want to be a teen idol. “I don’t want to make a career of taking my shirt off,” he says. “I’d like to shave off all my hair, even my eyebrows, try it that way. I don’t fault the TV stars who do teen magazines. They took hold of their situations, took offers that gave them the big money fast, but they were dead in two years. I don’t want that.” The ironic thing is that Depp didn’t have to do TV. Four years ago, with no acting experience or training, two days after his first audition ever, he got a lead role in A Nightmare on Elm Street, followed by a small part in Platoon. So why TV?
I’ve been asking myself that question for a long time,” Depp says. “To be honest, I took Jump Street because I thought it would only last a year. I liked the pilot, and I wanted to work with Frederic Forrest (who was in the original cast), so I said Yes.” Surprise, surprise, the show is a hit; Forrest leaves in the first season, and Depp is locked into a contract. “I wouldn’t do another TV series,” he says, “but at least this one means something. It’s not another three-kids-sit-in-a-bathroom sitcom. The scripts help people. But the minute they make a Jump Street lunchbox, I’m gone.”
Historically, when a show becomes really popular, actors turn into giant assholes, but not Johnny,” says Patrick Hasburgh, creator of Jump Street. “He once lit his underwear on fire in the middle of the set, but that was because no one had cleaned up his motor home in a long time. The show’s success may prevent Johnny from taking feature offers, but he’s being cool about it, cooler than I’d be in his shoes. And if I were his age and looked like he does, I’d be dead by now. Girls follow him everywhere, screaming.”
Boys buy posters of their idols. Girls put it in writing. “More than Mike Fox, more than Charlie Sheen, more than Rob Lowe, Johnny Depp gets the greatest volume of mail of any of our clients,” says Spanky Taylor of Fan-Handle, a Los Angeles mail service. “I’d say 10,000-plus pieces a month. Of course, TV guys always get more than film guys.”
It’s not all pictures of girls in their underwear (or less), though Depp has gotten a few of those. “I’ve also gotten weird letters, suicide letters, girls threatening to jump if I don’t get in touch with them. So you think, ‘This is bullshit,’ but then you think, ‘What if it’s not?’ Who wants to take that chance? I write them back, tell them to ‘hang in there,’ if things are that bad, they have to get better. But I’m not altogether stable myself, so who am I to give advice?
“I lost my virginity somewhere around age thirteen. I did every kind of drug there was by fourteen, swiped a few six-packs, broke into a few classrooms, just to see what was on the other side of that locked door. Eventually you see where it’s headed and you get out.”
Born in Kentucky, raised in Florida by an engineer father and a housewife mother (now divorced), Depp bought a guitar at age twelve, joined his first band at thirteen, dropped out of school at sixteen, took his fifteenth band, the Kids, to Los Angeles, survived a failed marriage (“It wasn’t working out, so we took care of it”), and lucked into the movies. Now he hangs out with Nicolas Cage and Charlie Sheen, sleeps late, wears motorcycle jackets and ripped jeans and bangs out “loud, raunchy blues” on his guitar. His answering machine message recently was a hung-over-sounding voice mumbling, “I’m out out out out out out out out.”
But Jeff Ballard is right: ultimately, this teen-idol shit isn’t very interesting. The really big question about Johnny Depp is whether he can ride it out, whether he can be Frank Sinatra instead of Frankie Avalon. “Everybody compares everyone to James Dean these days,” Depp says. “If you’re lucky, they mention Brando or De Niro or Sean Penn. It’s like they have to compare you to somebody. They invite you to put on an instant image.”
For now, Depp seems content to date around, hang out, work on the show and reject bad offers. “It’s easy to make a million bucks in this business doing stuff that would exploit the piss out of you,” he says. “It’s like fast food. Get in frame, get the product out there, and sell it quick.” Instead, he directs public-service announcements (his first ran after an AIDS-related Jump Street), and he is about to make his first film, a fifteen-minute short titled Every Cake, Neil, from a script he co-wrote; it’s about “the things people can do to screw each other up.” He wants to make a movie of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and eventually cut a record. “I could do a Bruce Willis thing and make a record now,” Depp says, “but it would just milk my teen-boy, pop-idol image. I’d rather do nothing than do that.”
Maybe all those dreamy little girls are on to something. Somehow they sense that in an unpretentious, unself-conscious way, Depp doesn’t mind what anybody thinks. He likes himself, something most long-term adolescents never do. “My face,” he says. “I see it in the mirror when I wash it every morning. It’s an okay face.” And it’s not all bad, this teen-idol bullshit. “Budding fantasies, huh?” Depp says slowly, not unhappily. “Yeah, budding fantasies.” If starring in the restless daydreams of a thousand fourteen-year-old girls will get Depp where he’s going, then that’s what he’ll do. It’s all just part of the job.