Biography of Willem Dafoe 2024

Willem Dafoe was born on July 22, 1955 in Appleton, Wisconsin. His mother, Muriel Isabel (Sprissler), was a nurse, and his father, William Alfred Dafoe, was a surgeon.

Willem was the youngest of eight children. He has said that his parents were very strict and that sports and the arts helped him break out of an otherwise rigid Midwestern lifestyle. As a child, Willem developed a passion for theater and started participating in high school plays.

Year Event
1955 Born in Appleton, Wisconsin on July 22nd
1973 Graduates from Appleton East High School
1974 Studies drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

After graduating from high school in 1973, Willem began studying drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. However, he left university after just one year to join Theater X, an independent experimental theater company.

Early Stage and Film Career

In 1976, Dafoe moved to New York City where he joined The Wooster Group theater company. He started out working behind the scenes before transitioning to acting and becoming one of the main performers.

First Movie Roles

Willem started getting small roles in movies while continuing his theater work. His first screen role was an uncredited part in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter. Some of his other early movie credits included:

1980 Heaven’s Gate
1981 The Loveless
1982 The Hunger
1984 Streets of Fire

Breakthrough Role

Dafoe’s first major movie role came in 1985 when he portrayed Sergeant Elias Gordon in Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning film <i>Platoon</i>. His performance earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The success of Platoon helped establish Willem Dafoe as a talented character actor. He gained recognition for his ability to intensely throw himself into diverse and challenging roles.

Acclaim for Biopics and Villainous Characters

Throughout the late 80s and 90s, Willem continued earning critical praise for biographical roles and villainous characters:


1987 Platoon (Sgt. Elias)
1989 Triumph of the Spirit (Salamo Arouch)
1990 Born on the Fourth of July (Charlie)


1989 Crossing Delancey (Guillermo)
1990 Wild at Heart (Bobby Peru)
1991 Flight of the Intruder (Cmdr. Frank Camparelli)

Of particular note was Dafoe’s unsettling performance as the grisly gangster Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s 1990 neo-noir film Wild at Heart. He continued to take on equally sinister roles later in films like American Psycho II (2002) and as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002).

Oscars Recognition for Shadow of the Vampire

In 2000, Willem Dafoe delivered what is considered one of his finest performances in Shadow of the Vampire. He played Max Schreck, the enigmatic actor who portrayed the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic Nosferatu. Dafoe’s creepy and method-driven interpretation of Schreck earned him his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor.

Though he did not win the Academy Award that year, his chilling performance solidified his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most versatile character actors capable of disappearing into wildly divergent roles.

Recent Work

Even as he’s gotten older, Willem Dafoe has not shown signs of slowing down. He continues to take on a wide variety of movie projects ranging from big blockbusters to small independent films.

Some highlights of Dafoe’s recent notable roles include:

  • 2004 – The Passion of the Christ (Jesus)
  • 2004 – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Klaus Daimler)
  • 2009 – Antichrist (He)
  • 2009 – Fantastic Mr. Fox (Rat) – voice acting debut
  • 2012 – John Carter (Tars Tarkas) – performed through motion-capture
  • 2014 – The Grand Budapest Hotel (Jopling)
  • 2017 – The Florida Project (Bobby Hicks)
  • 2019 – The Lighthouse (Thomas Wake)
  • 2021 – Nightmare Alley (Clem Hoately)

Willem continues to work steadily not just in movies but also television and theater. Even at 66 years old, he shows no signs of retirement any time soon.

In 2019, he earned his fourth career Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor playing Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate.

2018 At Eternity’s Gate (Vincent van Gogh)
Nominated for Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

Personal Life

Very little is known about Willem Dafoe’s private life as he is an extremely private person who prefers not to disclose details to the media.

He met director Elizabeth LeCompte in 1977 during his early days with the Wooster Group. Though the two never married, they were in a relationship for 27 years before separating in 2004.

Dafoe has one son, Jack, born in 1982, with Elizabeth. Today, Willem splits his time living in New York City and Rome, Italy. He holds both American and Italian citizenship.

Outside of acting, Willem Dafoe is known to be an avid reader and enjoys studying philosophy, photography, and the works of Carl Jung.


In summary, Willem Dafoe has built an impressive acting career spanning over four decades in theater, film, and television. His intensity, commitment to roles, array of accents, and ability to transform is unmatched among Hollywood’s character actors.

From early roots performing experimental theater and his breakout in Platoon, Dafoe has gone on to play many biographical figures and notoriously villainous characters. Highlights like Shadow of the Vampire and At Eternity’s Gate have earned him widespread critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations.

Approaching his late 60s, Willem Dafoe shows no intentions of retiring. He continues to take on acting challenges across a diversity of projects, disappearing into his characters unlike any other actor of his generation. Few performers demonstrate such dedication to their craft, making Willem Dafoe a true Hollywood icon.

FAQs About Willem Dafoe

What nationality is Willem Dafoe?

Willem Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wisconsin and grew up in the United States. He currently holds dual American and Italian citizenship.

How old is Willem Dafoe?

As of 2023, Willem Dafoe is 67 years old. His date of birth is July 22, 1955.

How tall is Willem Dafoe?

Willem Dafoe is approximately 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) tall.

Is Willem Dafoe married?

No, Willem Dafoe has never been married. He was in a long term relationship with director Elizabeth LeCompte which lasted 27 years before their separation in 2004. Together they have one son named Jack.

What was Willem Dafoe’s big break role?

Willem Dafoe’s big breakout role was as Sergeant Elias Gordon in the Academy Award-winning 1986 film Platoon. His emotional performance earned him his first Oscar nomination and established him as an actor to watch in Hollywood.