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Tom Waits

Tom Waits

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Also Known As: Thomas Alan Waits Died:
Born: December 7, 1949 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Pomona, California, USA Profession: singer, musician, actor, screenwriter, songwriter, composer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

A Grammy Award-winning musician known for his raspy voice, darkly humorous lyrics, and unusual instrumentation, Tom Waits parlayed his unique musical vision into a side career as a character actor specializing in the same down-at-the-heels men who often populated his songs. During his early career in the 1970s, the vivid storytellerâ¿¿s distinctive blend of outdated musical styles and Beat poetry earned him a cult following, but over the next four decades, Waits became highly sought after to contribute music to over 100 film and television productions, while his ever-evolving sound broke through to larger audiences with albums Bone Machine and Mule Variations. On screen, Waits was tapped for over two dozen film roles by directors including Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and Francis Ford Coppola. Whether playing a convict on the run in "Down By Law" (1986), a trailer-park dwelling chauffeur in "Short Cuts" (1993), a dapper Devil in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (2009), or any number of skid row bums and streetwise hustlers, Waits always offered an inventive, humorous, and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of outcasts from the lower rungs of society.Waits was born to two teachers on...

A Grammy Award-winning musician known for his raspy voice, darkly humorous lyrics, and unusual instrumentation, Tom Waits parlayed his unique musical vision into a side career as a character actor specializing in the same down-at-the-heels men who often populated his songs. During his early career in the 1970s, the vivid storytellerâ¿¿s distinctive blend of outdated musical styles and Beat poetry earned him a cult following, but over the next four decades, Waits became highly sought after to contribute music to over 100 film and television productions, while his ever-evolving sound broke through to larger audiences with albums Bone Machine and Mule Variations. On screen, Waits was tapped for over two dozen film roles by directors including Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and Francis Ford Coppola. Whether playing a convict on the run in "Down By Law" (1986), a trailer-park dwelling chauffeur in "Short Cuts" (1993), a dapper Devil in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (2009), or any number of skid row bums and streetwise hustlers, Waits always offered an inventive, humorous, and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of outcasts from the lower rungs of society.

Waits was born to two teachers on Dec. 7, 1949, and was raised in Southern California. As a child, he taught himself to play a neighborâ¿¿s piano, and by high school, was in an R&B band, but he was always less interested in the rock music of the era. The budding artist gravitated towards early American music like blues, jazz, folk, and the classic songwriting of New Yorkâ¿¿s Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals. By the time he graduated from high school in Chula Vista, he had begun writing songs inspired by his musical taste and his interest in the Beat poets of the previous decade. His unique style began to take form at the Heritage in San Diego, a folk coffeehouse where he worked as a doorman and performed solo before moving to Los Angeles in 1971. In L.A., Waitsâ¿¿ began to establish himself as part of the thriving songwriters scene based out of West Hollywoodâ¿¿s Troubadour club. After more than a year of playing every Monday night, Waits was "discovered" at the Troubadour in 1972 and signed with Asylum records where he recorded his first album, Closing Time in 1973. The folk-jazz album featuring piano and horns, was a remarkably mature achievement for the 24-year-old, whose 1930s newsboy cap, rumpled coat and tie, and Van Dyke beard rounded out his image as a world-weary poet of the streets.

The fledgling poetâ¿¿s vivid and resonant stories of sailors and after-hours joints captured criticsâ¿¿ attention, and Waits began to cultivate a cult following when he went on tour opening for Frank Zappa. The landmark 1974 album The Heart of Saturday Night further built on Waitsâ¿¿ jazz foundation and his gift as a wordsmith able to bring an engaging, off-kilter beauty to his portrayals of life on the margins of society. Waitsâ¿¿ second effort was universally praised by music critics, and he had a taste of his future as a sought-after songwriter when The Eagles covered his song "On the Border" on their 1974 album Olâ¿¿55. In between his peripatetic life on the road, Waits released Small Change(1976), and the vaudeville-vibed Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), both of which put him in a musical category by himself, and made the commercial success of the former LP a major surprise. The album broke into the Billboard Top 100 album charts for a few weeks, fueled in part by the appeal of the single "The Piano Has Been Drinking," and Waitsâ¿¿ respect as a songwriter who was now being covered by big acts like Bette Midler and then-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones.

Waits toured internationally upon the releases of Blue Valentine and Foreign Affairs, and the considerable press he generated during the first five years of his career led to interest from bigger entities, namely, Hollywood. In 1978, Waits had two songs included on the soundtrack of the Sylvester Stallone film "Paradise Alley" (1978), and a supporting role as a drunken piano player. Bruce Springsteen began including "Jersey Girl," from Waits 1980 album Heartattack and Vine, in his shows, while a few more movie soundtrack cuts led to interest from Francis Ford Coppola, who commissioned Waits to compose the score for his Vegas-set film "One From the Heart" (1982), which earned Waits an Oscar nomination for Original Score. It was during that production that Waits met his wife Kathleen Brennan, who went on to be his co-writer and creative collaborator for over 35 years. Meanwhile, Coppola boosted Waitsâ¿¿ on-screen talent profile by giving him a supporting role as a pool hall owner in his "Rumble Fish" (1983) and a bit part in the similarly blue collar "The Outsiders" (1983).

In an effort to expand in new musical directions after half a dozen albums of jazz-folk, Waits left his label, producer, and management and recorded Swordfishtrombones (1983), launching a period of experimental music using unusual instruments like pump organs and drawing in sounds of lesser-known ethnic genres to create something wholly new. Popular artists like Rod Stewart and Mary Chapin Carpenter continued to record Waitsâ¿¿ early material while he returned to the screen in Coppolaâ¿¿s Harlem-set gangster flick "The Cotton Club" (1984). A move to New York City in 1984 widened Waitsâ¿¿ circle of artistic collaborators, and he became friends with indie film icon Jim Jarmusch, who cast him alongside avant-garde jazz musician John Lurie in "Down By Law" (1986), which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Waitsâ¿¿ music helped set the tone for the lo-fi black and white comedy, in which the actor was endlessly entertaining as a radio DJ sharing a prison cell with a chatty Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) and streetwise pimp (Lurie), who escape together only to find themselves in the middle of the Louisiana swamps.

In 1986, Waits co-wrote and starred in the play "Frankâ¿¿s Wild Years," which was staged at Chicagoâ¿¿s Steppenwolf Theater, and spawned an album of the same material in 1987. He was aptly cast as Jack Nicholson's hobo sidekick in "Ironweed" (1987), a Depression-set drama based on the novel by William Kennedy, and appeared in photographer Robert Frankâ¿¿s low-budget drama "Candy Mountain" (1987). The Waits family moved back to Los Angeles in 1987, which sparked Waitsâ¿¿ most prolific period as a feature film actor. Following the release of the quasi-documentary "Big Time" (1988), which intercut bombastic concert footage of Waits with filmed material adapted from the characters in "Frankâ¿¿s Wild Years," he had a small role as a cop in the "Chinatown" (1974) sequel "The Two Jakes" (1989), and voiced the disc jockey who connected the disconnected threads of Jarmuschâ¿¿s "Mystery Train" (1989). Waits returned to theater and acted in a Los Angeles stage run of the play "Demon Wine," after which he was snapped up for colorful supporting roles in indie dramas "Queens Logic" (1991) and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" (1991). Waits was seen as a homeless veteran in Terry Gilliamâ¿¿s "The Fisher King" (1991), before he and wife Brennan co-scored Jarmuschâ¿¿s international ensemble film "Night on Earth" (1991), and compositions for "American Heart" (1992) starring Jeff Bridges.

Coppola recruited Waits to play raving lunatic Renfield in "Bram Stokerâ¿¿s Dracula" (1992), a plum role he followed with another acting career highlight in Robert Altmanâ¿¿s "Short Cuts" (1993). In Altmanâ¿¿s classic onscreen depiction of Los Angeles life, Waits offered a sympathetic portrayal of a trailer park-dwelling limo driver in a contentious but ultimately understandable relationship with a tough coffee-shop waitress (Lily Tomlin). Along with the cast, Waits shared the honor of Golden Globe recognition for the ensemble cast and the Volpi Cup for Best Ensemble Cast at the Venice Film Festival. Following that achievement, Waits retreated from the screen to record his first album of original material in five years â¿¿an absence that had sparked rumors he was giving up music to focus on film and theater.

Bone Machine, a dark, echoey, industrial blues-rock project that featured everything from megaphones to clanking hardware, won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. The following year, Waits collaborated with beat author William S. Burroughs and artist Robert Wilson on "The Black Rider," an avant-garde theater piece based on a German folk tale that was staged internationally to a positive reception. Pop artists including Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart continued to dip into the Waits songbook for cover songs and his tracks showed up in films including "Dead Man Walking" (1995), Gilliamâ¿¿s "Twelve Monkeys" (1995), and "Fight Club" (1999) before the Grammy committee re-categorized Waits and awarded his 1999 album Mule Variations a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. He returned to the screen with a small role in the 1999 comedy "Mystery Men," and in 2002, teamed up again with Robert Wilson to compose music for two theatrical productions, "Alice" and "Woyzeck," with the resulting recordings sending music critics head over heels. In 2003, Jim Jarmuschâ¿¿s anthology film "Coffee and Cigarettes (shot in 1993) hit theaters, and with it a segment in which Waits and rock legend Iggy Pop share a coffee shop booth and awkwardly discuss subjects ranging from quitting smoking to Abbott and Costello.

Waits was recognized with an ASCAP award in 2004 for his song "Way Down in the Hole," which was used as the theme song for the HBO series "The Wire" (2002-08), while the same year, Waits and Brennan composed music for the animated hit "Shrek 2" (2004). Waitsâ¿¿ back catalog continued to surface in movies as diverse as "Hellboy" (2004), "Jarhead" (2005), and the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (2005). A small role as a "wanderer" in Tony Scottâ¿¿s 2005 film "Domino" was followed by the release of a three-disc compilation of Waitsâ¿¿ material spanning his entire career. Orphans: Bawlers, Brawlers, and Bastards was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. Waits was back on the screen as another enigmatic eccentric in the dark indie fantasy "Wristcutters A Love Story" (2006), and teamed up with Terry Gilliam again to play a dapper and laid-back characterization of the devil in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (2009). A few months later he appeared opposite Denzel Washington as a post-apocalyptic junk dealer in "The Book of Eli" (2010).

By Susan Clarke

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Twixt (2012)
2.
3.
 Book of Eli, The (2010)
7.
 Absolute Wilson (2006)
8.
 Domino (2005)
9.
 Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) Himself
10.
 Mystery Men (1999) Dr Heller
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1973:
Cut first album <i>Closing Time</i>
1978:
Made feature film debut in "Paradise Alley"
1979:
First film as songwriter (title song), "On the Nickel"
1982:
Recorded acclaimed soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart"
1983:
Solo album producing debut, <i>Swordfishtrombones</i>
1986:
Starred in "Down by Law," written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
1988:
First film as co-screenwriter, "Big Time"; also acted and performed songs
1990:
Co-wrote opera "The Black Rider" with William Burroughs
1991:
Appeared in romantic drama "At Play in the Fields of the Lord"
1993:
Cast in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts"
1999:
Played Doc Heller in superhero flick "Mystery Men"
2003:
Co-starred in Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes"
2004:
Released critically acclaimed <i>Real Gone</i>
2005:
Played supporting role in "Domino," starring Keira Knightley and Christopher Walken
2009:
Played the devil in Terry Gilliam's fantasy adventure "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
2011:
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
2012:
Cast in ensemble crime comedy "Seven Psychopaths"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"I think all songs should have weather in them. Names of towns and streets, and they should have a couple of sailors. I think those are just some song prerequisites." --Waits in an interview with The Onion A.V. Club

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Kathleen Brennan. Editor of <i>Munich News</i>.
wife:
Kathleen Brennan. Songwriter, former script editor. Has had three children with Waits.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Jesse Frank Waits. Had seven siblings.
father:
Jesse Frank Waits. School teacher. Divorced Waits' mother c. 1959; named after Frank and Jesse James.
daughter:
Kellesimone Waits. Mother Kathleen Brennan.
daughter:
Kellesimone Waits. Painter. Born in South America.
son:
Casey Xavier Waits. Rabbi.
son:
Casey Xavier Waits. Mother Kathleen Brennan.
son:
Sullivan Waits. Dated a Jewish actor who moved to London c. 1933.
son:
Sullivan Waits. Mother Kathleen Brennan.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

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