Have you caught James Franco yet doing his James Franco thing at your local cineplex? Well, in the surprisingly good 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' which opens today, Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist experimenting on apes in the hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Franco is best known for his for his Academy Award nominated role in '127 Hours' and his sometimes erratic public persona, but it's not as if he arrived fully formed on the set of 'Pineapple Express.' Like hyper-intelligent apes, famous actors have back stories, and Franco's on-screen beginnings involve a not-at-all convincing beat down behind a strip mall. So let's look at five performances that reveal the origins of one James Edward Franco.
'Pacific Blue' (1997)
Woe is James Franco in his first-ever credited role on the '90s "cops on bikes" basic cable series 'Pacific Blue.' Franco plays (I think) a bicycle shop employee named Brian who drops his boss's drugs – look for Franco's less than masterful plea: "I'm sorry, Donny!" -- and, for his incompetence, gets the living hell beaten out of him behind the store. (This happens to me at Moviefone at least twice a week.) Thankfully, the 'Pacific Blue' police officers show up on their bikes to rescue James Franco – without them, we may never have had 'Tristan + Isolde.'
'Never Been Kissed' (1999)
"This is going to be roofalicious!" – whatever that means. Anyway, that is Franco's big line in this 1999 "going back to high school as an adult" romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore. Side note: If an announcement came tomorrow morning that Drew Barrymore is set to star as reporter who goes undercover as a high school student, would you be remotely surprised? And if such a film really did get made in 2011, would it surprise you at all to see Franco pop up as a random background character?
'Freaks and Geeks' (1999)
This commercially doomed but critically enshrined NBC series proved to be the breakthrough project not just for Franco but also for Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Phillips, and executive producer Judd Apatow. Franco played Daniel Desario, an older-than-he-should-be high school student who oozed cool. Here, the gang talks about shoplifting. Franco claims, "If I owned a store and caught some little kid shoplifting, I'd just take him out back and deal with him." His classmates don't quite buy the tough-guy persona, but that's probably because they haven't been watching 'Pacific Blue' -- Franco has a lot of built-up "taken out back" angst to unleash.
'If Tomorrow Comes' (2000)
Look, this movie might be great, but the trailer tracks like a Funny or Die video. There's sex! There's drugs! There's violence! IMDB describes Franco's character as a man "lost in his constant search for a mother he never knew and a father who spent his life as a petty criminal." O.K., then.
'James Dean' (2001)
Franco won a Golden Globe for his performance as the 'Rebel Without a Cause' star in this made-for-television drama that aired on TNT. In this scene, Franco, as Dean, is trying to decide what name he should use professionally: James or Byron (?!). We can all be grateful to him for making the right decision, since "Still looking for that blue jean, baby queen, prettiest girl I've ever seen / See her shake on the movie screen, Byron Dean," doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Soon after 'James Dean,' Franco was cast as Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man,' thus bringing an end, theoretically, to his days of strange cameos in B-movies and daytime TV shows. But this is James Franco we're talking about, so, naturally, his days on 'General Hospital' still lay ahead.
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