- Actor and director
- Was a member of Not In Our Name and Artists United to Win Without War
- Mentored by Norman Solomon, the Marxist founder of the Institute for Public accuracy
- Admirer and friend of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
- Harsh critic of American foreign and domestic policies
- Holds conservatives in contempt
Sean Justin Penn is an “A-list” actor/director and an outspoken member of the left-wing Hollywood elite. He was born on August 17, 1960 in Los Angeles County, California. His father, the late Leo Penn (1921-98), was an actor and director who supported the Hollywood trade unions and was blacklisted as a communist when he refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. A supporter of Germany until it violated the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1941, the elder Penn hailed from a Spanish family whose original surname was Piñón. Today Sean Penn has one brother, Michael, who is a musician. A second brother, actor Chris Penn, died in 2006.
Sean Penn began his acting career with bit-parts in the 1970s television series Little House on the Prairie. His first movie role was in the 1981 film Taps. Over the years, a number of Penn’s film projects have served to promote the actor's own political views. For example, in 1989 Penn starred in the anti-Vietnam War production Casualties of War; in 1996 he played a convicted killer on death row in the anti-capital-punishment film Dead Man Walking; and in 2006 he starred in All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of the radical populist Huey Long. For further details about Penn's acting career, click here.
In the early 2000s, Penn was a supporter of Not In Our Name, a self-described “peace” front established by C. Clark Kissinger's Revolutionary Communist Party. He was also a member of Artists United to Win Without War, and became an avid backer of MoveOn.org,
In October 2002 Penn purchased $56,000 worth of advertising space in The Washington Post, to display his “Open Letter to the President of the United States of America.” Therein, Penn condemned the George W. Bush administration for its: “intolerance of debate”; “marginalization of ... critics”; “promoti[on] of fear through unsubstantiated rhetoric”; “manipulation of a quick comfort media”; “deconstruction of civil liberties”; and adherence to “a simplistic and inflammatory view of good and evil.”
In December 2002, Penn made a much-publicized “fact-finding” visit to Baghdad with Medea Benjamin, the founder of Global Exchange and Iraq Occupation Watch. The trip was organized by the Institute for Public Accuracy, whose executive director was the radical Norman Solomon. Penn claimed that his purpose for making the trip was to gain the information he needed in order to determine whether or not an invasion of Iraq was justified. Ultimately the trip proved to be of great propaganda value to Saddam Hussein, as Penn spoke out publicly against what he characterized as America's unwarranted aggression. At a carefully orchestrated press conference in Baghdad, Penn declared: “Simply put, if there is a war or continued sanctions against Iraq, the blood of Americans and Iraqis alike will be on our [American] hands.” Another notable item on Penn's Iraq itinerary was a meeting with Saddam's then-deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, who was eventually convicted of past murders and crimes against humanity.
In February 2003, Penn accused movie producer Stephen Bing of having fired him from the lead role in the film Why Men Shouldn’t Marry, because of the actor's vocal opposition to the Iraq War. Charging that Bing had borrowed a page “from the dark era of Hollywood blacklisting,” Penn filed a $10 million lawsuit against him.
At the end of May 2003, Penn purchased a full page of advertising space in The New York Times, to display a 4,000-word composition wherein he exhorted readers to “reflect on the resentment of the world, invited in our [Americans] positioning ourselves as their police.” In that same piece, Penn: (a) discussed his own long period of “rebellion” against the Pledge of Allegiance; (b) revealed that it had taken him “so long to love [and] respect” the American flag, whose associations with “sacrifice and heroism” were “historically and presently intermingled with varying degrees of corruption and exploitation”; and (c) warned that because of America's military involvement in Iraq, the flag now “threatens to become a haunting banner of murder, greed, and treason.”
With help from Norman Solomon and Medea Benjamin, Penn made a return trip to Iraq in late 2003. He coordinated his travel plans with Ms. Benjamin, who was leading a contingent of military families to that country under the auspices of both Global Exchange and Iraq Occupation Watch. Penn subsequently published a pair of articles about his trip in the San Francisco Chronicle. Among his observations:
- “People from all sides of the debate acknowledge that the [Iraqi] insurgency movement builds every day in manpower and organizational strength.”
- “Many Iraqis I speak to tell me there is no freedom in occupation, nor trust in unilateral intervention.”
- “The alienation bred by war on a people doesn't stop with armies, but instead continues with corporations and privatization dominating and shaping the very culture and economic participation that freedom might otherwise express.”
Also in his Chronicle articles, Penn derided employees of DynCorp, a private security company that had been hired to enhance the safety of American troops and U.S. interests in Iraq, as “mercenaries.” Moreover, he intimated that Vice President Dick Cheney had a similar “mercenary” force at his disposal in the form of Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Haliburton subsidiary that was providing cafeteria services in Iraq.
In 2005 the San Francisco Chronicle dispatched Penn to Iran as a correspondent tasked with covering that country's upcoming political elections. During his assignment, Penn attended prayer ceremonies in Tehran and interviewed a number of Iranian political leaders. In an article that he subsequently wrote for the Chronicle, the actor commended Iran for remaining relatively unfazed by George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” references. Penn also lauded Iran for complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), and he warned that “[a]ny reckless action on the part of the United States or Israel may lead to Iran dropping out of the treaty.” Not long thereafter, Iran violated the NNPT by secretly pursuing uranium enrichment, a move that prompted the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution ordering Iran to suspend its nuclear ambitions.
On January 7, 2006, Penn was a special guest, along with Cindy Sheehan, at an “Out of Iraq Forum” hosted by the Progressive Democrats of America and held at the Service Employees International Union hall in Sacramento, California. The event was moderated by Bill Dursten, president of the Sacramento chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Norman Solomon was among the 200+ activists in attendance, all calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
In 2006 as well, Penn joined such luminaries as Ed Asner, Danny Glover, Cynthia McKinney, Willie Nelson, Susan Sarandon, and Lynn Woolsey in staging a “Troops Home Fast” hunger strike to protest the Iraq War. Organized by Cindy Sheehan and endorsed by Code Pink for Peace, the strike was performed in a relay fashion—i.e., each participant fasted for a day, then “passed” the proverbial baton to another “striker.”
In 2007 Penn lent his name to a letter urging President Bush to normalize U.S. relations with Communist Cuba. Making no mention of the many Cuban artists and dissidents who had been jailed by Fidel Castro’s oppressive regime, the letter stated: “We write to express our dismay at your [Bush] administration’s continuing hostility towards Cuba. We write to express our opposition to policies that keep us divided from our Cuban counterparts, preventing cultural interchange between our two countries.” Other signatories included such notables as Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Gore Vidal, and Alice Walker.
At an Oakland, California town hall meeting organized by Democratic congresswoman Barbara Lee in March 2007, Penn delivered a lengthy speech in which he impugned President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “villainously and criminally obscene people” who exercised control over “the smarmy pundits in your pocket, those who bathe in the moisture of your soiled and bloodstained underwear.” “Without impeachment,” Penn added. “justice cannot prevail.” Penn also stated that: “The money that's spent on this war would be better spent on building levees in New Orleans and health care in Africa and care for our veterans. Iraq is not our toilet. It's a country of human beings whose lives that were once oppressed by Saddam are now in ‘Dante's Inferno.’”
In October 2007, WorldNetDaily.com's Aaron Klein reported that “Muslim terror leaders” were “hailing” statements Penn had made regarding America's alleged transgressions around the world. Specifically:
- Abu Hamed, the northern Gaza Strip commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), told Penn that because the Palestinians “don’t have the money” or the “access to [American] media” that “the Zionists have,” he was hopeful that Penn would make an effort to publicly “represent our pain and our cause.”
- AMB's West Bank chief, Ala Senakreh, announced that he felt “deep respect for Penn and people like him that prove that America is not only the country that sponsors the Israeli terrorists and all evil forces in the world, but also a country of brave people who want a different policy based on justice and peace.”
- And Ramadan Adassi, AMB's leader in the Anskar (West Bank) refugee camp, said that Penn’s words commonly “express dignity [and] a deep humanitarian sense” which could potentially “design a different public opinion.”
In a December 2007 speech at San Francisco State University, Penn voiced his support for Rep. Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign, calling him “the most deserving and noble of candidates,” “the dominant voice of integrity,” and “the one endlessly determined voice of peace.”
In August 2008, Penn attended a Ralph Nader “Open the Debates” Super Rally in Denver, which, according to Nader, aimed “to expand the [presidential] debates beyond just two parties.”
After Raul Castro replaced his brother, Fidel Castro, as president of Cuba in 2008, Penn, who had previously met Fidel on at least one occasion, traveled to Havana for a friendly visit with the new dictator. Penn subsequently published an account of that trip in The Nation. In 2009 Penn reportedly returned to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro for Vanity Fair. No article ever developed, however, and it is not known if the interview ever took place.
Yet another Communist tyrant with whom Penn developed a warm relationship was the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. Among the manifestations of Penn's friendship with Chavez were the following:
- In his televised speeches, Chavez occasionally quoted from Penn’s writing.
- Penn traveled to South America several times to meet personally with Chavez.
- In August 2007, Penn met with Chávez in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was commended by the latter for having courageously advocated the impeachment of President Bush. Penn subsequently called Chavez “a fascinating guy” who was “much more positive for Venezuela than ... negative.”
- When Penn read the constitution that Chavez in 2007 was proposing for Venezuela—a constitution that empowered the president to rule by decree—the actor called it “a very beautiful document.”
- In 2009 Penn said: “I know President Chavez well. Whether or not one agrees with all his policies, what is certainly true of Chavez is that he is a warm and friendly man with a robust sense of humor (who daily risks his own life for his country in ways Dick Cheney could never imagine). To treat such a man coldly is akin to spitting on him. As a country we’ve done enough of that.”
- In a 2010 television interview with Bill Maher, Penn suggested that anyone who referred to Chavez as a dictator should be incarcerated: “Every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it, and accept it. And this is mainstream media. There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”
- In mid-February 2011, Penn was Chavez's guest of honor, serving as the keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony for Venezuela’s Salvador Allende Medical School. “Allow me to impart a little anecdote,” said Penn to those in attendance. “I had the privilege to introduce my children to comandante Fidel Castro, and as he posed for a photo between them I told him: ‘President, I’ll now be denounced in the U.S. for educating my children as socialist revolutionaries.’” According to Penn, Castro responded: “That’s among the best things that could happen to them.”
- In December 2012, Penn traveled to Bolivia to attend a candlelight vigil for the health of Chavez, who was battling cancer. “He’s one of the most important forces we’ve had on this planet,” Penn said, “and I’ll wish him nothing but that great strength he has shown over and over again. I do it in love, and I do it in gratitude.”
- When Chavez died on March 5, 2013, Penn wept and said: “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”
In 2009 Penn denounced a number of public figures whose conservative views he abhorred—Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Dick Cheney and Bill O'Reilly. The actor portrayed these individuals as people who “effectively hate the principles upon which we [the United States] were founded.”
In 2011 Penn was a vocal supporter of the so-called “Arab Spring,” which saw several Middle Eastern governments overthrown and quickly replaced by radical and violent Islamist movements. In the early fall of that year, for instance, Penn appeared at a protest rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where he announced his passionate support for the Egyptian revolution (which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak) and urged “a transition of power from the military to the people.” In a visit to Tripoli a few days later, Penn proclaimed that there was “no question” that “inspirational Libya” would successfully become a functioning democracy in its post-Qadhafi era. “I am inspired by the Arab Spring,” said Penn. “... It is amazing what is happening in this part of the world, be it Tunisia, Egypt or Libya.”
In an October 2011 appearance on Piers Morgan's CNN television program, Penn characterized the conservative Tea Party movement as a racist phenomenon whose objective was to “lynch” President Barack Obama. As such, he dubbed it “The 'Get the N-Word Out of the White House Party.'”
In October 2011 as well, Penn said, “I applaud the spirit” of Occupy Wall Street, the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate movement that was beginning to spread across numerous American cities. Penn's net worth at that time was approximately $77 million. (By 2015, that figure had soared to about $150 million.)
In November 2015, Penn said that the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris represented mankind's “last great chance” to prevent global warming from threatening humanity's very survival. “I think it's the last great hope, in particular because of the way the French leadership has taken leadership in this,” Penn stated. “We can only be optimistic, there is no other choice.... Everybody is going to have to change in their daily life. If you love your children you have to make some changes [i.e., cut your carbon emissions] or they [your children] will have a far lesser world than we've had.” While personally attending the Paris conference the following month, Penn said: “[T]his is the most exciting time in human history because ... we have clarity and the days of dreams have given way to the days of doing.”
With the assistance of the popular Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, Penn arranged and conducted a secret October 2015 interview for Rolling Stone magazine with the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, commonly known as “El Chapo,” who boasted that he was responsible for trafficking “more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world.” The interview took place in a remote location, deep in the Mexican jungle, at a time when Guzmán, who had escaped from Mexico's most secure prison three months earlier, was running from Mexican and American authorities. Prior to the interview, Penn and Rolling Stone agreed not to publish any account of Guzmán's remarks without first making whatever changes the fugitive might request. In the article, which appeared in January 2016, Penn characterized Guzmán as “a simple man from a simple place” and said: “El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” Moreover, Penn suggested that the United States had been complicit in Guzmán's crimes:
“As an American citizen, I’m drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies. Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination. But unlike bin Laden, who had posed the ludicrous premise that a country’s entire population is defined by – and therefore complicit in – its leadership’s policies, with the world’s most wanted drug lord, are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize? We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution’s ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.”
Guzmán was eventually captured by Mexican marines in a January 2016 raid and was sent back to prison.
Over the years, Penn has contributed money to the political campaigns of several Democrats, including Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich.
For additional information on Sean Penn, click here.