Penelope Spheeris

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Penelope Spheeris
Penelope Spheeris.jpg
Spheeris in 2013
Born (1946-12-02) December 2, 1946 (age 77)
Occupation(s)Film director, film producer, screenwriter
Years active1968–present
ChildrenAnna Fox
Relatives Jimmie Spheeris (brother)
Chris Spheeris (cousin)
Costa-Gavras (cousin)

Penelope Spheeris (born December 2, 1946) [1] [2] [3] [4] is an American film director, producer, and screenwriter. She has directed both documentary and scripted films. Her best-known works include the trilogy titled The Decline of Western Civilization , each covering an aspect of Los Angeles underground culture, [5] and Wayne's World , her highest-grossing film. [6]


Early life

Spheeris was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her Greek-immigrant father owned the Magic Empire Shows carnival and was a side-show strong man. Her mother, of Irish heritage, was raised in Kansas and later worked as a ticket taker for the carnival. Her father was 40 years old and her mother was 19 when they began a relationship. [1] [7] Spheeris has three full siblings, plus a number of older half-siblings from her father's first marriage. [8] She is a sister of singer Jimmie Spheeris [9] and a first cousin of musician Chris Spheeris [9] and Greek-French director Costa Gavras, [9] which she says has made her consider that a genetic component exists to her vocation. [9]

Spheeris told author Paul Stenning, "I believe each of us is born with certain characteristics that we genetically inherit, some of which are good, some not so good. My mother was extremely compassionate, my father more of a barbarian. My father was passionately ambitious, where my mother was not. The most significant traits I learned from my parents were a strong sense of survival and unfaltering tenacity." [10]

Spheeris spent her first seven years traveling around the American South and American Midwest with her father's carnival. [11] Her father was murdered in Troy, Alabama, after intervening in a racial dispute. In a 2015 interview, Spheeris stated that her father had come to the aid of an African-American man who had been struck on the back of the head with a cane by a white man over a dispute about cutting in front of him in line. The white man soon after returned and stabbed Spheeris' father. She states that her father's killer served no jail time, the man's legal defense apparently resting entirely on the claim that he was justified in murdering Spheeris senior as "he was defending a black." [8]

After her father's death, Spheeris and her three siblings moved with their mother to California, generally living in trailer parks with a succession of stepfathers. [12] She spent her teenaged years in Orange County, graduating from Westminster High School, where she was named 'most likely to succeed'.[ citation needed ] After high school, Spheeris attended California State University Long Beach, where she majored in art. She admired the teachings of George Falcon, a behavioral scientist. From his influence, Spheeris went on to study psychobiology at the University of California, Irvine, in Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. [13]

Working as a waitress at Denny's and IHOP, she put herself through film school. She majored in film and has a master of fine arts degree in theater arts from UCLA. [14]


Spheeris launched her career by producing short subjects for comedian Albert Brooks, many of them being highlights in the first season of the television series Saturday Night Live . Her first feature film was The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), a punk rock documentary that she produced and directed. She followed up with Suburbia in 1983, produced by Roger Corman, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years , this time about the Los Angeles heavy metal scene of 1988, with footage and interviews of legendary metal bands such as Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Megadeth, and Motörhead. She later returned to the streets of Los Angeles and the punk rock scene in 1998 for the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part III . She was offered the chance to direct This is Spinal Tap , but declined. [15]

Spheeris editing her film Dudes, 1986 PenelopeSpheeris1986.jpg
Spheeris editing her film Dudes , 1986

In addition, she worked as a writer for the television series Roseanne (1988-1997). In the 1990s, she directed Wayne's World , a comedy based on Mike Myers' sketches from Saturday Night Live. The movie grossed over $183 million and became a popular hit. She directed the Wayne's World music video work for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which earned a Grammy Award nomination. [14] She had difficulty working with Myers, while acknowledging him as "profoundly talented," and in an Entertainment Weekly article stated she believes Myers dissuaded Paramount Pictures from hiring her for the sequel. [16]

In 1996, she directed We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll , a documentary about the Ozzfest, produced by Sharon Osbourne, which explored life on the road. [14]

Other films Spheeris has directed include The Beverly Hillbillies ; The Little Rascals (for which she co-wrote the screenplay); the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy Black Sheep ; the Marlon Wayans-David Spade team-up Senseless ; [14] and The Kid & I starring Tom Arnold. [14] In 2006, she was set to direct the still-unfilmed Gospel According to Janis, about Janis Joplin. [14]

The Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival named Spheeris its guest of honor for 2013. [17]

The moving image collection of Penelope Spheeris is held at the Academy Film Archive. [18] The Academy Film Archive has preserved several of Penelope Spheeris' films, including Bath, Hats Off To Hollywood, and Shit. [19]

Personal life

Spheeris has a daughter, director Anna Spheeris Fox, born in 1969. [20]

Since September 9, 1998, [21] Spheeris has been in a relationship with a man known as Sin, [22] whom she met while filming the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part III . [23] In a 2015 interview, she revealed that he was in an institution in Florida after he stopped taking his medication (he has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) and ended up in jail. [24] She has described him as the love of her life. [25]

Radio and podcast appearances

Spheeris appeared on WTF with Marc Maron on June 29, 2015. [26]

She appeared on Ken Reid's TV Guidance Counselor podcast on October 18, 2016.

In December 2021, she appeared on the fourteenth episode of The Ghost of Hollywood , where she discussed her work career in filmmaking, with a focus on Suburbia in particular. [27] [28]

An interview with Penelope Spheeris and journalist Barney Hoskyns appeared on the Rock's Backpages web site. [29]


Spheeris' work has received recognition from the Directors Guild of America, The Recording Academy, Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Deep Ellum Film Festival, the LA Femme International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, the Los Angeles Silver Lake Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Temecula Valley International Film Festival. [30]



Feature films

YearTitleCredited asNotes
1969 Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales YesYesNostudent film
1972I Don't KnowYesNoNoshort Film
1979Real LifeNoYesNo
1984 Suburbia YesNoYes
1985 The Boys Next Door YesNoNo
1986 Hollywood Vice Squad YesNoNo
1987 Dudes YesNoNo
Summer Camp Nightmare NoNoYes
1992 Wayne's World YesNoNo
1993 The Beverly Hillbillies YesYesNo
1994 The Little Rascals YesNoYes
1996 Black Sheep YesNoNo
1998 Senseless YesNoNo
2005 The Kid & I YesYesNo
2011 Balls to the Wall YesNoNo


YearTitleCredited as
1981 The Decline of Western Civilization YesYesYes
1988 The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years YesNoNo
1990 Thunder and Mud YesNoNo
Banned in the U.S.A.YesNoNo
1998 The Decline of Western Civilization Part III YesNoNo
1999 Hollywierd YesNoNo
2001 We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll YesNoNo

Acting roles

1969 Naked Angels Shirley
1971 The Ski Bum Star the Witch
1974 The Second Coming of Suzanne Margo, Logan's Film Group
1989Wedding BandNicky's Mom
1992 Wayne's World uncredited

Unproduced projects


YearTitleCredited asNotes
1975-1976 Saturday Night LIVE! NoYesNo9 episodes
1989-1990 Roseanne NoNoYes24 episodes (story editor)
Episode: "Fender Bender" (writer)
1993 Danger Theatre YesYesYes3 episodes (director)
7 episodes (executive producer)
5 episodes (writer)
2003 75th Academy Awards YesYesNosegment "Tribute to Documentaries"
2004 Cracking Up YesNoNoEpisode: "Prom Night"

TV movies

1991 Prison Stories: Women on the Inside Segment "3"
Visitors from the Unknown: UFO Abductions
UFO Abductions: A Global Phenomenon
1998Applewood 911
2000Dear Doughboy
2003 The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron
2011 Five Segment "Cheyanne"
2012The Real St. Nick

Music videos

1987"Wake Up Dead" Megadeth
1988"I Did It for Love" Night Ranger
1989"No More Mr. Nice Guy" Megadeth
1992"Bohemian Rhapsody" (Wayne's World Version) Queen


Critical, public, and commercial reception to films Spheeris has directed.

Film Rotten Tomatoes [41] Metacritic [42] CinemaScore BudgetBox office
The Decline of Western Civilization10093
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years86%58
Wayne's World86%57A-$20 million$183 million
The Beverly Hillbillies23%37B+$25 million$57.4 million
The Little Rascals23%45A-$67.3 million
Black Sheep28%B+$32.4 million
Senseless6%36B+$12.8 million
The Decline of Western Civilization - Part III100%77
The Kid & I37

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