''Pirates of the Caribbean'' was the actor's biggest movie of the last ten years

When the decade began, Johnny Depp wasn’t the Johnny Depp of today. Sure, the critics had anointed him one of the finest actors of his generation. But Depp still hadn’t found his footing at the box office. Back then, he was an artistic martyr — Hollywood’s very own Saint Jude, patron saint of cinematic lost causes. For every middling hit on his oddball résumé like Sleepy Hollow or Chocolat, there was a misfire like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Then something happened. Johnny Depp found his stride in the most unlikely of places.

It’s easy to look at 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a Bruckheimer blockbuster from Disney, and conclude that Depp had finally sold his soul. But anyone who’s seen his lunatic turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow knows better. It’s one of those without-a-net performances, so singular and subversive that it’s hard to believe he got away with it. Which he almost didn’t when the studio suits saw the dailies and nearly had a collective cardiac infarction.

The first Pirates made $305 million and proved that Depp’s idiosyncratic gifts could entrance a huge mainstream audience. No one was more baffled by his success than Depp himself. When the actor sat down with EW in 2003, he said, ”All I can say is for a guy like me who’s been dangling in this business for the last 20 years, to finally have something hit, it’s unexpected and very touching.” Depp received his first-ever Oscar nomination for Pirates. And just to show that it was no fluke, he was nominated again for his tear-jerking turn in 2004’s Finding Neverland. Then, in 2008, he was nominated a third time for what may go down as his ballsiest parlor trick, singing and slashing throats in Sweeney Todd. Today, Depp, 46, is an acting icon and a father. (He and his longtime partner, the French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis have two children, Jack and Lily-Rose Melody.) Depp is no longer the impish patron saint of cinematic lost causes, but something far rarer: an entertainer who’s most magically alive in that fleeting moment between ”Action” and ”Cut.”