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After a starring role in the comedy Private Resort (1985), Depp was cast in the lead role of the skating drama Thrashin' (1986) by the film's director, but the decision was later overridden by its producer.

He has been nominated for 3 Academy Awards and won the Golden Globe Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor.

He rose to prominence on the 1980s television series 21 Jump Street, becoming a teen idol.

He starred in it as a poor Native American man, who accepts a proposal from a wealthy man, played by Marlon Brando, to appear in a snuff film in exchange for money for his family. Thompson, and played his alter ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Thompson's pseudobiographical novel of the same name.

Depp's next venture with Burton was the period film Sleepy Hollow (1999), in which he played Ichabod Crane opposite Christina Ricci and Christopher Walken.

It was a critical and commercial success that established him as a leading Hollywood actor although Burton disapproved of the comment, Depp agrees with it. Depp had no film releases in the following two years, with the exception of a brief cameo in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), the sixth installment in the A Nightmare of Elm Street franchise. In the romantic comedy Benny and Joon, he played an eccentric and illiterate silent film fan who befriends a mentally ill woman and her brother; it became a sleeper hit.

In his introduction to Burton on Burton, a book of interviews with the director, Depp called Burton "... He then starred alongside Leonardo Di Caprio and Juliette Lewis in Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a drama about a dysfunctional family.

He has gained praise from reviewers for his portrayals including screenwriter-director Ed Wood in Ed Wood, undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Films featuring Depp have grossed over $3.2 billion at the United States box office and over $8 billion worldwide.

His most commercially successful films are the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which have grossed $3 billion, Alice in Wonderland, which grossed $1 billion, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which grossed $474 million, and The Tourist, which grossed $278 million.

Donnie Brasco was a commercial and critical success, and is considered to contain one of Depp's finest performances.

In 1997, Depp also debuted as a director and screenwriter with The Brave.

For his performance, Depp took inspiration from Angela Lansbury, Roddy Mc Dowall and Basil Rathbone.