Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, October 20, 2017

Sean Penn sat in front of me in history class, junior year at Santa Monica High School — the school rising on a hill with a quadrangle you see in Rebel Without a Cause.

He kept turning around to talk, the blue-eyed boy with all the questions. The younger, brown-eyed girl had all the answers — at least in history class.

At 16, the existentialist devilish streak was already a mile wide. I got to know him well, coming of age.

Still, it was passing strange to see an old friend — my bittersweet first movie date — huddled in the jungle with a Mexican drug lord and ruthless killer: Joaquin Guzman Loera. “El Chapo” for short.

Sean roiled the rules and waters of the worlds I live in — politics and journalism — by his derring-do in getting a huge scoop by highly unorthodox means. His rambling style raised alarms and establishment eyebrows, but Rolling Stone magazine was the perfect place for his rough-cut writing voice.

The White House expressed disapproval in the words of chief of staff Denis McDonough: officially “appalled.”

So what? The shocking interview is best seen a radical extension of Penn’s powerful empathy for outsiders, outlaws and the dispossessed. Good for him for visiting Baghdad after George W. Bush’s dogs of war shed blood on false grounds, and for aiding the Haitians, hit by a devastating earthquake.

Penn also conducted interviews with President Raul Castro in Cuba and several conversations with his late friend, Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela, when few others could or would.

An immensely gifted Academy Award-winning actor, Penn is always smoldering, crossing boundaries in his work and life. Often he writes his own script.

We got a good fix on each other in class and spent many hours together, on the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, in tennis team company, or at parties at my house. Ping-Pong and piano songs were part of the clean fun. Sean once showed up with two friends, Frank and Joe, in a convertible Rolls-Royce. (My father has not forgot the tracks he once left on our lawn.) It was never boring when Sean was around.

Looking back, we had good times (not fast times) at Santa Monica High, surprisingly innocent. Sean liked to make a splash — literally, as when he jumped in the pool on the way up to accept a “most improved player” award at a boys’ tennis team party. He was making up time, since surfing was his sport before he seriously picked up a racket. I remember he once watched one of my singles matches, start to finish, sitting behind a fence with sunglasses. Another time, he carried a “Peanuts” lunch pail around campus.

Back to the first day of class, when I met him. Sean dared to speak a line that produced a hung jury silence. He declared he liked “history, track and blacks” as we went round the room. The teacher, Paul Kerry, an African-American track champion, smiled broadly to cut the tension.

I noticed Sean didn’t speak the usual Malibu dialect or write poems about waves. He played a stoned surfer dude in his first movie role — that history class cut-up, Jeff Spicoli — but that was not the lad I knew.

The way he called up to invite me out departed from the norm: “What time shall I pick you up?”

“Oh, don’t you know? We’re going to the movies tonight.”

We went, but Sean was never my boyfriend. The good girl and the bad boy were well-matched as friends. He became a budding actor, going to “cattle call” auditions, and I’d gone east for college. We kept in touch. I got a letter saying he had not been in one place for more than five minutes in the last 24 hours. I wrote a one-act play about us: “Table for Two.” His ears got red as he read it, but we — or David and Rachel — were a hit. My diaries tell the tale.

After he became famous, he remained a breeze on the phone: “What are you doing right now?” He invited me over to meet his children and see some cuts of an upcoming movie. Just like the old days, he asked me questions — this time about politics.

I could have dreamt this. Stardusted Sean parted waters, crossing a restaurant by the beach. There I was dining with my beau, the author Michael Lewis. Sean walked over to give me a warm hug. That was sweet, and it made Michael jealous, way out of character.

Depend upon it: Sean’s true talent for making scenes in the moment goes on. And he was the first boy I loved, as the song goes, for that.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2016 CREATORS.COM

Actor and activist Sean Penn, delivers a speech during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe