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They are a couple of serious young actors. It was a sensitive movie, directed by the renowned Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom. So naturally the cast and crew of last year's What's Eating Gilbert Grape could speak of nothing but whether Leonardo DiCaprio would accept Johnny Depp's $500 dare and sniff a rancid pickled egg. "Finally," recalls Darlene Gates, the 520-lb. actress who played Depp and DiCaprio's mother in that tale of a deeply dysfunctional smalltown family, "we are sitting around a dinner table, and Leo unscrews the lid. I have got my eyes squeezed shut, holding my nose. Then I hear this 'aaaggghhh!' I look up, and Leo is gagging and running out the back door."

And so goes, by all accounts, a typical day in the life of Johnny Depp—no doubt the only actor who ever asked director Hallstrom how to say, "I have a rat down my throat" in Swedish. Depp has said that he's an "equal opportunity sniffer," who enjoys the "150 varieties of smell on every movie set," not even minding when "the grip stinks like a gut wagon."

The star of TV's 21 Jump Street and the movies Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon has, reportedly, wiled away at least one L.A. evening hanging by his fingertips from a fifth-story parking garage at the Beverly Center alongside close friend Nicolas Cage. And then there is Depp's Bart Simpson-esque penchant for checking into hotels under ribald pseudonyms. Why would a 31-year-old man tell a front-desk clerk that he is "Mr. Donkey Penis"? Because, you see, it makes for such interesting wake-up calls.

But maybe it's time Depp got a serious wake-up call. Friends such as Gates insist that "Johnny is the most gentle, sweetest soul who ever walked the earth," and John Waters, who directed Depp in 1990's Cry-Baby, says he "is probably the best young actor working in America today." Yet these days the chain-smoking, tattoo-festooned, Viper Room-owning movie star seems to be dancing on the edge of danger. At 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, a green knit hat pulled down over his forehead, Depp was arrested on charges of criminal mischief after trashing his $l,200-a-night room at New York City's tony Mark Hotel. Police suspect he was drunk and had been fighting with his girlfriend, the superwaif supermodel Kate Moss, 20. After several hours in a holding cell, he was released and told that the charges would be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for six months and agreed to reimburse the Mark $9,767.12 in damages and guest fees.

That was just the most highly publicized of Depp's recent problems. One week earlier, visiting Moss in her native London, he reportedly caused a ruckus in a pub when 27-year-old photographer Jonathan Walpole mistakenly picked up Depp's glass from the bar. "He pulled both my ears very hard," Walpole told London's Evening Standard, adding that "some ape" who was with Depp "leaped on my back, put his arm round my neck and tried to force my head to the floor."

To many of Depp's friends these incidents are, as one put it, "just Johnny being Johnny," the sort of outbursts they have come to expect on occasion from an actor who can be as otherworldly as the character he played in Scissorhands. "I think Johnny obviously has a temper, but this is a very minor incident," John Waters says of the Mark melee. "The room service must have been bad." However, Marlon Brando, who befriended Depp when the two shot the upcoming movie Don Juan DeMarco and The Centerfold earlier this year, was worried enough to place a phone call to Depp's lawyer David Breitbart when he heard about the arrest. "He said he was very concerned about Johnny's well-being," says Breitbart, "and if there was anything he could do to help, he would like to."

Surely it's time to take stock when you're eligible for counseling from Marlon Brando. Yet Timothy Leary, the '60s LSD guru who is the godfather of Depp's onetime fiancée Winona Ryder, says that Depp is both "wild and charitable." Most friends prefer to focus on the charitable side, offering tales of his kindness and generosity. Driving near the Austin, Texas, set of Grape during a downpour, Depp came across a homeless woman; he offered her a lift and gave her every cent he had on him. In a visit arranged by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he brought a terminally ill, 11-year-old girl to the set of Ed Wood and hovered over her the entire day. He is said to wander, at 4 or 5 in the morning, outside the Viper Room, the Sunset Strip club where 23-year-old River Phoenix died of an overdose last Halloween, and hand out 50-and 100-dollar bills to the destitute huddled on the sidewalk.

But there is a darker side to Depp as well. Before he left the Mark Hotel in handcuffs, he had been arrested on three previous occasions: for getting into a tiff-with an L.A. police officer over a jaywalking ticket, for speeding in Arizona and for assaulting a hotel security guard in Vancouver, B.C. He has engaged since childhood in thrill-seeking escapades that seem downright self-destructive. In a caper that even he, looking back, described as "a really ridiculous thing," Depp blew on fire with a mouthful of gasoline. His face ignited, and it was only the quick moves of a friend that saved him from becoming a burn casualty. His arms bear rows of scars from self-inflicted knife wounds, each one commemorating what Depp considers an important life event. "I have," he once explained, "a funny relationship with my body.... Ah, it sounds so stupid, but for me there shouldn't be any halfway."

He has certainly been partying full tilt of late. The night after his release from jail, Depp, flanked by leather-clad, heavily tattooed bikers, was at Babyland, a Lower East Side bar filled with cribs and nursery paraphernalia. Jerry Price, a Manhattan pipe fitter, claims that Depp bumped into him at the club's bar, after which Price says he was pummeled by the biker bodyguards and hit with a rocking horse. Attorney Breitbart denies Depp's involvement, and Babyland regulars say it was Price who provoked the scuffle. Whatever the truth, the skirmish didn't dampen Depp's spirit. The next night he and the bikers hit the downtown nightclubs again, landing at the Limelight for the 3:30 a.m. pageant featuring drag queens, transvestites and transsexuals. And, at Dan Lynch, yet another hip watering hole, Depp recently directed and starred in a video for Shane MacGowan and the Popes. Their song? "That Woman's Got Me Drinking."

The woman who would seem to have Depp drinking these days is, of course, the ultrathin Kate Moss, who has appeared topless alongside Marky Mark in Calvin Klein ads. She and Depp met last February at the Manhattan bistro Cafe Tabac, and Moss has said, "I knew from the first moment we talked that we were going to be together." And they were: at the L.A. club Smash Palace just weeks after they met, when Depp previewed Banter, an eight-minute antidrug movie he made; vacationing on St. Bart's a few weeks later; at Manhattan's Fez club in April for a Johnny Cash concert. In July, after filming wrapped on Don Juan, Depp flew to Paris to be with Moss, who was strolling the catwalk at the couture shows. She gave him a ring-shaped platinum rattle filled with black pearls; he had already given her a strand of diamonds. Depp is even having his Winona Forever tattoo removed from his right bicep, a painful procedure that he's taking one letter at a time. At the moment it reads Wino Forever.

Moss and Depp, a friend says, "can't keep their hands, lips, mouths, legs off of each other." Nor are they always successful in keeping their brawls private. In June they shouted at each other in the dining room of Manhattan's Royalton Hotel. Says a longtime friend of Depp's: "Instead of hitting women, he just gets angry and lets off steam in other ways."

Depp seems to be the kind of passionate fellow who finds scant middle ground between picking someone up and proposing. He married Lori Allison, a makeup artist from Florida, when he was 20 and she was 25; they divorced two years later. He has since been engaged at least three times—to actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder—and Tally Chanel, a B-movie actress, also says she got a shot at being Depp's fiancée. They met when she was working as a hostess at the Hollywood premiere of Die Hard 2 in July 1990. "I helped him out of his limo," the 27-year-old recalls. "Our eyes locked, and he asked me to marry him." They dated for a year, spending quiet nights at Depp's Hollywood Hills home, ordering in food from a Chinese restaurant.

Depp has also said that he "sort of had a crush," on Patty Hearst, when the two made Cry-Baby. Then there is Faye Dunaway, with whom Depp shot the yet-to-be-released Arizona Dream. "She's God in a way," he says. When he learned, somehow, that Dunaway harbored an unfulfilled desire to bounce on a trampoline, he and a friend drove 80 miles to a sporting-goods store in Tucson to buy one, then brought it back to the tiny town of Douglas, where they were filming. "We set the trampoline up in the middle of the desert," he recalls, "and we got Faye on it, and in about half a second she turned from this beautiful woman into this sweet, giddy 12-year-old girl on a trampoline. It was one of the most incredible moments I'd ever seen in my life." Even on the night of his recent arrest, Depp seemed most concerned not with the prospect of doing jail time but with the possibility that he had fallen out of favor with a woman, Officer Eileen Perez. "I don't think she likes me," Perez heard Depp say to her partner. Then he brightened and added, "But I bet if she saw me in a mall, she'd ask for my autograph."

Depp's devotion to women starts with his mother, whose name, Betty Sue, is tattooed on his left bicep. Depp recently bought her a $294,000, three-bedroom home north of L.A., where the former waitress lives with her second husband, Robert Palmer. "He's just the most precious boy," says Mrs. Palmer.

That boy has certainly come aways from Owensboro, Ky., where, the youngest of four siblings, he was born to Betty Sue and his father, John, now a city engineer living in Hallandale, Fla. When Depp was 7, his family moved to Miramar, Fla., and lived in a motel for nearly a year, until his father found a job. Johnny, meanwhile, started smoking at 12, lost his virginity around age 13 and, he has said, "did every kind of drug there was by 14." At 16, a year after his parents divorced, he dropped out of high school and joined a garage band, The Kids. "Puberty was very vague," he has said. "I literally locked myself in a room and played guitar."

Though The Kids became successful enough to open for the Talking Heads and the B-52s, Depp lived for months in a friend's '67 Chevy Impala, supporting himself, he has said, by selling pens for a telemarketing firm. In 1983, he and the Kids moved to L.A., and a year later, after Nicolas Cage introduced Depp to his agent, the would-be musician got his first movie role, in Nightmare on Elm Street, where, in a bizarre dream sequence, he was swallowed by a bed. By 1985, the Kids had broken up and so had Depp's marriage to Allison. His big break came in 1987: Cast as a high school narc in the FOX series 21 Jump Street, Depp was soon receiving 10,000 fan letters a month and became a regular on the cover of Tiger Beat.

Still, Depp's own heart throbbed only for Winona Ryder, whom he first spotted in June 1989 at the premiere of her movie Great Balls of Fire. "There's been nothing in my 27 years that's comparable to the feeling I have with Winona," Depp said. Five months after their first date, Depp gave Ryder an engagement ring; three years later they broke up. The end of their romance left Depp disconsolate. "He was so desperately in love with Winona," says a friend, "that when they broke up, he wouldn't admit it was over for the longest time."

Lately he has focused those same intense affections on Moss—even saying, according to one friend, "that he wanted to have a baby with Kate." One wonders if the two dream of a hotel room with a white picket fence. Moss herself doesn't have a permanent residence, and since Depp's Hollywood home was destroyed in the January earthquake, he has lived a high-class vagabond life, staying mostly in hotels. L.A.'s Chateau Marmont and Hollywood Roosevelt are two of his current favorites.

Depp's real home, in a way, is the Viper Room. When he bought the club in August 1993, along with two partners, he envisioned a "cool little underground place," he has said, where he and friends could listen to Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker over a first-rate sound system. Instead the club became the hippest stop on the Sunset Strip, with block-long lines of young Hollywood types and tourists who want to see the place where River Phoenix, convulsing on the sidewalk, spent the last moments of his life.

Are Depp's problems anywhere near as serious? His friends don't think so. "I am not worried at all," says John Waters. "Johnny is not killing himself. I think he is aware of that pitfall. He has certainly seen it." What's even more comforting to Darlene Cates is that she has seen Depp marvel at the wonder of new life, encountering her sleeping 3-month-old grandson during the Gilbert Grape shoot. "Johnny got down on his knees next to the bed," she recalls, "and looking over at my grandson, his eyes just softened. He said, 'Awesome, just totally awesome.' Most men don't realize what a miracle a baby is, but Johnny did."

SHELLEY LEVITT
KRISTINA JOHNSON, VlCKI SHEFF-CAHAN and DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles, with bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Kristina Johnson,
  • Vlcki Sheff-Cahan,
  • Danelle Morton.