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Johnny Depp was having his very own take-your-daughter-to-work day. For months he had been commuting from the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory near London to see his family—Lily-Rose, 5, Jack, 2, and their mom, his longtime companion, Vanessa Paradis, 31—at their retreat on the French Riviera. Every weekend was the same, says producer Richard Zanuck: On Friday after work Depp took a two-hour flight to Nice followed by a two-hour drive to the family house in a tiny French village, then headed back to London again every Sunday night. The trip never wore him out. "Monday morning he'd be all smiles and say, 'I just had the greatest time with my family,'" says Zanuck. "It seemed to refresh him." But he brought the family to England for the last month of shooting. And nothing could quite compare to the charge he got bringing Lily-Rose to the set on Nov. 9. As Zanuck explains, "He wanted her to see him playing with the Oompa Loompas."

Talk about perks. Less than a year after Hollywood's sweetly scruffy outsider was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the $654 million-grossing Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp, 41, is once again riding high on a wave of good fortune. There's Oscar buzz about his role as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. And there's Depp's deep contentment with family life—a life that now includes a recently purchased private island in the Caribbean where he can watch Paradis, an actress and model, play with their two children. "One of the most beautiful things in the world," Depp told Oprah Winfrey on Nov. 2, "is seeing a mommy with her kids. There's nothing more beautiful, nothing more sublime." Though the ability to name your movie after years of being known as the coolest guy nobody goes to see ("Box office poison," Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein said of his colleagues' take on Depp before Pirates) is pretty darn good. Depp has signed on to make two Pirates sequels—but also The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the true story of a French editor who suffered a paralytic stroke and dictated a memoir by blinking his eye.

These days, he picks films based primarily on their appeal to his "kiddies." As he told Le Parisien writer Alain Grasset, a longtime friend of Paradis's, he wants his children to "be proud," says Grasset, "and say, 'Dad did good work for a while.'" Work like his heartwarming—and wrenching—turn in Neverland as the eccentric Barrie, who befriends the young sons of a widow (Kate Winslet) and finds inspiration for Peter Pan. "Johnny is at the pinnacle of his career," says Weinstein, who was an executive producer on Neverland and has worked with Depp on Dead Man, Chocolat and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. "He is the most versatile actor in the industry. He is a leading man, a character actor, and he has the courage of his convictions."

That extends to his curious sense of style. PEOPLE'S Sexiest Man Alive, 2003,has never feared disgruntled looks from those who do not get his scruffy fashion sense—from his trademark old hats to his tattoos to a pair of boots "he's had since I've met him," says his longtime friend Jim Jarmusch, his director on 1995's Dead Man. "Johnny's a kind of strange tribal guy. He has little superstitions, and things that are comforting to him become his friends. Those boots are his good friends."

What Depp has feared, on the other hand, is the fame that for many years left him—as he recently put it—"freaked out." In the opinion of Lasse Hallström, his friend and director on the 1993 drama What's Eating Gilbert Grape, his choice of eccentric roles in offbeat films has been a form of "hiding."

As, no doubt, were the antics that made headlines in the '80s and '90s—partying all night at his LA. club Viper Room and dating a string of beauties (Sherilyn Fenn, Winona Ryder, Kate Moss). But for the kid from Owensboro, Ky., some trademark goofing off is just a product of his inner child. Or adolescent. Among his buddies, says his Pirates costar Orlando Bloom, Depp is well-known for a sophomoric sense of humor evident as early as Gilbert Grape, when "Johnny was hell-bent on trying to give [19-year-old costar Leonardo DiCaprio] disgusting things to smell so he would throw up," recalls Hallstrom with a laugh.

A decade later, Depp still had a taste for mischief on the London set of Neverland. During one formal dinner scene calling for the kids to giggle nervously, he set the mood with a whoopee cushion. "Johnny was wonderful with the children," says Weinstein, "playing pranks, being funny with them and relaxing them. And, yes, he is a big believer in the fart machine."

Still, it was less his inner child than his inner adult that helped him bring "magic" and a "spirit of family" to the set, says Weinstein. As Depp tells it, both those feelings came to life the moment he saw Paradis at Hotel Costes in Paris in 1998. "[She] walked towards me, directly at me, and just said 'Hi.' And then I just knew, you know, it's over with," he told Oprah. Meeting her, he said, "changed [my life] completely." Beginning with the fact that he now lives with his family in a medieval-style place in L.A. and frequently travels to his French country villa as well as a small house on the secluded Caribbean island he bought for about $3 million this summer—with a minimum of 30 suitcases. "We travel with so much stuff," Paradis, a regular face in Chanel ads, told French Elle magazine in March, "so [the children] can have the same visual and sensory references no matter where they are: Jack's folding bed... toys and even the cloth which covers the baby's changing table."

And yet for all the chaos that accompanies two working parents moving between homes and sets—Depp spent most of 2004 shooting Chocolate Factory and The Libertine with John Malkovich in the U.K.—their life is surprisingly simple. When he is on location, his family comes to him or he visits them on weekends. In the south of France, the foursome generally go marketing on Thursday mornings and can be seen on many Sunday mornings wandering around an open-air flea market. "It's a very normal family life," says one local. Outings to Paris are less likely to include dinner at the trendy restaurant Depp co-owns, Man Ray, than a stopover at a pizza restaurant near the Pont d'Alma, where he and Paradis come in, says owner Paul Balilli, "with their kids, no assistants, no pretense. They take beautiful care of their children, [who] are well-behaved."

In L.A., life is the typical mix of trips to the park, walking the two dogs (mixed breeds), visiting the pediatrician, playing with Barbies and Hot Wheels and having weekly viewings of Finding Nemo. Depp told Winfrey that Lily-Rose, "from the first second, was just a little princess, very delicate, very girly." He described Jack as a boy who "almost immediately just would vault himself into walls and, you know, runs around now with these plastic swords swatting at everyone." Just the boy for Captain Jack Sparrow, who is pleased, if a bit surprised, at his own domestic leanings. As he told Vanity Fair, "It's amazing when you get to a certain age and you talk about sleep in the same way you spoke about inebriates 20 or 25 years before. 'Man, I got eight hours of sleep last night—it was fan-tas-tic....'"

According to Jim Jarmusch, the "complex" and at times "moody" Depp "seems happier than he's been. His kids and Vanessa really give him some grounding...something outside himself that gives him this delighted look in his eye." But certain qualities are unchanged—the feeling of being an outsider in Hollywood, for starters. He remains "shocked," he said, over his Oscar nomination for Pirates. He was equally surprised to find himself in Manhattan on Oct. 30 getting ready to receive the Actors' Fund Lee Strasberg Artistic Achievement Award at the Waldorf-Astoria. "[I] took a shower. Shaved. Brushed my teeth," he said. "But you can never be prepared. You've got to walk around in confusion, not understanding why someone wants to give you something as prestigious as this." Onstage later, wearing a tuxedo and chewing a wad of gum, he said he was "grateful" and, with typical boyish charm, expressed his hope that "I won't pass out, vomit or soil myself."

He didn't. But here's another hope: Should Neverland lead to a win at the Oscars in February, Lily-Rose and Jack, whose snapshots Depp always carries with him in a little notebook, will help him think up a better speech. Weinstein has full faith in his "charming and self-deprecating" leading man. "Johnny's calmed down a tremendous amount. He is quieter, mellower, and [his family] is something that he really loves," he says. "It has given him tremendous serenity and strength."

By Karen S. Schneider. Monica Rizzo, Mike Fleeman and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Joanne Fowler and Caroline Howard in Manhattan, Caris Davis and Courtney Rubin in London and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo,
  • Mike Fleeman,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Caroline Howard,
  • Caris Davis,
  • Courtney Rubin,
  • Peter Mikelbank.