Penn Sorry for 'Fast Times' Stereotype

09/05/2003 at 12:40 PM EDT

Sean Penn bounded into Venice for its film festival to promote his new film, "21 Grams," and did something generally associated with Europeans more than Americans -- he smoked like a chimney.

So intense was his puffing, PEOPLE reports, that his playfully mussed-up hair was in a perpetual smoke fog.

With his costars Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro present, it was Penn, 43, who got most of the laughs at the press gathering, including his response to a question about a slight controversy caused by the surfing documentary "Step Into Liquid."

That movie aims to amend the doltish perception of the surfing culture advanced by the zonked-out Jeff Spicoli -- the character famously played by Penn in his breakthrough movie, 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

The actor laughed and admitted guilt over the fact that many people see surfers as Spicoli-like, saying, "I accept full responsibility."

In "21 Grams," whose title refers to the amount of weight a person loses the moment he or she dies, Penn plays a mortally ill college math professor awaiting a heart transplant. (Watts plays a grieving mother and Del Toro, an ex-con turned born-again Christian.)

Asked about the many dark characters he's played onscreen, the "Dead Man Walking" and "I Am Sam" star said, "I don't avoid happiness. ... They wrote a tough script that has a lot to offer."

Penn is on a roll with "Grams" and the upcoming "Mystic River," directed by Clint Eastwood and set to open the New York Film Festival later this month.

But he turned coy when asked whether he would attend the Oscars should he be nominated next year. "I live in mortal fear of Joan Rivers," he confessed. "She is scary to me."

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