As a baby, Firth lives in Nigeria with his parents, David and Shirley Firth, who both teach in the African country. At age 3, Firth returns to his birthplace of Hampshire, England, with his family (including two younger siblings), where the acting bug bites. "I did a pantomime when I was 5, and everyone loved it," says Firth, who joins a drama workshop at 10 and decides to pursue acting professionally by 14.
While studying at London's prestigious Drama Centre, Firth replaces Rupert Everett in the Queen's Theatre award-winning production of Another Country, which leads to his film debut in the 1984 movie adaptation. He follows up his screen introduction with supporting turns in 1987's A Month in the Country and 1988's Tumbledown.
In the period drama Valmont, Firth falls for costar Meg Tilly. "I was probably in love with Meg from the moment I met her, but it took her a while to be convinced," Firth says of their romance. Soon after, the struggling actor moves to Tilly's native Canada, where they live in a log cabin for four years with their son William, whom they welcomed in 1990. After five years together, they split, with Firth moving back to London to restart his career.
Firth takes on the haughty role of Mr. Darcy in BBC's TV miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, costarring Jennifer Ehle (whom he dates for about a year) as romantic heroine Elizabeth Bennet. His smoldering performance (and iconic wet shirt scene) draws a record 10 million viewers a week in Britain, putting his name on the map.
After meeting on the South American set of Nostromo, Firth, 36, and the film's production assistant Livia Giuggioli, 27, marry in a hilltop ceremony in Tuscany, Italy. "She keeps me grounded," Firth tells PEOPLE of Livia, with whom he has two sons, Luca in 2001, and Matteo in 2003. "My family, my wife and children and a handful of very close friends are what have kept me going," the actor later tells The Sunday Times.
Hollywood beckons Firth, who turns out memorable performances in award-winning films, including 1996's The English Patient and 1998's Shakespeare in Love, where he plays the dastardly aristocrat who comes between William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and his true love (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Firth plays Reneé Zellweger's Mark Darcy in the screen adaptation of the popular novel Bridget Jones's Diary. "The character is based on Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy, so it is very hard to visualize anyone else," the film director tells PEOPLE. "Besides, he is also deeply fanciable and easy on the eyes." He returns for more modern-day romance in 2004's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
"He's so sexy, Colin Firth, so sexy [and] will always be," Amanda Seyfried gushes of her costar, who sings and dances alongside Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Mamma Mia!. "With disco dancing, I'm hopeless," he says of lack of rhythm. "But it didn't matter that much. They didn't cast Swayze, Travolta and Kevin Bacon."
Designer-turned-director Tom Ford casts Colin Firth as George, a closeted professor mourning the death of his longtime lover in A Single Man, opposite Julianne Moore. "This is a very personal story about a man's relationship with the world," Firth says of his career-solidifying role, which earns him his first Oscar nomination and a best actor BAFTA. "He has a decision that he's made, to die, and life keeps trying to call him back."
Firth sinks his teeth into another critically-acclaimed part as King George VI, a monarch trying to recover from a debilitating speech impediment in The King's Speech, which earns an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Firth (who also wins a Golden Globe and a SAG award), and Best Supporting Actor and Actress for costars Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Ron Galella/WireImage; Everett; Everett; Everett; Ron Galella/WireImage; Everett; Eduard Grau/The Weinstein Company; Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company