Few moviegoers would have guessed from his laconic and occasionally blissed-out performances in films like "River's Edge" (1986) and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989) that in less than a decade, Keanu Reeves would be one of Hollywood's most popular and bankable leading men. He had to first endure a long, awkward period, during which he struggled to find his footing in big-budget features like "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992) and independent fare like "Little Buddha" (1993); in the eyes of most critics and pundits, he was ill-equipped for both. But his turn as a determined and resourceful police officer in 1994's "Speed" proved him to be a capable action hero, which he underscored by playing Neo, the reluctant Messiah figure in the science fiction blockbuster "The Matrix" (1999) and its two sequels, as well as "Constantine" (2003). Perhaps sensing that his acting abilities remained in the crosshairs of many pundits, he strove to maintain a presence in quieter dramas and the occasional comedy, which received mixed results.
Born Keanu Charles Reeves in Beirut, Lebanon on Sept. 2, 1964, his early life was marked by turmoil and change. His parents, costume designer Patricia Taylor, and Samuel Nowlin Reeves - whose Hawaiian-Chinese-European heritage contributed to his son's exotic looks and unusual first name, which translated as "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian - divorced two years after he was born. In fact, Reeves would not enjoy a close relationship with his father, as the elder Reeves worked as an unskilled laborer and earned his GED while imprisoned in Hawaii for selling cocaine at the Hilo airport. Reeves' mother relocated her son and daughter Kim several times over the next few years; first to Australia and later to New York City and Toronto. She also married and divorced several times, which brought Reeves a half-sister from her mother's marriage to rock promoter Robert Miller in 1976.
Reeves struggled with academics due to dyslexia, which contributed to a rambunctious attitude that frequently earned him expulsion from various schools. Ice hockey captured his attention during his school years, and for a time, he considered making it his profession. But his interest soon wandered towards acting, and by his mid-teens, he was appearing in local stage productions. By 17, he had dropped out of school for the last time, and made his television debut as a regular at a youth center in the teen-oriented sitcom "Hangin' In" (CBC, 1981-87). Reeves bounced between odd jobs, television commercials and theater gigs - including Brad Fraser's "Wolfboy," a gay-themed drama with werewolf overtones - before finding regular work on Canadian TV and in features during the late 1980s. He covered all the angles of teen roles during this period, from youth in trouble in "One Step Away" (1985) to nice-guy boyfriends in "Dream to Believe" (1986). That same year, he had a small role as a hockey goalie opposite Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze in the sodden sports drama "Youngblood" (1986). The experience persuaded Reeves to pack up and move to Hollywood, which he did with just $3,000 in his pocket.
Once in Los Angeles, Reeves contacted his former stepfather, director Paul Aaron, who introduced him to agent Erwin Stoff. The latter took Reeves under his wing and helped to guide and mold his subsequent career, as well as co-produce many of his feature films. Stoff also persuaded Reeves to consider a professional name change, fearing that "Keanu" would read as too exotic to casting directors. For the TV-movie fantasy "Young Again" (1986), in which Reeves plays Robert Urich as a 17-year-old, he was billed as K.C. Reeves. The new moniker would disappear shortly thereafter.
Reeves' first positive notices in Hollywood came with the grim crime drama "River's Edge" (1986), in which he played the conflicted best friend of a young man (Daniel Roebuck) who has casually and brutally murdered his girlfriend. Though he was outshined by the film's showier performances of Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover, he did fine work in a scene opposite a hysterical and gun-toting Joshua Miller that assured him more work as decent but occasionally troubled young men. Most of his projects for the next few years were forgettable TV movies and unseen features, though he was quite moving as a young man struggling to come to terms with his friend's suicide in "Permanent Record" (1988). He was, however, woefully miscast as the Chevalier Dancey, youthful love interest to Uma Thurman and pawn in the games of John Malkovich and Glenn Close in the period romance-drama "Dangerous Liasons" (1988). Critics who had offered praise for the actor in "River's Edge" were now noting a wooden side to his performances. This label would plague him for decades to come.
Reeves bounced back with an unexpected hit in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," a goofy time-travel comedy about two good-natured but clueless teens (Reeves and Alex Winter) who stumble through misadventures throughout history. A low-budget feature shot two years prior to its release (and held up due to the bankruptcy of distributor the De Laurentiis Group), the picture struck a chord with younger audiences and fans of broad comedy, who frequently singled out Reeves' performance as one of the most authentic representations of empty-headed suburban teendom ever captured on film. Reeves became so inseparable from Ted in the minds of moviegoers that he essentially repeated the role for the next few years. He returned to the role for the inferior sequel, "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" (1991), which began production as "Bill and Ted Go to Hell" and lost much of its irreverent edge in post-production, and later, for a season of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures" (CBS/Fox Kids, 1990-93). He followed this with more dense young men in "Parenthood" (1989) and "I Love You to Death" (1990). Sensing that typecasting was setting in, he attempted to break free as a young radio dramatist in the comedy "Tune In Tomorrow" (1990), an inspired American adaptation of the Mario Vargas Llosa novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and as a maverick FBI agent in the guilty pleasure that was the ludicrous "Point Break," which co-starred his "Youngblood" castmate Patrick Swayze as a surfer-turned-bank robber. At the time of their releases, audiences stayed away from both projects, and critical vitriol regarding Reeves hit an all-time high with the latter project - though in later years, the picture achieved some degree of favor as high testosterone-fueled camp. And as far as scenery-chewing went, even Reeves took a backseat to his co-star and on-screen detective partner, Gary Busey, who took the role and ran with it - leaving even Reeves and Swayze in the dust when it came to turning in an unintentionally hilarious performance.