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Young Nicolas Cage: See How Hollywood’s Maverick Got His Start

Cage’s ability to play a kaleidoscope of characters has made him a fan favorite

While a slew of stars made a career off their famous last names, Nicolas Cage was not one of them. In fact, he intentionally changed his recognizable last name from Coppola to Cage so he could make it on his own merit. And he certainly has. He’s become one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and versatile actors. Renowned for his intense performances and eclectic choices, Cage has carved out a unique niche in the film industry over his four-decade-long career.

Nicolas Cage was born Nicolas Kim Coppola on January 7, 1964, in Long Beach, California. The Face/Off star is the nephew of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola (his father’s brother) and actress Talia Shire, which placed him in a lineage rich with cinematic legacy. His father, August Coppola, was a literature professor, while his mother, Joy Vogelsang, was a dancer and choreographer. He was the couple’s third child. 

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Nicolas Cage (1990)Getty

Cage seemed destined for stardom and determined to master his craft from an early age. He attended Beverly Hills High School, known for its strong arts program, and later studied theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. His film debut came with a minor role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, but his performance in Raising Arizona several years later put him on the map as a significant talent in Hollywood. 

A nearly 40-year career would follow, including a whopping 116 movies and six in 2023 alone. But the 59 year old may soon be hanging up his acting hat, telling Vanity Fair in December that he’s “said what he had to say with cinema.” The actor told the magazine he’s only got “three or four movies left” and plans to spend more time with his family in his golden years.

As we embark on the thought of a future without Nic Cage and his distinguished voice and acting style, we look back on what it was like through the years as a young Nicolas Cage climbed the Hollywood ranks on his own bootstraps. 

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The Early Years 

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Nicolas Cage (1984)Getty

Growing up in Beverly Hills in a family deeply entrenched in the arts and with a strong legacy in the film industry, Nicolas Cage’s early years laid the foundation for what would become a prolific and varied acting career. His father’s academic and artistic inclinations influenced Cage’s development and early aspirations. His mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized for much of his childhood. The Coppola family’s gatherings often revolved around literature, cinema, and art discussions, further nurturing Cage’s interest in the performing arts during these formative years. 

His parents sent him to Beverly Hills High School, which is known for its strong emphasis on the arts and history of producing notable entertainment industry figures. Here, he began to seriously consider acting as a career. At a summer class at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco when he was just 15, he truly fell in love with his chosen craft

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Nicolas Cage at the ‘Moonstruck’ premiere (1987)Getty

He reportedly developed a fascination with method acting and was inspired by the performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando. The Dracula star has said he had the opportunity to meet his icon Brando after a screening and told him he inspired him to be an actor. 

After dropping out of high school, Cage briefly attended UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, where he honed his craft and gained a deeper understanding of the technical and artistic aspects of method acting. 

A Young Nicolas Cage in the 1980s & 1990s

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Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn in ‘Racing with the Moon’ (1984)Getty

After a bunch of bit parts, Cage got his big break in the cult-fave flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. Although his role was small, it marked the beginning of his journey in the film industry.

Next came a role in Rumble Fish, directed by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola. After this movie, he changed his name to Cage—reportedly as an homage to the Marvel comic superhero Luke Cage and to set himself apart from his famous uncle. This film, along with his leading performance that same year in Valley Girl, followed by Birdy, The Cotton Club, Racing With the Moon, and Peggy Sue Got Married, established Cage as a serious actor capable of delivering compelling performances. 

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A few years later, in 1987, Cage’s role as a small-time criminal who kidnaps a set of quintuplets in the Coen Brothers’ comedy Raising Arizona garnered significant attention, showcasing his ability to blend humor with depth. This performance began a series of critically acclaimed roles that defined his career—including the blockbuster Moonstruck with Cher.

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Cher and Nicolas Cage in ‘Moonstruck’Getty

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Cage kicked off the 1990s with a few flops but quickly recovered midway through with Leaving Las Vegas. His performance as an alcoholic self-destructive writer earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. While some actors simply lose weight for a role, Cage reportedly had two teeth pulled for his role in Birdy, slashed his arm for Racing With the Moon, and swallowed a live cockroach for Vampire’s Kiss.

In the early 90s, Cage dated model Kristina Fulton, and the couple had a child, Weston. A few years later, he married actress Patricia Arquette, reportedly proposing to her the day they met. The late 90s and his 30s proved fruitful for Cage, who became a veritable action star with roles in Face/Off, with John Travolta, The Rock, and ConAir, sending him into the early aughts with plenty of ammo for another successful decade. 

Career in the 2000s 

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Nicolas Cage in ‘National Treasure’ (2004)

The early 2000s showcased Cage’s versatility, with roles in Gone in 60 Seconds, Windtalkers, about a group of Navajo code talkers during WW II, and National Treasure and its sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets

In 2001, he divorced Arquette and quickly wed Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie Presley. They split after just 108 days. In 2002, he earned his second Oscar nod for his role as a set of twin brothers in Adaptation. He then went on to portray a firefighter on 9/11 in the very moving Oliver Stone film World Trade Center

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Nicolas Cage and wife, Riko Shibata (2022)Getty

Two years later, he married Alice Kim, and the couple had a son, Kal-El, before splitting in 2016. In 2019, he married makeup artist Erika Koike annulling the marriage just days later, followed by Riko Shibata in 2021. They live in Las Vegas with their daughter, August. 

Despite his tumultuous and chaotic personal life, Nicolas Cage maintained a career busier than most big Hollywood stars. He sometimes appeared in five movies a year. By changing his name and taking on various challenging roles, Cage set the stage for a career marked by versatility and a fearless approach to acting. These choices shaped his early career and established the foundation for his legacy in the film industry.

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