Spacey was born in South Orange, New Jersey, to Thomas Geoffrey Fowler, a technical writer, and Kathleen Spacey, a personal secretary; he has two older siblings, a sister and a brother, Randy. His father, who has been alleged to have been a member of the American Nazi Party, was often unemployed, causing the family to move frequently, eventually settling in Southern California in 1963. Spacey attended Northridge Military Academy, but was asked to leave, and subsequently attended Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, California, which was renowned for its drama department. In the twelfth grade, he starred in the school's senior production of The Sound of Music, playing the part of Captain Georg von Trapp, opposite Mare Winningham's Maria. While in high school, he took his mother's maiden name, "Spacey" (originally a Welsh name, belonging to his great-grandfather, spelled "Spacy"), as his acting surname.
Spacey attended the Julliard School in New York City, where he studied drama, between 1979 and 1981.
Spacey's first professional stage appearance was as a messenger in a New York Shakespeare Festival performance of Henry VI, part 1 in 1981. The following year he made his first Broadway appearance in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.
He made his first major television appearance in the second season premiere of Crime Story as a Kennedy-esque American Senator.
Although his interest soon turned to film, Spacey remained actively involved in the live theater community. In 1991, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of "Uncle Louie" in Neil Simon's Broadway hit Lost in Yonkers.
An early role as the criminally insane arms dealer Mel Profitt in the TV series Wiseguy earned him an avid fan following. The actor quickly developed a reputation as a character actor and co-star, while taking on roles in forgettable fare like See No Evil, Hear No Evil before upgrading to better characters like one-half of the bickering Connecticut couple in The Ref and the sadistic but apparently innocuous office manager of the all-star ensemble film Glengarry Glen Ross. He delivered a tour de force performance in 1994's dark Hollywood satire Swimming with Sharks, as the ultimate boss from showbiz hell. Spacey is best known for playing dark, quirky characters such as the enigmatic criminal Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, an egomaniacal district attorney in A Time to Kill, and a serial killer who murders people he thinks guilty of the seven deadly sins in Se7en. He founded Trigger Street Productions Inc., in 1997 with the purpose of producing and developing entertainment across various media.
He won the Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects. He then won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a troubled suburban father who falls in lust with a teenage cheerleader in American Beauty. In the last few years, however, he has taken on lighter, more sympathetic roles, such as a physically and emotionally scarred grade school teacher in Pay It Forward, a patient in a mental institution who may or may not be an alien in K-Pax, and singer, Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea. It is notable that these films have been considerably less critically and financially successful than Spacey's darker films.
Spacey announced in February 2003 that he was moving to London, England, to become the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of the city's oldest theatres. Spacey will direct the new Old Vic Theatre Company, which stages shows eight months out of the year, starting in 2004. Spacey has agreed to star in two shows a season, in addition to directorial duties. In the 2004/05 season, Spacey directed a performance of the play Cloaca by Maria Goos, and performed in productions of National Anthems by Dennis McIntyre and The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry.
Spacey provided his own vocals on the Beyond the Sea soundtrack, and they have won him wide acclaim. Beyond The Sea was a lifelong dream project for the actor who took on co-writing, directing, and starring duties in this quasi-biography cum musical about Darin's life, career, and relationship with late actress Sandra Dee.
During the 2005/06 season, he is performing in the title role of Richard II (directed by Trevor Nunn). He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by London South Bank University in November 2005. Spacey has recently completed filming the role of villain Lex Luthor in the Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns.
A skilled mimic, he is known for impressions, including Johnny Carson, Jack Lemmon, Christopher Walken, Katharine Hepburn, William Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, and Dr Evil.
In the run-up to the 1999 Academy Awards, Spacey gave an interview to Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes on CBS in which he categorically denied he was gay. Soon after winning the Oscar for American Beauty, the tabloid The Star printed a collection of photos of Spacey with a young model/waiter, showing the duo meeting at a mall, walking off, then driving to a Los Angeles park, where they hugged and fondled. Spacey did not dispute the authenticity of the photos or press charges, and The Star claimed it retained, but didn't publish, the most graphic photos (see , ). Though asked many times about his sexuality - if he is gay or at least bisexual - he often answers with the same response: "My sexuality should not matter".
Spacey held a tribute toast to his late friend, director Ted Demme at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards, with a picture of Demme attached to his suit in remembrance.
Spacey made international headlines in August, 2004, while living in London. He reported to local police that he had been mugged in a park at approximately 4 a.m. by a young man. Several hours later, he recanted and apologized to the police. He now explained that his bruises were the result of tripping over his dog while walking it in the park. The police accepted Spacey's new version of events and did not press charges (see ).
In January 2006 The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid newspaper, reported that a high school program dedicated to fighting homophobia listed Spacey among a list of famous gay people. The program's leader, Paul Patrick, apologized and called the listing a "mistake" and announced that Spacey's name would be edited out.