Penelope Spheeris is a film director, producer, and screenwriter. She has directed both documentary film and scripted films. Her best-known works include the trilogy titled The Decline of Western Civilization, each covering an aspect of Los Angeles underground culture, and Wayne’s World, her highest-grossing film.
Spheeris was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a Greek immigrant father who owned the Magic Empire Shows carnival and was a side-show strong man. Her mother was of Irish heritage and was raised in Kansas and later worked as a ticket taker for the carnival.
Her father was forty-years-old and her mother was nineteen when they began a relationship. Spheeris has three full siblings, plus a number of older half-siblings from her father’s first marriage. She is a sister of singer Jimmie Spheeris and a first cousin of musician Chris Spheeris, and the Greek-French director Costa Gavras, which she says has made her consider that there is a genetic component to her vocation.
Spheeris spent her first seven years traveling around the American South and American Midwest with her father’s carnival. Her father was shot and killed in Troy, Alabama after intervening in a racial dispute. In a 2015 interview, Spheeris stated that her father had come to the aid of an African American man who had been struck on the back of the head with a cane by a white man over a dispute about cutting in front of him in line. The white man soon after returned and shot Spheeris’ father dead.
She states that her father’s killer served no jail time, the man’s legal defense apparently resting entirely on the claim that he was justified in murdering Spheeris senior as “he was defending a black.”
Is Penelope Spheeris Greek?
Yes, she’s half Greek (on her father’s side). Here’s what she’s said in an interview to Notebook about her Greek heritage:
SPHEERIS: Oh, that’s so sweet of you to think of that. I never thought of that before. No, I never thought of that… No, I think it’s genetic. Costa-Gavras. Did you know that he’s my first cousin?
NOTEBOOK: I didn’t know that.
SPHEERIS: His mother and my father are brother and sister. So, filmmaking is more genetic, in a way. The ability to put music and film together is genetic. My own brother’s musical talents were indescribable. And then I found out, Samuel, the word “Spheeris” means “hammer” in Greek. And our ancient relatives who lived south of Athens were a clan of carpenters. So, I think it’s genetic… – Interview at Notebook, March 05, 2018