Inside Johnny Depp's childhood, abuse this mother and rise to stardom

How an abused Kentucky boy who spent a year living in a motel and dropped out of high school turned rose to Hollywood stardom: Johnny Depp relives his troubling childhood during defamation trial

  • Johnny Depp detailed an abusive childhood that was a far-cry from his glamorous, star-studded Hollywood life during testimony Tuesday
  • Depp recounted in vivid detail the way his mother tormented Depp, his siblings, and his father, hurling ashtrays and insults at the family  
  • Depp spoke of his admiration for his father who never raised a hand against his mother despite. ‘He was a good man, is a good man’
  • Depp remained close to his mother throughout his life despite her abuses, often bringing her along to film premiers. She died in 2016 

His privileged life as an A-lister is a world away from his troubled upbringing as a high school dropout with an abusive and suicidal mother, but now Johnny Depp is telling the whole world how he went from small town Kentucky to Hollywood. 

The Pirates of the Caribbean star detailed a childhood defined by abuse at the hands of his mother when he took the stand in his $100 million defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard on Tuesday. 

Speaking in a low voice Depp gave a measured but vivid description of what it was like living in a home where he, his three siblings, and his father were terrorized by his volatile and violent mother. 

‘In our house we were never exposed to any type of safety or security, the only thing to do was stay out of the line of fire,’ he told lawyers from the stand. ‘My mother was quite unpredictable. She had the ability to be as cruel as anyone can be with all of us,’ 

Depp testified that the violent home life he was brought up in taught him to never recreate the same kind of abuse in his own home later in life. 

‘I had a very interesting childhood. One that I thought was normal until a certain age,’ Depp said.

Depp told of ‘verbal abuse, name calling, bullying’ by his mother Betty Sue, who he described as ‘very unpredictable’. The pair are pictured together in 1990

Depp detailed his struggles with substance abuse and recovery during testimony on April 20. He began experimenting with drugs after stealing ‘nerve pills’ from his mother as a teenager


Depp, 58, was born on June 9, 1963, in Owensboro, Kentucky, the youngest of four to parents Betty Sue Palmer and John Christopher Depp.

Depp’s father was a civil engineer and his mother worked as a waitress.

The family moved frequently throughout Depp’s childhood due to his mother’s restless nature. 

‘My mom, her feet were on fire, and she had to move, so we moved constantly,’ Depp testified, ‘So you were always the new kid, and that wasn’t ever particularly pleasant.’

The family moved from Kentucky to Florida when Depp was seven years-old, where they lived in a motel for nearly a year before John Depp found a job.

Throughout those years Depp said the abuse from his mother was constant, unpredictable, and nobody in the house – not even his father – was spared.  

‘Physical violence, physical abuse. That was a constant. We were all somewhat shell-shocked. She’d walked past, you’d shield yourself because you didn’t know what would happen,’ Depp said.

‘She could become quite violent, and she was quite violent, and she was quite cruel,’ Depp said, chuckling at the memory of his mother’s beatings, ‘There was physical abuse, certainly, which could be in the form of an ash tray being flung at you, or you’d get beat with a high heeled shoe, or a telephone, or whatever’s handy.’

Depp with parents Betty Sue Palmer (second from left) and John Christopher Depp (second from right) and his then girlfriend Vanessa Paradis when Johnny received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999

One of Depp’s many childhood homes, this one located on Lexington Drive in Miramar, Florida. Depp and his family moved to Florida when he was seven years old

Depp and his sister Christie. Depp’s mother Betty Sue would refer to her by her grandmother’s name, who Betty Sue was known to despise. Here the two are pictured on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999

Depp’s father, John Depp, supported the family as a civil engineer. He left the family in 1978 and told Johnny – then 15 years-old – ‘You’re the man now’

But Depp said that his mother’s physical attacks were easy to handle compared to the psychological abuse she filled their home with. 

‘The verbal abuse, the psychological abuse, was almost worse than the beatings. The beatings were just physical pain,’ the actor added. ‘The physical pain, you learn to deal with. You learn to accept it. You learn to deal with it.’ 

Betty Sue would insult her children, needling them with comments that would tear them down, including calling Depp’s sister by the name of her grandmother who Betty Sue was well-known to despise.

‘Christie, my sister knew very well that was a deep cut psychologically, emotionally, but you had to take it. You just had to take the pain.’

Depp himself was born with a defect in the lens of his left eye that resulted in a lazy eye, a defect his mother latched on to. 

‘She would call me cock eye, one eye, anything she could get to demean, humiliate.’

‘The psychological and emotional abuse that’s what kind of tore us up.’ 

From an early age Depp watched his mother hurl her vitriol at his father, who he says was always a very ‘kind man’ who was non confrontational in the face of his wife’s violence. 

‘There was never one moment, never a moment when my father lost control or attacked my mother or even said a bad thing to my mother.

He said his father remained ‘stoic’ when his mother would go off on a tangent. 

‘There were a couple of times it got too far I could see his eyes welling up as he was staring at her saying nothing. The most he would do, he would punch a wall. 

Depp recalled being as young as five years old and wondering how his father remained calm in the face of his mother’s insults.

‘To me as a five year old boy I kept wondering “why does he take it. How does he take this? Why doesn’t he leave her?” But he didn’t. He was able to maintain his calm and his composure and his relationship with his children. 

‘He was a good man, is a good man.’ 

Depp attends the 76th Annual Academy Awards with his mother and his then girlfriend, Vanessa Paradis, on February 29, 2004 


In 1978, when Depp was 15 years old, his father cracked and realized he couldn’t stand the abuse any longer, packing his bags and leaving the family as he departed for work one morning.

Depp said during his testimony that he hadn’t even realized his father had left until his mother came home and sensed something had happened. 

‘Hours later my mom came home from work, about 3.30 in the afternoon. She walked in the door and stopped and walked around, she felt something. [She said] “She said your daddy’s gone. He’s gone, he’s gone”.’

Betty Sue ran to the bedroom to find her husband’s closets emptied.   

Like father like son: Johnny and dad John Christopher pose at Depp’s Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in 1999

‘She ran into their bedroom and into their closet, she opened the door and there was his rack of clothing and all his belongings were gone. She was quite upset.’

Depp drove to his father’s work and confronted him. 

‘I’m done. I can’t do it any more. I can’t live it any more,’ Depp’s father told his 15-year-old son. ‘You’re the man now.’ 

‘Those words didn’t quite sit well with me. I didn’t feel I was ready to hear those words.’ 

Depp said his mother ‘went into a very deep, dark depression,’ after his father walked out.

‘One afternoon I had fallen asleep and woke up and walked into the living room and saw my mother very feebly, almost a slow motion, crawl.’

‘I knew something was dreadfully wrong. There was drool coming out of her mouth.’

Paramedics arrived and brought Betty Sue away to the hospital where her stomach was pumped.   

‘She’d swallowed a multitude of pills to try to commit suicide,’ he said.

Johnny – full name John Christopher Depp II – was named after his father. Here the two talk at a Hollywood luncheon, 2005

Depp’s parents separated in 1978. The two joined their son in 1999 when he was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Depp said that his mother was never the same after she returned from the hospital. 

‘She was a firecracker of a woman but when she got out of hospital the depression was so deep she lived on the couch and weighed about 70 pounds and all that imagery spun into my head.’

‘I was deeply upset by that.’ 


As an teenager Depp began experimenting, quite literally, with sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

In a People Magazine feature in October, 1994, Depp said that he started smoking at the age of 12, lost his virginity around 13, and ‘did every kind of drug there was by 14,’ and during the trial he testified that as a teenager he began popping ‘nerve pills’ he’d swiped from his mother. 

He began shutting himself off from the rest of his family and practicing guitar behind a locked bedroom door.

‘I literally locked myself in a room and played guitar,’ he told People Magazine.

In 1979 at the age of 16, Depp dropped out of high school to try to make it as a musician with his band ‘The Kids.’

The Kids were good enough to play some opening-act shows for The Talking Heads and the B-52s, but financially Depp struggled.

Depp played electric guitar with his band, The Kids. The band would open for The Talking Heads and the B-52s. Here Depp plays on stage with the band in Florida in 1982

 Depp lived out of a car and worked odd-jobs while playing with The Kids. He moved with the band to Los Angeles in 1983

He lived out of a friends car for several months, and sold pens for a telemarketing company to get by. 

In 1983 he moved with his band to Los Angeles.

Once there his friend, actor Nicholas Cage, encouraged him to try out acting.   

‘I ended up acting by accident,’ Depp said.

Cage introduced Depp to his agent, who landed him an audition with Wes Craven who was casting for Nightmare on Elm Street.

Depp said he ‘somehow’ landed a part on the film. He was 20 years-old.

By 22, Depp landed a leading role in the show 21 Jump Street which would help establish him as a household name as he launched to fame. 


Depp and Amber Heard are squaring up in court over a December 2018 op-ed Heard penned for the Washington Post declaring herself a domestic violence survivor.

The article did not mention Depp by name but the veteran actor sued for $50 million, claiming he was booted from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise because of the ‘clear implication’ he was the abuser.

Depp’s suit claims Heard presented the world with a ‘hoax’ account of the infamous May 21, 2016 dust up that brought the couple’s tumultuous marriage to an end. 

He further alleges that his ex-wife was the actual ‘perpetrator’ of the violent bouts that scarred their relationship, including a notorious incident in Australia where she allegedly severed his finger with a vodka bottle. 

Depp talked about his harrowing experience overcoming addiction on his private island during testimony on April 20 

Depp talks about  conflicts and fights over his drinking and drug use between him and Amber Heard during the April 20 court session

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