Hollywood's 'bad boy' a picture of polite in S.D.

Sean Penn's reputation precedes him. The actor, famous for roles in movies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Dead Man Walking," was married briefly to Madonna. He punched an extra on the set of a movie, allegedly fired a gun in the air as ...

Sean Penn's reputation precedes him.

The actor, famous for roles in movies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Dead Man Walking," was married briefly to Madonna. He punched an extra on the set of a movie, allegedly fired a gun in the air as a helicopter hovered over his wedding and comes off as a recluse, as least in the media.

And he once decked a photographer and later said, "I hate journalists."

But to folks in Winner, Penn is a gentleman -- quiet, funny and with a penchant for enjoying a few drinks and playing pool.

In town last week to film a scene for the movie "Into the Wild," Penn ate three meals at the Holiday House, a new dinner club/dance hall on the edge of town. Owner John Halverson said Penn was friendly the entire time -- didn't punch a single photographer.


In fact, Penn's entire crew dined at the Holiday House and all were on their best behavior, Halverson said. They weren't in Winner long; most of the filming is going on in Carthage, but the movie needed a scene with a ripe wheat field, and those are pretty easy to find in Tripp County.

Halverson wasn't at the Holiday House when Penn first arrived, but his nephew called him to tell him of the famous stranger at the bar.

"He said, 'Sean Penn is sitting at the bar eating.' He just sat at the bar and ate a steak, by himself," said Halverson.

Someone else came in and asked a bar employee what on the menu is good. Penn suggested the ribeye steak, and later left.

He came back again that night, a Sunday, and stopped by for another meal and a few drinks Monday, after filming. By then, word had gotten around, and the bar had a noticeably larger crowd, but it didn't bother Penn. He sat at the bar like a local, drinking white Russians.

Word is, he tips well.

"Finally, after a bit, he runs into me and we start visiting. He knew I owned the place and he thanked me for a good time and how well he'd been taken care of," Halverson said. "He asked if I play pool, and I told him I do."

So they begin taking on others -- Penn and Halverson, in Halverson's bar in a small South Dakota town, far from Hollywood and even farther from Penn's reputation. He's an average pool player, Halverson said, who, on occasion and as a joke, will cheat.


"He's very nice," Halverson said. "The reputation he has, that's a bunch of junk."

It reminds me of my own brush with Hollywood. Sam Shepard, who has starred in dozens of major movies but who gained his first real fame in the 1983 film, "The Right Stuff," sat next to me and had a beer one steamy afternoon in Kadoka, a badlands village where I worked during the summer of 1991.

In town to film the movie "Thunderheart," Shepard stopped at the local pub, ordered a Bud and a snack. He could have sat anywhere else in the empty room, but pulled up next to me.

We talked about South Dakota, a subject on which I am very well-versed, and, horses, of which I have no knowledge whatsoever. I wanted to talk about his longtime girlfriend, the eye-friendly actress Jessica Lange.

During those 20 or 30 minutes, I never once asked about movies, autographs or Lange. I figured he thought he had hidden his fame, so as he left, I called out to him, "Good talking to you, Sam."

He nodded and walked out.

I later got to see him at work, on the set of "Thunderheart." There are two scenes in the movie in which I am standing directly behind the camera. That's my claim to fame.

Around Mitchell, we see the rich and famous all the time, usually because of pheasant hunting, and sometimes, the Corn Palace. Kevin Costner hunts around here, I'm told. The rapper 50 Cent shopped at a store along the interstate earlier this year. We're so accustomed to professional athletes during the fall that we hardly take notice anymore.


The stories vary.

"Thunderheart" actor Val Kilmer, for instance, was considered aloof around Kadoka in 1991. A member of a big-name, national band that once played at the Jackpot stole a bottle of booze -- only to have it swiped back by the bar manager. Another big-name band only would drink canned beer.

Willie Nelson, when he performed at the Corn Palace a few years ago, required half of his $50,000 fee in cash, which led to some confusion prior to the show. The city doesn't typically deal in cash and it was after banking hours, so the situation sent some local businessmen scrambling to their safes to come up with $25,000 in bills.

To Nelson's credit, he did go on stage in the meantime.

As for Penn, Halverson said he fits in well in South Dakota. Even when Penn broke a drink glass on the floor, he picked up the mess himself, despite Halverson's urging to let a bar employee do it.

After a few drinks -- "he knows how to drink, no question about it," Halverson said -- Penn grabbed an ink marker.

"He went to the wall and started scribbling. I was like, 'what are you doing?' " Halverson said. "He said, 'just watch.' "

Penn hastily drew a self-portrait and signed it.


Sean Penn sounds like a good guy; I'd definitely play pool with him.

I just wouldn't tell him where I work.

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

Over time, he has been a board member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

In the past, Wenzel was sports editor for 14 years at The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., before becoming editor and, eventually, publisher.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103.
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