Some people discovered J.K. Simmons through Oz, the gritty prison drama that put HBO on the map. Others noticed him in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), as the cigar-chomping J. Jonah Jameson. Still more discovered him only a few years ago, when he accepted an Oscar in 2015 for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But Simmons didn’t just materialize in the late 1990s. The beloved character actor, who was born on January 9, 1955, has been around for decades—he was just delivering singing telegrams for part of that time. What else should you know about his life and career? Well for starters, here’s his real name …
1. The “J.K.” stands for “Jonathan Kimble.”
J.K. Simmons was born Jonathan Kimble Simmons—“Kimble” being his mother’s maiden name. Simmons probably would’ve kept his original name, if it weren’t for some professional problems. The way he tells it, most variations of his name were already registered at the actors’ unions when he was starting his career. So he went with J.K., noting that he chose the moniker “well before Ms. Rowling had her Potter books.”
2. J.K. Simmons’s knees ended his football career.
As a teenager growing up in Ohio, Simmons played football for several years. But his knees became a problem, so he switched high school cliques. “I went from being a jock to a hippie,” he told The Guardian. “It was a very clear-cut decision. I had to be one or the other. I had to forsake that other aspect of myself. Or I thought I had to, which is regrettable. Quickly, I was back in the pine tress with the hippies, listening to my Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.”
3. J.K. Simmons studied music in college …
Simmons graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in music. His studies there included voice, composition, and conducting. While he ultimately moved away from music, this background served him well in his role as the sadistic conductor Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.
4. … but he can barely play any instruments.
He might know his scales, but don’t ask Simmons to play through Beethoven’s symphonies. Apparently, he was never much of a musician. “I didn’t play anything worth a damn,” he joked to the Los Angeles Times. “I was a singer and a composer and a conductor. I played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on every instrument in the orchestra. Played none of them well. My kids both play piano a lot better than I do.”
5. J.K. Simmons once sang telegrams in a tutu.
Every actor takes odd jobs in the beginning, but Simmons took a job slightly odder than lifeguard or waiter. While he was living in Seattle after college, he worked for a company that provided singing telegrams. Simmons would get an address, grab a bunch of balloons, and then show up to sing the telegram … in a tutu. Simmons was one of several bearded or burly men who handled these “tutu-grams,” and you can check out his uniform in The Tonight Show clip above.
6. J.K. Simmons almost had a nude cameo in Wall Street.
Simmons made his film debut in 1994’s The Ref, seven years after losing a small role in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Simmons was initially cast in a “featured part” in the 1987 ode to corporate greed. But he didn’t have any lines; he was just supposed to be “walking around naked or wearing a jock strap or something” in a locker room scene.
Unfortunately, Simmons never got his moment of jock strap glory. The filming schedule was pushed back repeatedly and when it finally came time to shoot, Simmons was locked into a play in Pittsburgh. He had to pass, but he did get his SAG card out of the whole fiasco.
7. J.K. Simmons was nearly 40 before he landed his first movie role.
When The Ref opened in 1994, Simmons was about 10 months shy of his 40th birthday. So where had he been for the past few decades? On the stage. Simmons was strictly a theater actor for much of his early career. After performing in regional and Off-Broadway productions, he made it onto the Great White Way in 1990 with A Change in the Heir. He continued on Broadway with revivals of Peter Pan and Guys & Dolls, plus Laughter on the 23rd Floor. But he slowly began experimenting with film and television roles, and once his two children were born, he abandoned the stage completely.
Now that his kids are preparing for college, he has hinted that he may return to his theatrical roots.
8. Shooting Oz sent J.K. Simmons to the ER.
Simmons’s big break came with the early HBO show Oz, where he played the villainous Vern Schillinger for six seasons. Portraying this white supremacist wasn’t just emotionally grueling—it was downright dangerous. As Simmons recalled to Esquire, “On Oz one day, I got a chunk of camera embedded in my head and I was passed out on the floor geysering blood while the set medic stood over me, freaking out … I ended up going to the ER and getting nine stitches in my head—real Frankenstein stitches. When I went back to the set, they shot me from the other side for the day.”
9. J.K. Simmons is Jason Reitman’s muse.
Beginning with his role as the screaming boss BR in Thank You for Smoking and including his most recent part in 2018’s The Front Runner, Simmons has acted in most of Oscar-winner Jason Reitman’s feature films (though only his voice appeared in Young Adult). “He’s my muse,” Reitman told Variety. “Hitchcock had his blondes, and I have J.K. Simmons.”
10. J.K. Simmons has voiced the yellow M&M in candy commercials for more than 20 years.
Even if you haven’t seen Simmons’s movies, TV shows, or Farmers Insurance commercials, you’ve probably heard him. He has lent his voice to video game characters in Portal 2 and The Legend of Korra. More importantly, he has voiced the Yellow M&M since 1996.
This story has been updated for 2021.