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While Thornton worked as a waiter for an industry event, he served film director and screenwriter Billy Wilder.
Thornton struck up a conversation with Wilder, who advised Thornton to consider a career as a screenwriter.
Thornton has been vocal about his distaste for celebrity culture, choosing to keep his life out of the public eye.
However, the attention of the media has proven unavoidable in certain cases, his marriage to Angelina Jolie being a notable example.
The negative experience (he was forced to cut more than an hour of footage) led to his decision to never direct another film; a subsequent release, Daddy and Them, had been filmed earlier.
Also in 2000, an early script which he and Tom Epperson wrote together was made into The Gift.
In 2014, Thornton starred as Lorne Malvo in the first season of the anthology series Fargo, earning a nomination for the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie at the Emmy Awards and won Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards.
He also made an appearance as a pawn store clerk in the 1987 Matlock episode "The Photographer".
Another one of his early screen roles was as a cast member on the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire.
His role as the villain in 1992's One False Move, which he also co-wrote, brought him to the attention of critics.
He also had small roles in the 1990s films Indecent Proposal, On Deadly Ground, Bound by Honor, and Tombstone.
He went on to write, direct, and star in the 1996 independent film Sling Blade. Thornton's screenplay earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Edgar Award, while his performance received Oscar and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actor.