Up until its No. 1 opening, Disney's ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl'' had all the markings of this summer's biggest potential flop. The first bad omen was right there in the title -- it was a freakin' pirate movie. And not just any pirate movie, but one that cost $135 million. Hadn't we learned anything from ''Cutthroat Island,'' the 1995 Geena Davis-Matthew Modine shipwreck that cost nearly $100 million and barely grossed $10 million? Warning sign No. 2 was that the project appeared to be another cynical bit of corporate synergy, a movie inspired by a theme-park ride -- the same Mouse House strategy behind the wince-inducing ''Country Bears.'' And if that wasn't enough, doomsayers could simply point to the name on top of the marquee: Johnny Depp.
Long regarded as one of Hollywood's most talented and idiosyncratic actors, Depp's box office history has featured more plank walking than booty plundering. Aside from 1999's ''Sleepy Hollow,'' Depp has never starred in a film that cracked $100 million. It's no accident. Depp may be the only A-list star who seems to deliberately hide behind angora sweaters (''Ed Wood''), unintelligible mumbles (''Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas''), or movies so hapless and weird they never even get released (like Depp's own notorious directorial debut ''The Brave,'' which was hissed so loudly at Cannes in 1997 that it never even bowed Stateside).
''He's not interested in stardom,'' says Robert Rodriguez, director of Depp's next film, ''Once Upon a Time in Mexico.'' ''I don't think he's ever needed it or ever wanted it.''
Depp's been working nonstop for nearly 20 years. To sustain that kind of longevity, most actors aim to establish box office clout. But while Depp's A-list contemporaries like Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage have rigged their careers with the help of blockbusters, Depp -- a Hollywood outsider who lives in France -- has careered from oddball role to oddball role, cherrypicking parts based on whim and instinct.
Says director Marc Foster, who cast Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Miramax's upcoming ''Neverland,'' ''He's one of these very rare individuals who tried really hard not to be a movie star. He does whatever he's passionate about and he really doesn't make his decisions based on money or anything like that.''
It's a quality that gives Depp street cred with other actors and makes him a role model as well. ''I think he's brave and completely willing to do things other actors wouldn't do because of vanity,'' said ''Sleepy Hollow'' costar Christina Ricci. ''He won't hold anything back because of ego. He's interested in doing a good movie and a good character and doesn't care how he comes off.''
Now, given the $70.6 million ''Pirates'' took in during its first five days, will big-time producers embrace -- rather than run from -- Depp's unique weirdo charm? ''Pirates'' producer Jerry Bruckheimer may have just given them a map for how to use the actor. ''I wanted to send a message to the audience that this is not your typical Disney movie,'' he says. ''When you see Johnny Depp you think of 'Edward Scissorhands,' you think of 'Blow,' you think of 'Donnie Brasco' -- they're not mainstream movies. They're edgy. That's what I wanted, that sense of 'Wait, what the hell are they doing?'''
The result of all this? Box office bankability for a star who's never sought it. Says Depp's longtime agent, UTA's Tracey Jacobs, ''I think that with this movie and this opening he gets his props, to be real blunt about it.'' Bruckheimer agrees: ''It tells the Hollywood community that he can get a big movie opened. And that's very important for an actor.''
The question is, does it even matter to Depp? In a summer marked by superhero fatigue and sequels nobody asked for, the sweetest irony of all may be this: Right now, in the south of France, America's No. 1 star probably couldn't care less. (With additional reporting by Daniel Fierman, Jeff Jensen, and Dave Karger)