When Kevin Spacey made a recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the host came up with the perfect skit to highlight the actor’s many talents: Spacey headed up a barbershop quartet that put a doo-wop twist on the Jason Derulo hit, Talk Dirty (“your booty don’t need explaining, all I really need to understand is…when you talk dirty to me, tra-la-la-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la”). The reason the skit worked so well is because Kevin — who happens to have a great singing voice — is a master at infusing his regular guy demeanor with a seedy, deadpan, something’s-not-quite-right-here undercurrent.   

These days, Spacey — who turns 55 on Saturday, July 26th — has been amassing awards by utilizing that gift to full effect on the Netflix political drama, “House of Cards.” On “Cards,” he plays Francis Underwood, a superficially charming, down-home U.S. congressman from South Carolina who’s willing to wade deep into the ethical swamp — scheming, double-crossing, even committing murder — to amass more power. Spacey’s performance, marked by an oily Southern drawl and an air of lethal refinement, makes the series binge-watch-worthy all by itself.

But the most infamous, morally-squishy Everyman on Spacey’s resume is Lester Burnham, the suburban guy in the midst of a midlife meltdown in “American Beauty” (1999). As Burnham, Spacey — who won an Academy Award for the role — pulls off an arc that has his character starting off at Point A: an uptight, henpecked, professionally-downtrodden schmo; and winding up at Point Z: a freewheeling, pot-smoking, sexually libertine, rules-be-damned renegade. It’s an emotional transformation that few actors could pull off so convincingly  and with just the right amount of black humor.

Another thread connecting Spacey’s most memorable characters is a fierce sense of ambition. This can be the ambition to rule the world (like his character in “Cards”), break loose from ordinary life (like Lester Burnham), or keep a criminal empire free from police intrusion — as in 1995’s “The Usual Suspects,” the movie that truly launched Spacey. In “Suspects,” Kevin plays Roger “Verbal” Kint, a ruthless, fast-talking con artist, who — while under the guise of being a cooperating witness in a police investigation — gets away with a horrifically violent crime. (Interestingly, “Suspects” — like “Cards” and “Beauty” — is yet another instance where Spacey breaks the fourth wall and narrates the story directly to the audience.)

Clearly, Spacey could relate to the deep-seated drive in each of these characters — as well as the finance hotshot he played in “Margin Call”, and even his serial killer in 1995's “Seven.”  In a very real way, he himself was possessed. Starting out as an actor, Spacey set himself a high bar for success and was determined to leap over it. 

As he told GQ last year about his journey to an Oscar, “I put on some very serious blinders and I got on the horse and I galloped toward seeing whether I could build a film career for myself.…I was on a kind of mission to see if I could achieve something. To achieve a career at a certain level and...playing with the kind of people I wanted to play with. I wanted to play in a certain league.”

And once he proved he could act with the best of them, Spacey was anxious to duplicate his winning record on-stage. In 2003, he became the artistic director at London’s Old Vic theatre, and later started his own foundation to help aspiring actors from around the world. “I didn't want to spend ten years pursuing the same dream so doggedly with my own ambition about myself,” said Spacey about his decision to not try to rack up as many Oscar trophies as possible. “I didn't want to be one of those guys on the Top 10 lists. I didn't want to do a lot of movies I shouldn't do, or make movies for money and prestige.”

But Spacey hasn’t given up film acting for good. He’s not even opposed to taking on roles that aren’t exactly geared toward Oscar night. Next up for the actor? Later this year, he’ll appear in the comedy sequel, “Horrible Bosses 2.” However bad or good that particular outing is, Spacey’s presence will surely elevate it.

Happy Birthday, Kevin!