July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

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Italicany good pirate, Johnny Depp was fighting to keep his gold. Specifically, the gold caps Depp decided to have placed on several of his front teeth before showing up to play a swashbuckling buccaneer in the new Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. “They thought it was a little much,” Depp says of wary Disney execs. “But I sat down with them and said, ‘You hired me to do a job. If you can’t trust me, you’ve got to replace me.’ ”

Fortunately, the higher-ups decided that Hollywood’s leading eccentric was the guy for the gig. The caps stayed—though he did agree to remove two of them—and Depp, 40, was free to unleash another compellingly oddball performance in. “He always brings something different to everything he does,” says director Gore Verbinski. “There’s no B.S., no attitude. He enjoys acting, and it shows.”

The former L.A. bad boy—who has called France home for the past five years-likes being a dad even more. Fatherhood “has given me everything,” says Depp, who shares a $2 million villa in Plan-de-la-Tour, a village in the hills above Saint-Tropez, with French actress-singer Vanessa Paradis, 30, his girlfriend since 1998, and their children Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, 14 months. Dad and daughter enjoy playing princess-themed computer games (“You choose the dress and handbag and tiara,” explains Depp. “I love it”) and watching kiddie flicks (“I like them better than most big-people movies”). Mom offers rave reviews. “Johnny is a perfect father. He dresses the children, he changes them, he makes the children laugh,” Paradis wrote last year in French Elle. Any complaints? “Well, he does give Lily-Rose too many potato chips.”

Depp fell in love with France while shooting The Ninth Gate there in 1998. “Each morning, I can go to the little village not far from my house, have a cup of coffee, sit there with my girl and not worry about the paparazzi,” he told reporters in 2001. “I want to raise my baby away from all the weirdness.” America, he says now, “is like Disneyland. It’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t think you want to live there.” He was much more comfortable with turning 40 last month. “By the time you’re in your late 30s, you’re ready for it,” says Depp, who celebrated over a quiet dinner with family and friends: “A couple bottles of wine. Very calm.”

Depp, calm? It’s a far cry from his younger days, when the Kentucky-born actor rebelled against his late-’80s heartthrob status on TV’s 21 Jump Street (“He didn’t make any secret of the fact that he didn’t particularly care about being on that show,” recalls castmate Holly Robinson Peete). As his star rose with turns in movies such as 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, Depp dabbled in drugs and famously trashed his New York City hotel room in 1994 after a reported fight with then-girlfriend Kate Moss. “You have bad days,” he told 20/20. “Some guys go play golf; some guys smash hotel rooms.”

Lily-Rose’s birth put an end to his wild-child days. While continuing to please critics in films like Chocolat and Blow, “Johnny has become very much of a family man,” says Thierry Klemeniuk, one of Depp’s partners in the Man Ray nightspots in Paris and New York. His mellow streak surprised some. “You’ve read all these things,” says Pirates costar Keira Knightley. “But he’s such a nice bloke. He’d make a cup of tea, and we’d have a chat and a giggle.” Still, she says, “he’s always going to be a pirate at heart.” Indeed, he draws the line at a more mature moniker. “John Depp,” he says, “is my dad.”

Jason Lynch

Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Amy Longsdorf, Marisa Laudadio and Amy Gurvitz in Los Angeles and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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