Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Take Five: Forgotten Teen Film Protagonists of Famous Teen Movies

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 2, 2007

Cautionary tales against quitting your day jobs

Everyone knows who fickle childhood and teenage stardom can be–one movie or TV show catapults a young’n into the spotlight, but typecasting, premature adulthood, greedy parents and cultural climate changes bring their careers to a crashing halt (if you’ve seen one VH1/E! special on the phenomenon, you’ve seen them all). But more interesting to me lately are the cases of should’ve-been-teen-stars–dudes who, despite being the technical protagonists of hugely successful or important high school and college-set movies, never really managed to capture any of the associated glory (despite the fact that the movies, in many cases, did make stars out of several of their supporting castmates). Here are five examples I could think of to best exemplify this phenomenon:

Ethan Embry

  • Definitive Role: Preston Myers in Can’t Hardly Wait
  • What Could’ve Happened: For people of a certain generation (namely mine), Can’t Hardly Wait was nearly as important part of adolescense as The Breakfast Club or American Graffiti was for teens of their time (go to any college party in New York and yell “DENISE FLEMMING IS A TAMPON!,” might not get you laid, but the majority of attendees will probably at least know what you’re talking about). Amidst the partygoers in crisis on the last night of high school were pre-fame performances from Seth Green, Sean Patrick Thomas, Jamie Pressly and even Chris Owen, better known as “The Sherminator” fromthe American Pie series. And heading the cast was Embry as the sweet, lovelorn Preston, looking to finally declare his love for seemingly unattainable crush Amanda Beckett, played by It Girl of the time Jennifer Love Hewitt. Coming off of minor successes with his roles in Empire Records and Vegas Vacation, Embry looked poised to become the Jon Cryer of the 90s–one who actually gets the girl at the end, even.
  • What Did Happen: Embry failed to follow CHW up with another hit, and since ’98, his most famous works have been his minor roles in Sweet Home Alabama and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (one of Harold’s co-worker assholes–maybe the one he calls “cockboy,” can’t remember). Recently had a role in Vacancy, too, though I don’t know if he’ll be bragging about that one on his resume too much.
  • Did He Deserve Better?: Yeah, I’d say so. Embry was a real likeable, relatable guy, and was dreamy-looking enough in a John Cusack sort of way that I don’t think heartthrob status could’ve been too far out of his grasp (at the very least, my brother’s girlfriend copped to having a crush on his Empire Records character when she was younger). Maybe he was just a few years too early–he probably would’ve fit much better as a posterboy for the MySpace era. Bummer.

Chris Young

  • Definitive Role: Tom Lawrence in PCU
  • What Could’ve Happened: Though once again not a resounding success at the time of its release, PCU went on to claim a place among college comedies second only to Animal House in film lore (and recently, perhaps Old School as well). It was the first lead role for Jeremy Piven, a pre-Swingers gig for Jon Favreau, as well as one of David Spade’s first of many cinematic opportunities to play a smug, weasely asshole. The career trajectory probably could’ve been similar for the film’s lead, the wide-eyed Tom Lawrence, a noob at Port Charles University being shown the ropes by piven’s character.
  • What Did Happen: Decidedly little. Aside from guest spots on Friends and Married With Children, and a starring role in some late-90s TV movie called Killing Mr. Griffin, the most fame Young received post-PCU was when he was the last person to escape from the North Twin Tower before it fell during the 9/11 attacks. Make for a good memoir someday, but didn’t do much in the way of career-reviving.
  • Did He Deserve Better? Not really. PCU is overrated to begin with, and Young’s character is probably the least memorable part–even the movie’s most devout fans probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup today.

Wiley Wiggins

  • Definitive Role: Mitch Kramer in Dazed and Confused
  • What Could’ve Happened: An instant teen and cult classic, Dazed and Confused launched the careers of just about everyone involved, including (deep breath), Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Nicky Katt and Renee Zellweger. And Wiley Wiggins, who was cast as the hugely relatable graduating middle schooler Mitch despite never having acted before, was a natural, seemingly destined to a similar fate.
  • What Did Happen: Acting didn’t really take for young Wiley (only 15 at the time of casting), and despite a couple of exceedingly minor roles in films over the next couple of years (Fuck-Up #2 in The Faculty), the only other role of note he had was in another Richard Linklater flick, as the main lucid dreamer in Waking Life.
  • Did He Deserve Better?: I would watch the guy in just about anything, but Wiley’s got loftier goals on his mind at the moment–blogging about “film, art, technology and free culture” at News of the Dead. Many props to you, my fellow internet scribe.

Michael O’Keefe
  • Definitive Role: Danny Noonan in Caddyshack
  • What Could’ve Happened: Caddyshack is obviously one of the most famous American comedies ever made, solidifying the film potential of Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Their scenes and roles are so legendary that it’s easy to forget that the character with the most screen time is probably Danny, the teenage caddy choosing his alliance between the freewheeling Ty Webb (Chase) and the rich, snobby Judge Smails (Ted Knight). It’s his role that anchors the film, and gives Dangerfield and Murray room to go nutty with their subplots.
  • What Did Happen: Despite being hopelessly overshadowed by the towering comedic giants in Caddyshack, O’Keefe probably had the greatest subsequent success of all these, actually scoring an Oscar nod for his role in the 1980 Robert Duvall flick The Great Santini. It was downhill from there for O’Keefe, though, and these days, he’s not doing much besides touring the guest actor circuit on the Law & Order franchise.
  • Did He Deserve Better? Nah, Caddyshack pretty much sucks.

Gabriel Jarret

  • Defintiive Role: Mitch Taylor in Real Genius
  • What Could’ve Happened: Real Genius didn’t reach Brat Pack-levels of success, but has since gotten a cult rep as a sort of thinking man’s 80s teen comedy. Like Wiggins, he was only 15 when he cast as Genius lead Mitch, the science whiz kid partnered with Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight to construct a mega-laser for super-chode William Atherton.
  • What Did Happen: All the attention Genius got went to the far more, um, charismatic Kilmer, who went on to star in Top Gun while Jarret got shuffled off to one-off roles on 21 Jump Street and L.A. Law. At least he’s rebounded recently with more lucrative roles, such as “Conference Attendee” in Rumor Has It and “1st Officer Chapman” in Poseidon.
  • Did He Deserve Better?: To be fair, he didn’t have much of a role to work with in Real Genius, but really, the movie only had one potential megastar, and it wasn’t the 90-pound 15-year-old with the high-pitched voice.

4 Responses to “Take Five: Forgotten Teen Film Protagonists of Famous Teen Movies”

  1. […] Original post by Andrew Unterberger […]

  2. Victor said

    Can’t Hardly Wait was a pop culture footnote, most definitely second tier. Also lest we forget Ethan Embry’s brief prime time stardom as the co-lead of the new Dragnet?

  3. Andrew Unterberger said

    you couldn’t possibly understand the relevance CHR had to my generation, grandpa. I don’t make disparaging comments about the cultural merits of Encino Man.

  4. billy said

    Odd anti-Six Feet Under omissions of two of the more successful Can’t Hardly Wait alumni: Lauren Ambrose and Freddy Rodriguez. Maybe SFU should be the next Time of the Season feature.

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