Who’s Here: Jerry O’Connell, Actor

Jerry O'Connell take take part in "Celebrity Autobiography" at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall.
Jerry O'Connell take take part in "Celebrity Autobiography" at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall.

Actor Jerry O’Connell, who starred with River Phoenix in the film Stand by Me, later in Jerry Maguire opposite Tom Cruise and more recently in a dozen or more other films and TV shows, grew up in Montauk, spending every summer in his family’s home for all the 40 years of his life. He will be back in his beloved Montauk next week at the family manse on East Lake Drive through Labor Day.

While here, on Friday, August 22, he performs at the John Drew Theater, joining with Alec Baldwin, Tony Danza, Susan Lucci, Christie Brinkley, Eugene Pack, Dayle Reyfel and Ralph Macchio in reading aloud actual excerpts of other people’s autobiographies in the comedy titled Celebrity Autobiography, put together by its creator Eugene Pack five years ago. All the words, every one, were written by celebrities about themselves, now to be spoken aloud by other celebrities.

O’Connell has seen the show performed by other readers in the past. His favorite, he says, was when Alec Baldwin read the autobiography of Eminem two years ago.

“Was it done with the proper inflections?” I asked.

“It was. Alec Baldwin is my favorite reader. He really commits. I just can’t believe that these people write these autobiographies. If celebrities knew their autobiographies would be read aloud like this, I can’t imagine why they would have ever written them. It’s a hilarious evening, and I am happy to be part of it.”

He was born and raised in Manhattan. His mother was an art teacher at public schools. His father was an artist at an ad agency in Manhattan who liked to go fishing out at Montauk. From his earliest days, Jerry was taken along with his parents to Montauk. At first they stayed at an oceanfront motel called the Maisonettes (still there). Then the family bought a summer house in the old town section of Montauk, between the railroad station and the Montaukett, up the hill to the north.

“We didn’t drive out. We’d come out on the Long Island Rail Road,” Jerry told me. “And then we walked from the train to our summer home. My earliest memories are of climbing down to the beach at Fort Pond Bay, driving a jeep through the rumrunner roads in Hither Woods, climbing around on the old abandoned Air Force base, playing miniature golf at Puff ’n’ Putt, eating at John’s Drive Inn.”

Later, his father fulfilled a dream by buying a big waterfront house on East Lake Drive in that town.

Today Jerry O’Connell has a wife, who is a former model, and twin daughters, who are 5.

“My kids’ favorite place to eat is the Crabby Cowboy Café in Montauk. Everywhere else they eat, they compare it to the Crabby Cowboy. They think dining at the Crabby Cowboy is like dining at the Four Seasons.”

Jerry is re-imagining himself as a responsible adult. It is not easy.

“I don’t know how being a responsible adult snuck up on me. It just hit me in the back of the head one day.”

He came late to it. He was 33 when he got married. Before that, he was just a boy. A boy with irrepressible energy.

It was first noticed when he was 6. They didn’t call it that. At PS 51 in Greenwich Village, they called it being a hyperactive child.

“I was always the kid getting in trouble. They told me to sit on my hands. Don’t give this kid any more sugar.”

He never adapted. He found a world that would adapt to him and applaud his hyperactivity.

“I was raised in a very free environment at home with my mom and dad. This was in Greenwich Village in the late 1970s. I had a very determined mother. She took me to ballet class. I studied sword fighting. They took me to acting class at Banks Street. I was exposed to all sorts of things.”

O’Connell discovered his calling at acting class. He was 9. “In acting class,” he told me, “they don’t ask you to calm down. They celebrate that you are hyperactive. It’s a law.”

How easy was this?

When he was 10, his father did the creative work at the ad agency for a chocolate chip cookie TV commercial. The commercial called for a 10-year-old kid to eat the chocolate chip cookies.

“They needed a kid and my dad said I have just the kid. I became the kid eating the cookies. They were Duncan Hines cookies. They don’t make them any more. I hope my performance didn’t cause that. We shot the spot over and over. I ate 20 cookies. Then I ate another 20.”

“I imagine the first 20 tasted good,” I said, “but then the second 20, not so good.”

“Nope,” he told me. “The first 20 were great. And the second 20 were great. I’d have kept going if they’d wanted me to.”

This commercial launched his acting career. He was applauded for his performance. And then his mother and father suggested that when casting calls came up at a studio in Manhattan where they were looking for a kid his age for a movie, he go to them. He went.

“My family was very pessimistic. I think it’s a trait of being Irish. We expect the worst. So we are always pleasantly surprised.”

So he expected the worst, and in 1983 got the part of Vern, the goofy kid among the four friends who have this fantastic adventure trying to locate a dead body in the woods in Stand by Me. He was 11.

“I suspect your parents were proud,” I suggested.

“Not at all,” he said. “My father told me that if this film gets completed, don’t tell anybody. At the agency where he worked, many of his fellow workers wrote film scripts. Some of them were actually made. But none were ever released. He said, I don’t want to hurt my colleagues’ feelings, so don’t go around parading that you’re in this film, because it’s never going to be released either. So forget it.”

He forgot it. Then it became a big hit. It was based on a novella by Stephen King, and Kiefer Sutherland had a role in it. It earned an Academy Award nomination. River Phoenix’s career began here. And so did O’Connell’s.

“So I didn’t tell anybody. I heard it was a hit when I was on the beach in Montauk with one of my best friends, Paul Thomson, also 11. He told me I was famous. That’s how I heard about it.”

He was in a film when he was 14. It was the starring role in My Secret Identity, which came out in 1988.

Out of junior high school, Jerry auditioned to go to La Guardia, the city’s best film school, but he didn’t get in.

“I secretly hate them to this day for that,” he said.

He applied to and was accepted at the Professional Children’s School on 60th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. “Famous for alumni Milton Berle and Celeste Holmes.”

After high school, he went to the Tisch School to study film at NYU, but never graduated. But that was because he didn’t make many films.

“You had to buy the film and developing chemicals for the film you made in school to get a degree in filmmaking. This was a very expensive proposition back them, and I didn’t have any money. I opted for a word processor and paper. Much cheaper. My degree is a BFA in Creative Writing.”

At 19 he starred in The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky. He starred in Calendar Girl, also at 19. At 21 he played opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. He’s appeared in the Brian De Palmas film Mission to Mars, in Scream 2, and he began a run in the TV series Sliders for Fox, where he played a young physicist.

“This was way-out different from what I usually did,” he told me. “But it worked.”

“What kind of physicist?” I asked.

“Quantum physics.”

“Who was your favorite actor to work with?” I asked.

“I’d say Alan Rickman. He was an Englishman I worked with in a Broadway show called Seminar, whose run ended in May two years ago. A real gentleman. After it was over, the cast voted to hold the cast party at my family’s house in Montauk without telling me. But it was great.

“We caught clams in the bay. We barbecued on the deck. We made linguini with clam sauce. Kids and grandkids running around. What a time.”

Jerry had a role in the movie Piranha 3D, made for Dimension Pictures, a Weinstein company. But he really didn’t want to talk about it. “It’s not Oscar bait. It’s a campy horror movie. I get bit by the piranha in a place you don’t want to know.”

“I don’t.”

“We spent a hot winter filming this in Arizona on the banks of Lake Havasu.”

Jerry remembered more from his childhood.

“When I was in my early 20s, I’d come out to Montauk from the city on Friday aboard the railroad train they called the Cannonball. It was packed with people. We’d sit in the parlor cars on the floor and meet girls. We’d exchange cards and phone numbers. This was before cellphones.

“We’d go surfcasting in Fort Pond Bay out by the hanger docks. A typical day would be a hot dog from this old lady called Beach Dog Mary, who had a trailer at the beach. I surf but never got serious about it. I got up too late every morning to surf in the glass calm of dawn. I loved the nightlife. Stay up late, sleep late.”

He passed the Suffolk County lifeguard test at Jones Beach but never took a job lifeguarding.

“I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

He participated in the annual Drambuie Pursuit in Inverness, Scotland, one year, just to see if he could do it. It included an archery contest, kayaking, a castle run, boating, mountain biking, rock-climbing, rafting, cross-country biking, off-road buggy riding and canoeing. He was 35.

He met his future wife—model and actress Rebecca Romijn (most famous for playing Mystique in the X-Men films and Alexis Meade in the Ugly Betty TV series)—in 2005 in the Bellagio in Las Vegas at a party. Two years later, he married her in a surprise backyard ceremony that 100 family members and friends attended thinking they were coming to a barbecue.

“We bonded over calamari at Harvest [on Fort Pond] in Montauk. I have a great photo of us together, driving around in my dad’s old 1980s Chrysler LeBaron convertible.”

 He takes his girls to the Pathfinder Day Camp in Montauk in the summertime.

“A friend from childhood, Ray Wojtusiak, is the director. It’s a great camp. It’s filled with wonderful activities. I pick up the girls and they are so happy and tired that when they get home, after they eat, they go right to sleep.”

Like it or not, world, Jerry O’Connell is growing up.

“Celebrity Autobiography” will be performed at the John Drew Theater at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, August 22. Last year the comedy featured Brooke Shields reading Mr. T., Christie Brinkley reading Miley Cyrus, and other readers including Dick Cavett, Eugene Pack, Ralph Macchio and Dayle Rayfel. Whose autobiographies will be excerpted for this year? The writers of them tremble as they wait to see. 

Tickets are available for both performances of “Celebrity Autobiography” at guildhall.org.

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