I have a surprisingly clear memory of the day that my sister and I realized who Jerry O’Connell is. While watching some vaguely trashy infotainment show on the most shocking moments in entertainment, we saw a segment on one of our favourite movies, Stand By Me. It’s a beloved movie in our family, one we watch as regularly as possible. By the time my sister and I were in high school, we’d seen it enough times to quote large chunks of the dialogue from memory, including all the dirty bits we weren’t mature enough to entirely understand. The show briefly discussed the fates of the three major stars of the film - River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton - all of which we were familiar with. Then it revealed Jerry O’Connell, the actor who played the gullible Vern, to be the guy who we’d just seen in Scream 2. It was, to say the least, a shock. Even my mum couldn’t believe it and talked about it for days afterward.
Our surprise went beyond the mundane reality that hey, kids grow up. Seeing O’Connell in a more traditional leading man mould, all shiny teeth and obsessively casual hair, was a sharp contrast from everything we had assumed about the seemingly inevitable futures of child stars. O’Connell not only seemed fine but actively happy and getting on with life in the industry. Clearly, that evolution had worked well given how long it had taken my family to recognize who he was. It was a celebrity surprise of the best kind.
I can’t say that seeing clips of O’Connell hosting The Wendy Williams Show elicited the exact same response in me. Watching him indulge in the camp of daytime talk show mode, dancing and posing and being so, as we say in pop culture hot takes, on, was certainly an experience. You could imagine the talks with his agent in your mind as he played big to the almost exclusively female audience. Did he have to consult with his publicity team before he agreed to take over for Williams or was this one of the best offers on the table? Does he really care all that much about Love & Hip Hop New York or was he briefed accordingly? Whatever you think of his guest hosting - I personally flipped rapidly between full body cringe and quiet respect - you couldn’t deny that he gave it his all. To see a typically WASP-y white American dude wholeheartedly embrace the role of not only a pop culture diva but one who specifically caters to black women was, if nothing else, unique. Again, it was a celebrity surprise of the best kind.
………………HUH?! pic.twitter.com/01MNQ8L4WV— luck. (@chrstvphr) March 16, 2018
Out of the four boys in Stand By Me, he was never the one who garnered the greatest amount of praise: River Phoenix was the prodigy, Corey Feldman was the renegade, and Wil Wheaton was the perfect geek before that became the ideal. O’Connell, as Vern, was something of an outlier. His character is the one who suggests he and his friends go look for the elusive dead body, but the emotional arcs go to his co-stars. Vern never gets a scene detailing tough relations with his family or what it’s like to live with the weight of public scorn on your shoulders. Really, Vern’s the most well-adjusted kid in the quartet, which doesn’t give O’Connell much to do beyond be sweet and guileless. He certainly excels at that, but the story reduces him to an afterthought it never resolves.
O’Connell was a child star, but unlike his Stand By Me co-stars, he never landed enough movie roles to have that be the defining part of his career. There’s a seven year gap between his brilliant debut and his next film, and it’s another three years before Jerry Maguire, arguably the start of his adult film career. He fared better in TV, with guest roles across a multitude of shows and starring parts in series like My Secret Identity and Sliders. By that time, he’d matured and stopped being ‘the fat kid’, which certainly impacted his public image in a major manner. He wasn’t necessarily defined as an all grown up child star, but that apparent metamorphosis into the ideal ’90s teen idol worked best when coupled with that youthful memory. That guileless charm remained in parts like Scream 2, but now he looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch model.
As pointed out by many profiles and talk show interviews, he looked an awful lot like Tom Cruise at the right angles (he would later parody the actor in a Scientology spoof). He never quite landed the Cruise roles, however. His range was limited more to a decidedly B-movie approach. As eagerly as he threw himself into each part, films like Joe’s Apartment, Fat Slags and the meme-ready Kangaroo Jack weren’t exactly the sort of stuff you want to define your name by. That’s not to say he’s bad in such terrible films: At his most enthusiastic, O’Connell is like a less pratfall ready Brendan Fraser in his ’90s heyday. Aesthetically, he seems ideal for that era of leading men, but in practice, he’s a better fit for something more kitsch. In many ways, Jerry O’Connell’s career is defined by being the B-movie parody of Tom Cruise. That sounds like an insult: I promise you that it isn’t.
Being Tom Cruise is an exhausting process. It’s a persona of perfection that must be endlessly maintained to the point where it cannot help but become dull. Tom Cruise doesn’t get to have a sense of humour, at least not a spontaneous one that makes for a good publicity campaign. When he goes off the cuff, it tends to end badly, as demonstrated by his brief period of publicly zealous support for Scientology. There’s a reason the Cruise you see nowadays is almost mannequin-like in his polished public appearances: The smile is there, all the facts of Tom Cruise are present, but you know how the routine is going to play out. That’s the price one pays for stratospheric fame and the weight of expectations that accompanies it. It’s not something O’Connell has ever had to concern himself with. A press tour for Piranha 3D will have different prospects to that of the latest Mission Impossible film. Being defined as a parody - or, at the very least, the shadow of a star - has its benefits, because it lets you be silly and enjoy the fame game a whole lot more.
You can never deny that O’Connell isn’t having an absolute ball with his celebrity. Arguably, he’s a B- on the fame scale - you know the name, you could probably guess the titles of a few of his projects, but he’s not at his peak, nor does he feature in hotly hyped work. Along with his wife, the actress Rebecca Romijn, he has carved out an in-demand niche in the industry: You need him to do something, he’ll do it with aplomb. Want him to reveal all with Howard Stern? He’s up for it. Want to suggest he turn up on Wendy Williams’s show dressed as all three pregnant Kardashian-Jenner sisters? Just hand him the wigs already. We need someone to play Christian Gray in Scary Movie 5! Quick, get me Jerry O’Connell! There are genuine bright spots amidst this - I will forever mourn the wonderful pilot to the unmade Bryan Fuller reboot of The Munsters - and the best part is that O’Connell has never stopped working. There will always be sitcom guest parts, voice-over roles, Hallmark Movies, music videos, drag queen make-overs, and pure unashamed schlock. We’ve all seen those unfortunate movies where recognizable actors turn up to cash in a cheque and can’t hide their disdain for the role. You never expect that from O’Connell.
And that brings us back to The Wendy Williams Show. While most of the venture feels like an extended F-you to Kelly Ripa for not choosing him as her new co-host over Ryan Seacrest, much of it is also just a guy who does this kind of thing all the time. He likes fame, he likes the attention of fame, and he likes the often ridiculous work that accompanies it. He’s a personality who has a sharp self-awareness of who he is. In interviews, he frequently refers to himself as ‘the fat kid from Stand By Me’ and wears that honour with pride. I’m not sure it will lead to his own talk show any time soon, but hey, there’s always plenty of work on the horizon for someone willing to do it all. It’s nice to be surprised, and to be surprising.