Jackie Earle Haley's return to cinema -- The ''Little Children'' actor talks about his new movies

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated October 27, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Do you remember him?

Thirty years ago, he was one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood. He’d started doing TV commercials at age 5. By 12, he was being directed by Oscar winner John Schlesinger. And at 15, he became a teen icon — the epitome of adolescent cool — as Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears.

Do you remember him now?

That pip-squeak rebel on the back of a Harley, behind a pair of Foster Grants, cigarette dangling from his lips? The kid who seduced the unseducible Tatum O’Neal over a game of air hockey? Do you remember the screw-you sneer and home-run trot that made him a Bicentennial-era Brando? When the movie came out in the spring of 1976, he couldn’t walk through a mall without being chased by rabid teenage girls.

Do you remember him at 17 as one of four blue-collar, going-nowhere kids in Breaking Away? The movie, which remains one of the most poignant coming-of-age movies ever made, was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. And his costar Dennis Quaid went on to star in The Right Stuff and marry Meg Ryan. His next date was with puberty. And he suffered that indignity on a 50-foot-tall movie screen. His face, once peppered with boyishly cute freckles, was now fighting a public — and futile — battle with acne. His voice was getting froggy and deep. His height peaked at just under five and a half feet.

He still had the acting chops, no one questioned that. But the movie offers for the once-adorable kid were slowing to a trickle. He landed a part as Tom Cruise’s horny buddy in 1983’s south-of-the-border sex romp Losin’ It. Then he had to settle for roles on MacGyver and Murder, She Wrote. And when the phone stopped ringing, he started to drink. Do you remember that? Do you remember when he turned up in grade-Z schlock like Dollman and Maniac Cop 3? Probably not. That’s when there wasn’t enough work to pay the bills and the drinking was becoming more and more of a problem. Soon he was three months behind on his rent in Los Angeles, waiting by the phone, wondering ”How did it come to this? How did they forget about me?”

He began delivering pizzas. And sometimes he found himself fidgeting uneasily at the door, waiting for a tip, partly hoping that the people on the other side of the threshold wouldn’t recognize him…and partly praying that they would. Either way, he was humiliated. So he began driving a limousine. Surely, he thought, that would be more anonymous work. But soon he found himself chauffeuring celebrities to movie premieres. While he waited in the front seat chain-smoking, they walked the red carpet. So he took a job as a security guard. ”Everybody’s got to work,” he says, looking back at that grim time. ”It’s nothing to apologize for. But the problem was, for a long time I was still recognizable. So everything I did, I had people approaching me, ‘Aren’t you that guy?’ And it’s embarrassing because you’re standing there in your little security-guard outfit with a billy club.”

Even now, especially now, you don’t have to tell him about how tricky the transition from teen actor to adult one is. Or how Hollywood can be a heartless business. Or that when your teenage looks vanish, so do your job prospects. It took him a long time to figure that out. To realize that his acting career was over. And when he did, he moved to a new town to prostrate himself at the altar of invisible, entry-level work. He learned how to direct and produce TV commercials. The kind you might see on local cable. No, he wasn’t in front of the camera, where, if anyone had cared enough to ask him, he would have admitted he really wanted to be. But it was close enough. Soon he found himself running his own production company. In San Antonio, of all places. He managed to get back on his feet financially. He even met a wonderful, loving woman who didn’t really even care about who he used to be. He asked her to marry him. And she said yes.

That’s where his story should have ended. And if it had ended there, it would have been a happy one. After all, he never wound up in jail for robbing a 7-Eleven or stooped to pimping out his once-famous name and faded reputation on The Surreal Life. He never became bitter. And in the end, he found peace in the anonymity of his new life. But his story didn’t end there. Because just when he thought no one remembered who he was and who he had once been, Hollywood came calling for Jackie Earle Haley again.

If you were sitting down next to him, would you remember him then?

He is 45 years old now. And if you squint hard enough, you can still make out a twinkle of that Kelly Leak mischief in his eyes. His head is shaved Mr. Clean-bald now. His goatee is flecked with gray. His fingernails are chewed down to the quick. He’s small and wiry and he wears a black baseball cap and a pair of blue-tinted glasses that teeter on the end of his nose.

He’s here today, telling you his story, because two years ago someone finally did remember him. Two years ago, Sean Penn and director Steven Zaillian were casting their film All the King’s Men. They needed an actor for the part of ”Sugar Boy,” a weaselly, hard-case bodyguard to Penn’s corruptible Louisiana governor, Willie Stark.

Penn and Haley came up in the business at more or less the same time. And, in a way, Penn went on to become the actor many expected Haley would turn out to be. The two costarred in a 1983 Broadway play called Slab Boys, but lost touch when it was over. Still, it was Haley’s name that Penn suggested when Zaillian asked who he thought could play ”Sugar Boy.” When Penn said this, Zaillian pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and looked at the name he’d scribbled down just the day before: Jackie Earle Haley. ”It was bizarre,” says Zaillian, who won an Oscar in 1994 for writing Schindler’s List. ”When Sean said, ‘Have you thought of Jackie Earle Haley?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m already trying to track him down!’ Very strange. The tricky thing, though, was finding him. Because nobody knew where he was.”

Haley was actually on his honeymoon in the south of France. And the newlyweds were celebrating for a lot of reasons. After several years in San Antonio, Haley’s commercial production company was finally taking off. And his 20-year-old son from a previous marriage had just moved back in with him in order to learn his old man’s business. For the first time in a long time, Haley didn’t want for reasons to feel hopeful about the future.

Then he got an overseas phone call from his business partner saying that someone from Hollywood had called. He decided it could wait until he got home. ”A couple of days later he called back and said, ‘No, it’s Steve Zaillian!’ And then he starts to rattle off all of the stars in the movie: Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins…. For the rest of my honeymoon I was totally freaked out.”

When Haley returned to Texas, he made an audition tape and sent it off. ”He was just as good an actor now as he had ever been,” says Zaillian. Haley got the part. He flew to the New Orleans set and sat in on a read-through with Penn, Winslet, and Hopkins, and was terrified. He hadn’t acted in more than a decade. That’s when he started chewing his fingernails again. ”I was pretty rusty,” says Haley. But after his first scene, he says he felt something he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager. ”I swear to God, I felt something bubble up from the tips of my toes all the way up to my fingertips. Even though I had left all of this behind, and it had been so long, I thought to myself for the first time in a long time: Wow, I’m an actor! This is in my fibers. This is part of who I am!”

When the film wrapped, Haley assumed that his little comeback would be just that — a little one-off with a heartwarming anecdote to tell during the movie’s press junket. But then it happened again. Someone else remembered him. Todd Field was looking for someone to play Ronnie McGorvey, a sex offender, in his film Little Children. That’s when, out of the blue, Field received a 20-minute audition tape from Haley.

”I kept watching that tape over and over again, saying, ‘My God, this guy is amazing!”’ says Field. The director asked Winslet, who was also starring in his film, what she had thought of working with Haley on All the King’s Men. ”She just kept raving about him,” he says. ”And then she said, ‘If you get Jackie to fly in and read for the part, you have to let me come in and read with him!”’

”I remember that day perfectly because it was so wonderful,” says Winslet. ”It was raining and Jackie came in and was really nervous and said to me, ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’ When he did the scene, he just nailed it. His performance was so powerful I just started crying. I swear, that’s never, ever happened to me before. Big, fat tears were streaking down my cheeks. And when it was over, Todd said to him, ‘Would you like the part?’ And Jackie just started crying, and then I started crying. It was just a mess.”

More than a year after his audition for Little Children, Haley’s eyes still well up when he talks about it. Unlike in All the King’s Men, his role in Little Children is a pivotal one, every bit as important as Winslet’s. As Ronnie, the psychologically unhinged mama’s boy who fights the persecution of a suburban town and a losing battle with his own twisted urges, Haley manages to be both heartbreaking and sickening. When his wife, Amelia, saw the film, she cried. It’s an unshakable performance. And watching it, you can’t help but think how crushing it must have been for Haley to give up acting more than a decade ago just because he no longer resembled the adorable kid Hollywood first fell in love with.

When asked if he ever felt bitter about it, about how the one thing he’d been doing since he was 5 was slowly taken away from him in the most humbling, humiliating fashion, Haley shakes his head and smiles. ”Not at all. I completely took it for granted that I was going to be an actor for the rest of my life. And when it started to slip away, man, it took a long time to make sense of that. But bitter? That would be a waste. It feels so great now to have people come up to me. People who wondered what had happened to me. Honestly, I’m amazed anyone remembered.”

Looking at his smile, watching him act from the tips of his toes on screen, hearing his story now, it really makes no difference whether or not you remembered him. The question is, Are you likely to forget him again?