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A morning with former boy wonder Chris O'Donnell

Photo of O'Connell at BCThe only BC graduate ever named to People magazine's "most beautiful people in the world" list turned up in late April at an Alumni House breakfast reception looking happy and rumpled in jeans, a sports shirt, loafers with no socks, and carrying a Dunkin Donuts medium. Chris O'Donnell '92, star of screen and latterly stage, was on campus to receive an achievement award at the fifth annual BC Arts Festival, and the 9:00 A.M. buffet was the first stop in what would be a day of handshakes, autographs, sitting for an "Inside the BC Studio" interview in a tent on O'Neill Plaza, meetings with local media, and visits to old haunts, including a drop-in on some stunned freshmen who happened to be living in O'Donnell's old room in the basement of Duchesne.

In the Alumni House library, O'Donnell sipped his coffee, greeted old friends, posed for photographs with anyone who asked, recalled student escapades (an administrator standing near me confided that he'd been a member of a disciplinary panel that removed O'Donnell from campus housing in his sophomore year), and accepted gifts of maroon and gold football jerseys for his son and daughter and a gift-wrapped box for his wife ("a maroon and gold negligee?" he quipped). And after he had made his thanks, he retreated to a wall he could lean against, where he chatted amiably with students who gathered around him.

O'Donnell was just as relaxed and engaging on O'Neill Plaza later in the morning, where before an audience of several hundred students (two-thirds female) he was interviewed by Luke Jorgensen '91, a member of the theater faculty who had been O'Donnell's RA in the old days. In fact, there was at least one moment when O'Donnell seemed to be the only relaxed person in the place. It came early in the interview when Jorgensen re- cited the titles of most of O'Donnell's 15 movies. All drew cheers and applause, and some—Scent of a Woman and Circle of Friends—drew roars, until Jorgensen got to The Bachelor, a Christmas 1999 bomb whose reviews are still painful to read. Silence in the tent. A few frozen smiles. A titter or two. And O'Donnell on stage, grinning in amusement.

The interview provided a good deal more evidence that the man whose movie gift was to be a boy or boyish was in fact a grown-up (a "mensch," in the argot of Hollywood). O'Donnell thanked BC faculty by name for the help they gave him when he was a student torn between a marketing degree and a movie career, and did no Hollywood-related name-dropping that was not required. Additionally, all his jokes were on himself, he was interesting and articulate on the variant exhaustions caused by film and stage acting, and he cleanly admitted that he did not try to be a serious actor until late in his 13-year career. Schooled in modeling, not theater, "I relied on instinct. I had the same bag of tricks I would use," he said. A sharp turning point came when he was chosen last year for his first stage role, the lead in Arthur Miller's The Man With All the Luck. He rehearsed so relentlessly, he said in a television interview, that walking on the street in New York he would hear people using random words from the script in speech and would complete their sentences with play dialogue. The reviews of his performance were uniformly good. O'Donnell is next scheduled to appear in a movie about the life of Alfred Kinsey, who researched America's sexual practices in the 1950s.

At the end of the interview, students lined up at floor microphones to ask questions. One asked whether O'Donnell would want his children to become actors. He turned the question a bit. "I worry sometimes about kids in L.A.," he replied. "There's an incredible amount of wealth. You want to keep things in perspective for your kids. I worry more about the lifestyle than whether they'll become actors."

Later, O'Donnell met with Michael DiMattina '04, who like him hails from the Chicago area. DiMattina is the first recipient of a financial aid scholarship created by the actor.

Ben Birnbaum

Photo: Actor Chris O'Donnell '92 (left) with the theater department's Luke Jorgensen. By Lee Pellegrini

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  » More about Chris O'Donnell
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  » More from the BC Chronicle
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  » A review of O'Donnell's Broadway debut in The Man Who Had All the Luck


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