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A Former Child Star's Grown-Up Reward

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Most of your Oscar-nominated movie stars don't pick up the phone and holler, "Hey, man, it's Jackie Earle, call me back!" and leave a message with their home number. When they do lunch? It's usually not in the blandlands of the San Fernando Valley, a few miles from where they grew up in Canoga Park. Cate Blanchett? Eddie Murphy? We don't make them for Cheesecake Factory people, but that's exactly where Jackie Earle Haley wants to eat. He's going to have that Hawaiian pizza, the one with pineapples and bacon. He's a regular.

When Haley shows up, alone, on time, nobody recognizes him. Haley is a little guy, not more than 5-5, with jug ears and a shaved head that looks like the last peanut in the bowl. He wears a bristly goatee, gone to salt and pepper, and glasses tinted hippie blue. He is 45 years old. You can see he still bites his nails. He wonders why. The hostess tells Haley it'll be 10 minutes for a table. But at the bar? Seat yourself.

Could there be a more improbable contender for an Academy Award this season? Haley's last feature film role was 13 years ago, in "Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence," a zombie movie so lame that when asked about it, Haley just waves his hands, like "Please, no, stop."

Haley was so out of the loop it took the director who eventually brought him back to Hollywood two months just to find him. He had no agent, no manager, no publicist. He was (and still is) living in San Antonio, directing TV commercials for gas stations and grocery chains. "I would go to the movie theaters and watch a movie like all of us do," he says, "and every time, dude, there was always this little wince. I wish I could be doing that. I wish I could be up there. I wish I could come back."

And then he did.

His portrayal of convicted flasher Ronnie McGorvey in "Little Children," Todd Field's drama of suburban moral malaise, won him a Best Supporting Actor nod. "A pedophilic pervert . . . played to perfection," Slate.com declared; "a creepy, ferrety-looking man" (Variety) "whose very skull conveys depravity" (Entertainment Weekly); "brilliantly and chillingly played" (New York Observer). He cracked most critics' top 10 lists.

His story: Haley was blessed with the curse of success as a child actor. His auspicious beginning came to dominate all the good and all the bad that followed. Haley confesses that he has spent his whole life, really, trying to understand what happened to him as a kid -- and to deal with what happened later, when he changed from teen dream to lost adult, and Hollywood no longer wanted him, no longer loved him.

Beginning with turns on "The Partridge Family" and "The Waltons," Haley was that strange and rare hybrid, the professional 10-year-old. He broke out as the tough kid Kelly Leak in the hit "Bad News Bears" in 1976. A few years later, he was Moocher in the wonderful coming-of-age film "Breaking Away," starring alongside Dennis Quaid.

When he was 14, Haley rode limos, not bikes. He traveled with Tatum O'Neal doing press for the "Bears" premiere. Girls would chase him through amusement parks. It was nuts. "Oh, yeah, it was cool," Haley says. "I guess. . . .It's tough at that age. It's confusing to a developing mind. You walk into a restaurant like this and all eyes are on you. It can do things to you, especially a kid."

He remembers buying his family a swimming pool.

Ten years later, Haley was back home living with Mom, broke, delivering pizzas, saying he hoped the person who answered the door wouldn't recognize him, but mostly hoping for a decent tip.

"It took me years and years and years to get where I am," he says. Haley speaks clearly and holds your eye. Eating his own pizza now. Full circle. He doesn't appear to want sympathy (his story has a happy ending); rather, he tries to make you understand what it was like to be him.

"When you're a child actor and you're a celebrity," he says, "your identity gets attached to that. Unwittingly. When that stopped, I had an identity crisis. And I didn't even know what that was. An identity crisis. My self-esteem got attached to this thing that wasn't real, and when that stopped, you're stuck with an identity that doesn't exist. That's a deep hole to climb out of."

He continues. "I mean years, trying to deal with that emotionally, to uncover it, to look at it, to try to grow from it, to accept it, to move on, and look forward with hope instead of looking backward with -- "

Whatever?

"No, with sorrow and loss and -- "

You keep interrupting him. Because you're afraid he's going to start crying in a Cheesecake Factory. Because his force field is down, and you feel like you want to be careful. But Haley just keeps talking. He's not at all embarrassed to be letting it all hang out there, his private disappointments, in a crowded restaurant. He'll tell his story. "Some people have a tendency to go off on the deep end. Luckily, I don't know how or why, instead of going off the end, I chose to reach out and get help," he says.

So you shrinked your way out?

"It was a combination," Haley says, "of everything. Some therapy, some friends, people who have been there. Books. Like anything I could grab onto, like 'I'm OK, You're OK.' "

His mother saved him. When he was a kid, she sang like Rosemary Clooney, he says, and recorded a handful of albums, but stopped when, as Haley puts, "she started to plunk out kids." She took up painting, doing oils of beaches and barns. "I think she did it out of necessity. She got a van and put the paintings in the van and would show up at art fairs and run around selling to make ends meet. My dad was struggling."

His father, Bud Haley, was a radio disc jockey who jumped ship into acting. He didn't make it to shore. One of his father's golf buddies was looking for a kid to voice Dennis the Menace.

"I remember going into the den and my dad had this little reel-to-reel and my dad got out this little mike and had a script. He'd read a line and I'd say it back, just like he read it. He'd read a line, I'd say a line. Back and forth. I guess I got the part because we went to a recording studio and did it again." Haley was 5.

"Then my dad got the idea I should get an agent. I was 7. I started going around to auditions, doing commercials and cartoons. My dad was taking me. It was him teaching me. That's how it started. It was really my dad deciding."

What happened to all the money?

"Name me one child actor," Haley says, "who after he became an adult had this lifelong supply of cash." Haley explains that the child actors of the 1970s didn't make the same kind of pay as Dakota Fanning does today. But still. All of it, gone?

"As much as I love and miss my dad, he had problems of his own, and one of them was gambling."

Cards or ponies?

"He was a professional blackjack player. He became obsessed with it. He learned to count cards. He became quite good at it. He wrote a book on the subject. It was even published. He won $75,000 once at a tournament in Vegas. But gambling is gambling."

Bud died eight years ago, long after his son had given up acting, and was producing infomercials. "I recall one time, I was a little kid, and we're driving along, on our way home from an audition, and I have this memory, just burned into me," Haley says. "My dad looked over at me and said, 'When you grow up, you're going to hate me.' "

Haley says, sure, he wishes his father hadn't gambled away the money. "But it's also irrelevant. I love my dad. By the time I turned 18 and got the money I'd have blown it all anyway. I would have done all the stupid things a kid does with money, whether it was $50,000 or $500,000. I was going to whip through it, in a big alcoholic burst. No doubt in my mind, I would have ripped through it."

As a child actor, Haley says, "I was so programmed to expect that opportunity would seek me." It did not. After his body and his voice changed, after he stopped growing and began to look no longer cute and scrappy but ferrety and scary, what he calls "a character-actor-looking guy," he waited for the phone to ring. "I waited for 10 years." The roles became fewer, badder. "All of a sudden, they ask if you want to play this B role in this B movie and suddenly the quality of the role wasn't as important as paying my bills. And then a B movie leads to a C movie to D to F to theatrical oblivion."

To make ends meet, he drove a limo and worked as a security guard and did construction. It was embarrassing for him. Not the work, but when people would ask, hey, aren't you the guy who? And living with his mom. At 30.

Finally, Haley had his epiphany: It was over. "So I took the path of least resistance" and went corporate -- step by step, doing sound, editing, lighting, producing, making promotional and instructional videos. He got into direct-response commercials, better known as infomercials. Eight years ago he moved to San Antonio, coaxed there by a work friend, where he started his own company making TV commercials. "For the last five years, I've been making a good living at it. For the first time in my life, I'm not behind on my bills." He got married again, for the third time, happily. He and his wife were honeymooning in France when director Steve Zaillian tracked him down for a part, a meaty supporting role as the bodyguard Sugar Boy in "All the King's Men," alongside Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Sean Penn.

"I don't know if you can imagine what I was feeling. This came out of nowhere. I send in an audition tape and the next day I get the phone call. There was this great hope and this great fear. I thought I just might get a second chance. And fear that I might get right to the edge and it won't happen again." It did. "Little Children" followed.

So it all worked out?

"I don't know the answer to that. I really don't," Haley says. "This is a tough one because it's a confusing answer. If I had to live this all over again, I would choose to live it the same way. And I don't know why. But I would. I fell in love with the craft. But it was a big emotional price. It's really almost impossible to make it in this business once. And it's like super-duper impossible to make it in this business twice."

He has two children; Christopher is in his 20s; Olivia is 8 years old. He wouldn't let the younger one act professionally, he says. No way.

"I know that's hypocritical, but that's the way I feel. I wouldn't want [her] to do it. I just really, really wouldn't."

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