The evening began at Spago, as so many ’80s nights did for the young and the fun and the famous. A cast of characters that included Rob Lowe, his then-girlfriend, Melissa Gilbert, and Andrew McCarthy dined at the trendy West Hollywood eatery alongside Liza Minnelli before blindly following the chanteuse to somewhere she called “Sammy’s.”
“Sammy’s” turned out to be the Beverly Hills mansion of Sammy Davis Jr., where the Rat Packer ushered members of the soon-to-be-minted Brat Pack into his party pad for a night of billiards and drinking that ended with McCarthy struggling not to vomit all over Minnelli’s Rolls-Royce on the drive home.
“I’ll never get that image out of my mind when the door opens and you look straight ahead, and there’s nobody there. Then you look down, and there’s Sammy,” McCarthy said. “Rob just looked at me and goes, ‘Holy s---.’ ”
Most of this fantastical order of events is recounted in McCarthy’s new memoir, but he delights in breathlessly telling it again at the mention of the intergenerational outing. “Oh my God! It was one of the craziest — first, I’m sitting at dinner next to Liza. And then we go to Sammy’s. I mean, how?” he laughed. “I was a long way from New Jersey.”
Now he’s a long way from Sammy’s. Chatting via video from the sun-dappled kitchen of his lake house in Upstate New York, McCarthy is embodying the role of middle-aged dad working from home in the pandemic. He joins the call, then immediately pops on his reading glasses to text his teenage daughter before we begin and scrambles to silence the bing of unrelated emails.
The face on the screen is still the same face that won the hearts of viewers and Molly Ringwald in the 1986 teen classic “Pretty in Pink.” A few decades older, a few decades wiser. His eyes don’t widen with boyish wonder as often as they once did but rather crinkle with intensity as he carefully unpacks his origin story. He wanders down scholarly tangents, quoting Joan Didion and theories of enlightenment, punctuating his thoughts with a frequent, inconclusive refrain of “but anyway.”
The fact that we’re even having this conversation represents a marked shift for the 58-year-old.
For decades, McCarthy flinched at his association with the “Brat Pack” label and took pains to distance himself from his time as an inadvertent matinee idol. While fans enveloped themselves in the comforting nostalgia of his ’80s films on VHS, DVD and now streaming, McCarthy ignored the rearview. He became an accomplished travel writer, publishing a travel memoir, and served as the editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. He wrote a YA novel told through the eyes of a teen girl. He pivoted to TV directing, helming dozens of episodes of shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Blacklist,” “The Sinner” and “Gossip Girl.”
Until, finally, the self-described “not a nostalgic person” decided he should confront the decade that made him a household name among a certain group of Gen X pop culture lovers. (On McCarthy’s Instagram, fans in their 40s and 50s still leave comments letting him know that posters of his face once hung on their bedroom walls or that they named their sons after his “Pretty in Pink” character, Blane.)
“This was the definitive moment in my life, these couple of years, and I never looked at it,” he said. “So, I thought I should look under that rock and see if I actually had anything to learn from it, and then, anything to offer from it.”
With “Brat: An ’80s Story,” out May 11, he offers not only a recollection of his experiences shooting films like “Pretty in Pink,” “Mannequin,” “Weekend at Bernie’s” and the Georgetown-set ensemble “St. Elmo’s Fire,” but a broader exploration of the tangled nature of success, fame, his complicated relationship with his father and his personal demons. Less sordid tell-all, more contemplative reflection. He writes about his New Jersey upbringing and his New York education — the latter obtained during a stint at NYU and by sneaking into any Broadway audience he could manage — landing his first movie role at age 20 in “Class,” in which he romanced a then-38-year-old Jacqueline Bisset, and how the chaotic decade unfolded from there.
Through it all, McCarthy felt like an outsider. He developed an aloof exterior and a general blasé attitude toward the industry. He inadvertently blew opportunities and distanced himself from the Hollywood scene. It was a revelation when, years later, Alec Baldwin suggested during a podcast appearance that maybe McCarthy never wanted to be famous in the first place.
Still, McCarthy maintains his book isn’t a definitive account of that heady time, but rather the way he remembers it. He chose to abstain from consulting with others who were along for the ride about their own impressions and, he somewhat sheepishly admitted, he has not read any of his peers’ memoirs.
“Memory is a funny thing,” he noted. In Gilbert’s memoir, for instance, the “Little House on the Prairie” star wrote that the aforementioned outing at Spago and Sammy’s included Michael Jackson at their dinner table and Minnelli and McCarthy publicly “making out” at the end of the night. Both of those points, according to McCarthy’s rep in a follow-up email, are “absolutely untrue.”
The paradox of both the “Brat” book title and the label in general, of course, is that the Brat Pack never really existed as a definitive group in the first place. In 1985, New York Magazine writer David Blum was tasked with writing a profile on McCarthy’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” co-star Emilio Estevez. But after trailing him, Lowe and Judd Nelson to a Hard Rock Café one night where the stars chatted up women and reveled in their popularity, Blum opted to publish a sweeping, scathing commentary on this new generation of young celebrities instead. He included everyone from Tom Cruise to Nicolas Cage, basically anyone under 25 who had appeared in a coming-of-age film with other under-25-year-olds. The cover line? “Hollywood’s Brat Pack.”
McCarthy, an introspective East Coaster at heart who “was not aggressively showbiz oriented” didn’t attend the documented raucous outing, and his only mention in the piece is a single, anonymous quote from one of his “St. Elmo’s Fire” brethren, who quipped that McCarthy “plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don’t think he’ll make it.”
Looking back on the dynamic with his male co-stars, McCarthy said, “I don’t know that I felt excluded by them. I just felt excluded from them. I think that was more my own thing. They were perfectly fine and nice to me.” Still, reading the printed quote from one of them, he said, “hurt my feelings.” (He’s unwilling to guess which of the three said it: “I don’t care. Who cares.”)
Adding insult to injury, he was cropped out of the cover photo, which was a publicity still from the movie. “Initially, you look at the cover, and you go, ‘Wait, I should be in this!’ Then, you read the article and go, ‘Thank God, I’m not in it,’ ” he said. “Then, two weeks later, it doesn’t matter because ‘Pretty in Pink’ comes out and is a huge hit, and you get swallowed up into it anyway.”
But, by lumping the rising stars together, Blum inadvertently dismantled the whole system. The actors weren’t all palling around en masse before (some, like Demi Moore and Estevez, did date each other), and as soon as the magazine hit stands, most scattered in fear of being forever tied to the perceived slur.
“The minute that term was invented, those movies stopped happening because actors stopped wanting to be in a movie with anyone contemporary,” McCarthy said.
Estevez shirked from doing a film about the men who created the Woodstock music festival after learning McCarthy would be involved. And McCarthy hasn’t spoken to most of his former co-stars in decades.
“There were so few of us that that happened to, and it happened to us in a big way. I’ve never talked to any of them about it,” he said. “I hope we’d all be okay to talk about it again, but there’s no talk of getting the band back together for that greatest hits tour.”
Label or not, the effects of fame were immediate and profound. While filming “Pretty in Pink,” McCarthy recalls in the book, co-star James Spader took him to a strip club where a dancer named Glitter altered her usual routine to include the theme song from “St. Elmo’s Fire” and proceeded to date McCarthy for a brief time.
“I’m suddenly catnip where a week before I would not have been looked at twice. That’s a weird adjustment,” he said. “Fame cellularly changes people. It changed who I became.”
And while Ringwald is responsible for landing him his most recognizable role — she convinced “Pretty in Pink” producer John Hughes that she’d be more likely to fall for a sweet, sensitive guy like McCarthy than a square-jawed, stereotypical leading man — McCarthy didn’t feel a strong kinship with her, either. “Molly and I have always had a funny sort of affection at a distance from each other,” he said.
He did, however, send Ringwald sections of “Brat” that mentioned her ahead of publication as a courtesy: “She said, ‘That’s lovely. I have no notes. Nothing makes me bristle. I think I might write one, but I have to wait till everyone’s dead.’ ”
Before production began on “St. Elmo’s Fire,” director Joel Schumacher lectured the cast about Moore’s recent cocaine addiction and the importance of maintaining her sobriety. For McCarthy, who had his first alcoholic drink around age 12 and who had been drinking heavily throughout his career, the concept of being sober seemed completely foreign.
He continued operating in a mostly hung-over state on subsequent film sets and performed his first scenes high on coke while shooting 1987′s “Less Than Zero,” during which, he wrote, “smiling drug dealers regularly popped by the set like FedEx delivery men.” His alcoholism increasingly consumed his life and career until he checked himself into a hospital, followed by rehab, at 29. He’s been sober ever since.
“I often had an image of a rock and a piece of metal soldered on top of it — and that was my drinking and my career,” he said. “It took me a long time after I stopped drinking to separate those. My success did not cause my drinking. It allowed me to drink better vodka. But it existed in and of itself and was just parallel to it.”
Reflecting on his on-set experiences in the ’80s, McCarthy also describes multiple incidents that would draw scorn if they occurred today. Like when, he wrote, Schumacher screamed at McCarthy and Ally Sheedy during their intimate “St. Elmo’s Fire” sex scene causing Sheedy to burst into tears, or when “Heaven Help Us” cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek whacked McCarthy with his cane for looking through his camera and told him to “hit your f---ing mark.” But McCarthy is adamant that he “never considered anything that happened in the time to be abusive.”
“I never thought I was being abused or violated. I just thought, ‘Whoa. Well, I guess I shouldn’t look through the camera.’ That was perfectly acceptable and appropriate at the time,” McCarthy said. “Culturally, we’ve all become more sensitive, which is a good thing. And, you know, you talk to other people who go, ‘No, that was abuse. You were abused.’ That’s fine by them, but I did not feel that way.”
After battling covid early in the pandemic — a fitful two nights at home during which he convinced himself he was “going to die” — McCarthy has started directing again and reprised his role as a hit man on Season 4 of NBC’s “Good Girls.” Bouncing between creative pursuits suits him. Plus, he said, “I’m utterly unequipped to do any real job. What would I do? I have no qualifications.”
And despite McCarthy’s adamant belief that “no one should be famous before they’re 30,” two of his children have also pursued acting careers. His 19-year-old son, Sam, (with ex-wife Carol Schneider) co-stars on Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” and his 14-year-old daughter, Willow, (with wife Dolores Rice) played the titular role in Broadway’s “Matilda” musical.
“The last thing I ever wanted, I always said, was for my children to become actors,” he said with a sigh. “Life is cruel to parents, isn’t it?”
Still, McCarthy’s kids (he and Rice are also parents to son Rowan, 7) have little interest in their dad’s contributions to cinematic history. A viewing of “Weekend at Bernie’s” merited a “Dad, that’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen” reaction from Sam, while Willow only made it through the “Pretty in Pink” trailer before declaring, “I am not watching that movie. I do not want to see you kissing somebody.” Coincidentally, Sam also played Ringwald’s on-screen son in the 2018 indie flick “All These Small Moments.” When he was cast, McCarthy asked him who else was in the movie. Sam’s response: “ ‘Somebody named Molly something.’ ”
To younger generations, in general, the term “Brat Pack” now conjures a hazy vibe of ’80s high-schoolers and John Hughes. The sordid minutia of the New York magazine article or any negative stereotypes that surrounded it are all mostly forgotten.
Even McCarthy has made peace with the label that will follow him forever. More than peace, he insisted. He has “affection” for it. “It’s a great term, you’ve got to admit,” he said. “It’s caught on for a reason.” He’s also not opposed to seeing his films rebooted or sequeled and would consider reprising his classic roles.
“They’re not so sacred that they shouldn’t be messed with, and I’m not so precious that I’m like, no, I wouldn’t touch that,” he said. “They mean more to other people than they do to me.”
McCarthy has spent a lot of time thinking about exactly why that is. After a draft or two of his memoir, he ultimately settled on this: It’s not really about him or his characters or the movies or the Brat Pack at all. He, the not-nostalgic person, is a mere avatar for everyone else’s nostalgia.
“What they’re talking about is their own youth. What I represent, really, to so many people is their own [coming-of-age] moment,” he said. “And to be able to serve that function for people, to be the avatar of that, is actually a great gift. That’s what I came to realize. It’s not a prison. It’s not a box. It’s not a stigma. It’s all those things, but it’s also this blessing in a way.”
Ashley Spencer is a freelance writer and reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. Follow her at @AshleyySpencer.