If you were a child growing up in the ’90s, you probably saw the film Free Willy. (And you probably watched it so many times your VHS tape got too worn out to play.) If you were one of those kids who saw and fell in love with the movie, about the unlikely bond between a boy and a whale, you definitely wanted to be that boy. After all, how cool would it have been to play with a giant whale all day? Well, Jason James Richter was that boy. And, he confirms, it was extremely cool.
Now brace yourself for this next bit of information.
July 16 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Free Willy, the small family film that defied all expectations to earn a whale-size $77 million at the domestic box office, roughly $149 million when adjusted for inflation, and spawn two sequels. It also turned Jason James Richter, who was just 13 when Free Willy hit theaters, into a Teen Beat–covering, mobbed-in-the-grocery-store millionaire.
He can’t believe it’s been 20 years, either.
“It makes me feel old, dude,” Richter, who is now 33 and diving headfirst back into an acting career, tells The Daily Beast. “I’ve had kids come to me and say, ‘Oh, I loved your movie when I was a kid and I became a marine biologist.’ It’s crazy.”
Richter, who opens a production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story in Los Angeles on July 18, is all too familiar with the rumor-mongering fascination that accompanies being the megawatt star of a beloved franchise who decides to step away from the spotlight. “There were rumors that I got a face tattoo,” he says. “That I got into a car accident. That I became a drug addict. All this stuff. If you don’t tell them anything, people will just make up crap, even if the film is 20 years old.”
A Navy brat who was born in Oregon and lived in Hawaii and San Diego, Richter beat out 4,000 other young actors for the role of Jesse in Free Willy—a petulant 12-year-old orphan who comes out of his shell after befriending a three-ton orca whale while cleaning up graffiti at a theme park, eventually launching a crusade to free him from captivity.
“He’s a young Steve McQueen,” recalled producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, who gambled by casting then-unknown Richter in the film. “He was exactly what we were looking for,” she said just prior to the release of its first sequel in 1995—a film for which Richter doubled his fee to $1 million at the ripe old age of 15. “A kid with a troubled face and a heart of gold.”
But after shooting two Free Willy sequels, a handful of other films (The Neverending Story III, Laserhawk, The Setting Son), and some guest-starring TV roles (The Client; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), Richter decided to walk away from acting altogether in 1998, at 18. “I had been on sets since I was 11 years old,” he says. “I just needed a break.”
The next chapter of his life, then, came courtesy of Jimi Hendrix.
“It’s so typical,” he says. “I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was 10 or 11 and was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ And my parents were like, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix.’” He got a guitar immediately, eventually becoming obsessed with it. He became heavily involved in music right around the time he made the decision to quit acting, and that’s when he began touring the country as a musician. He bounced around between bands for a while before joining a band named Fermata as a bassist.
The band did three U.S. tours and released one big single, “Frustrated,” in 2006. Richter had left behind the Hollywood lifestyle to live in a van off “eight bucks a day for dinner,” he recalls. And he couldn’t have been happier.
“It was a kick to the shins, no doubt about it,” he says. “But the beauty of the experience for me was the autonomy. No one gave a crap that I was the kid from Free Willy. You’re not in some wispy fantasyland where everyone’s telling you ‘yes’ all the time, which happens a lot to actors. I was just one of the guys. It was all about whether your music was good.”
But after years touring the country, Richter caught the acting bug again. Since 2009, he’s guest-starred on Bones and Criminal Minds, and wrote, directed, and starred in a short film called “The Quiet Loud”—based on a screenplay he’s writing—that can be streamed on Vimeo. He has two film projects in development: a horror film called 3 Solitude, which is set to begin shooting in the spring, and a thriller called Vicious, which is starting production in August.
His production of The Zoo Story will run for two weekends at the Ruby Theatre in Los Angeles—July 18–21 and July 25–28—during the break of which Richter will shoot a spec pilot about a struggling musician who moves to Los Angeles from Colorado, which he plans to shop around to networks. But in the meantime, he’s more than happy to reminisce about the film that changed his life two decades ago.
At least the parts he remembers—it’s been 20 years, after all. But even the passage of time can’t erase the rush he got the first time he jumped into that water tank in Mexico City and met Keiko, his 3,000-pound costar.
“I remember it being one of those moments of pure and utter fascination as a child,” he says. “You don’t see the danger. At 11 years old, you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, a whale! That’s amazing! This will be awesome!’ Had I been 17, I might have been like, ‘Hey, this thing is going to bite my hand off,’ but when you’re 11 you’re just like, ‘Oh, wow. Cool. Let me touch it.’”
The whole experience of filming the series was a whirlwind. Learning, at age 11, how to train a whale. Swimming with Keiko on a daily basis. Filming in Mexico City, where his tutor would supplement world-history lessons with trips to nearby Aztec ruins. Traveling the world on promotional tours and having to—through a translator—calm European crowds of 7,000 kids who showed up for an autograph signing, in order to prevent riots. Being recognized still, at age 33, while on vacation with his girlfriend as the star of Free Willy. And then, after leaving the whole industry behind 15 years ago, finding himself now itching to get back into the biz again.
“What a truly strange trip it’s been,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the next 20 years.”