PARTY OF 50
Scott Wolf Bares All: How the ’90s Heartthrob Survived Hollywood and His Personal Demons
Twenty-five years after the premiere of “Party of Five,” Wolf gets candid about his unlikely path to stardom, true love, and, if you can believe it, playing Nancy Drew’s... DAD.
This wasn’t supposed to happen for Scott Wolf—at least not this way.
Heartthrobs and teen idols and Tiger Beat Adonises, especially of a certain time, specifically of the ’90s, were supposed to be walking through their small hometown malls or ordering an ice cream from the counter at the shop in their town square when a casting director on a summer holiday spotted them from across the street, saw dollar signs in their eyes, and whisked them away to Hollywood. There, they would become It Guys and strong-jawed TV stars and Calvin Klein models.
That magical phrase: “plucked from obscurity.” It’s the Gen X version of gee-golly ’50s nostalgia, a rose-colored gaze back at simpler, more glamorous times. Or, in this case, when people wore more flannel.
But that’s not Scott Wolf’s story, the actor who first rose to fame when he was cast as Bailey Salinger in the Fox primetime drama Party of Five in 1994. Wolf was 26 when the series premiered, 25 years ago this fall.
Yes, his poster soon joined the hallowed Hall of Fame on girls’ bedroom walls alongside Luke Perry and Jason Priestley. Yes, it seemed like he was shot out of a cannon directly into the hearts—and libidos—of teen girls, moms, working women, gay men, and anybody with a pulse, really.
But with Party of Five essentially a high-brow antidote to Beverly Hills: 90210, appealing to adults and critics as much as it did to the cool teens smoking cigarettes in the alley, he and co-stars Neve Campbell, Matthew Fox, and Jennifer Love Hewitt saw the combination of hipness and respect propel them to a different level of TV celebrity.
That celebrity has carried Wolf through a 25-year career that could, in essence, be demarcated by three beloved teen dramas he had roles on: Party of Five, Everwood in the early 2000s, and, now, The CW’s Nancy Drew series, on which he plays—brace yourself, folks—the dad.
It’s a harsh truth that teen idols grow up, and Wolf turned 51 this year. He has his own “party of five,” so to speak: the three kids he’s raising with his wife, life coach Kelley Wolf, in Park City, Utah.
He’s also doing the thing former teen idols aren’t supposed to get to do, or, at least, that we almost never let them do: play the part that excites them, that casts them in a different light, that possibly sets them up for a new phase of their career. For Wolf, that’s starring against type in Inside Game, out Friday, as a womanizing, drug-dealing go-between man in the infamous NBA scandal involving a referee who tipped off bookies on games he officiated.
When he walks into the speakeasy-like second-floor bar at New York’s EDITION hotel, not so much fresh off a Comic-Con blitz in support of Nancy Drew as having survived it, he grins at the leather-and-maple decor. He’s been sneaking night caps there over the last few days with his brother, who lives in New Jersey near where they grew up, just outside the city.
He’s dressed like a dad: slacks, button-down, and a firm handshake. A hot dad, sure. But still. The jawline is practically showing off as he smiles and rolls up his sleeves, excited to dig into it. Two Old Fashioneds are dropped off at the table, and he lifts his to cheers.
It’s the first time since that major start to his career that he’s given an in-depth interview about what he’s been through, where he’s come from, and how he managed to weather two-and-a-half decades in Hollywood largely unscathed. What a nice thing, a rare thing, really, when you think about it: Your favorite star from your favorite show making it to the other side.
It’s not been easy, and it’s not always been happy. This wasn’t supposed to happen for Scott Wolf. But he found a way.
You see, Scott Wolf was going to be a businessman. Or something.
He went to college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., because one of his older brother’s friends went there and touted its awesomeness, which was more than enough for a teenage boy.
He studied finance, because it seemed like the practical thing to do. It’s what his dad did. It’s at this point in recounting his biography that Wolf starts giggling and his dimples concave to such depth they could be officially classified as craters on a topographic map.
“To be honest, I was dating a girl,” he says. “It was my high school girlfriend, who I had an engagement ring on layaway for and was making payments on. That had as much to do with it as anything.”
It wasn’t that he was shunning the idea of acting to be reasonable, or stifling a creative itch in order to be responsible. The truth is, he had never really considered it. Now he knows why he never opened himself up to the idea. And he can also see exactly why it was the path he was always supposed to take.
His parents divorced when he was young, so he grew up in a house, he says, “that had maybe more than your average dysfunction.” His stepfather “wasn’t Man of the Year in any of the years we lived with him; wasn’t even nominated.” His mother, who has since passed, was an alcoholic.
The house was not as safe as a house is supposed to feel for an 8-year-old, which Wolf was at the time, finding himself playing referee to his older and younger brothers. “It just felt safer to not feel stuff, because stuff felt scary,” he says. “Stuff felt sad, you know?”
The thing about clichés is that they tend to be rooted in truth. So when so many actors talk about how TV and the movies were their salvations growing up, it may be cliched, but it’s cliched for a reason.
Wolf remembers being 10 years old, acting as quiet as he could so that his mother wouldn’t notice that he was staying up past his bedtime to catch episodes of St. Elsewhere. He remembers weeping at the end of them, he was so moved. The same thing would happen when his mom would take him into the city to see plays.
“I don’t think I was some 10-year-old kid going, like, I’m looking through this television box at a real group of people,” he says. “I knew it was acting and I knew it was performance. But it made me feel more alive and human than anything else did.”
Still, it wasn’t until a decade later, after a barbecue for his brother’s birthday, that acting ever entered his mind. A friend of his father’s was at the party, and he happened to be a former, though unsuccessful actor. After spending the afternoon with Wolf, he wrote Wolf’s father a letter.
He admitted that what he was writing was crazy, especially since he couldn’t make it in the industry himself, but he sensed something in Wolf that was undeniable. He was supposed to an actor. To his credit, Wolf’s dad didn’t light the letter on fire. In fact, he stuffed it in an envelope and mailed it to Wolf at his dorm in D.C.
Wolf was intrigued. He visited the head of the theater program at GW and explained that, insane though it sounded, he was a senior finance major and was thinking of abandoning it all for acting. How? And...help?
He created an independent study for Wolf, and gave him books not just on craft, but on what headshots are and how to get a manager.
“He was the first person who was standing at the door of this whole new world, who could have closed it in my face. But he said, ‘Come on in,’” Wolf says. “I don’t think it would have stopped me if he slammed the door. But you never know how something like that affects you moving forward, you know?”
After college he went to L.A. There were bit parts in Saved By the Bell and Blossom. Burt Reynolds cast him in two episodes of Evening Shade, his big break. Then came Party of Five, and the rest of his life.
There was a time right around the second season of Party of Five when it grew from critical darling that no one watched to pop-culture phenomenon that won a Golden Globe for Best Drama.
Wolf was reaping the benefits of being the new hot thing: a Laurel Canyon address where he could bunk in luxury with his younger brother, exclusive parties, and primo movie castings.
In this case, there was The Evening Star, a sequel to Terms of Endearment that would see Wolf trade in the intense drama of Party of Five to play a hunky underwear model dating Shirley MacLaine’s granddaughter, and White Squall, a mid-’90s Ridley Scott movie primed to be one of those mid-’90s Ridley Scott massive hits. Wolf joined Jeff Bridges and an entire Teen People’s issue of hot young stars in the cast: Jeremy Sisto, Ryan Phillippe, Ethan Embry, and Balthazar Getty.
A 1996 Entertainment Weekly profile of Wolf spent its first few paragraphs debating whether it was more appropriate to call Wolf “the next Tom Cruise,” given his good looks and magnetic personality, or “the next George Clooney,” considering his TV-to-movies trajectory.
The dimples make a triumphant return when Wolf is reminded of this. “The way my mind works is you can have like 98 people say, ‘I don’t know whether you’re the next Tom Cruise or the next George Clooney.’ And then two people say, ‘He’s like a wooden fool who should be a plumber.’ Those are the ones you remember.”
With a knowing smile, he insists that he enjoyed the spoils of his fame when it was all happening. And there was much attention paid to his celebrity.
He was at one point engaged to Alyssa Milano, in 1993. When he played a closeted gay actor in 1999’s Go, rumor mills swirled about his own sexuality. Mostly though, there was fun—and, thank god, fun that was shielded from today’s constant flashes of iPhones, incessant celebrity coverage, and predatory tabloids.
“I did not hold back in my enjoyment of my life,” he says. “My twenties and early thirties in L.A. were really a blast. I just feel like I was very lucky that when I got sort of slapped across the head with that whole first wave of fame, I saw it for exactly what it was. I was grateful for it because it meant that I could act, and maybe act for a while.”
When the producers of Nancy Drew were looking for someone to replace Freddie Prinze Jr., who played Nancy’s father in the show’s pilot, they reached out to Wolf because they thought he would be a positive influence on the show’s young stars.
He almost can’t believe it himself as he says it: “Now I’m the elder statesman.”
In 2014, Wolf starred in the indie movie 37: A Final Promise, about a depressed rock star who vows to kill himself on his 37th birthday, only to have plans complicated when he meets and falls in love with a woman.
During the press he did for the film, he was adamant that he’s never hit a point as low as his character suffers. But, while, generally speaking, happy, he has been through his fair share of tough shit.
In an interview with ABC News, he talked about going through his own dark spell and bad patterns of behavior when he met his wife, Kelley, in 2002, saying that she “saved him.”
Pressed to talk more about what he meant and what he was going through, he laughs and sighs. “I want to talk about some fun stuff, too! I feel like I should be paying you $140 an hour.”
But he obliged. A virtue of the way he grew up and from various experiences in his life, he never trusted that people were going to stick around when things got hard. If there was one thing that he had faith in, it was that the people closest to him would run for the hills when he needed them most.
So in relationships, when people started to get close, really close to him, “I would start kind of poking and making life difficult for them,” he says. “It was really unfair, but it was my way of like proving that you weren’t gonna be able to do it. And then eventually, like any fucking sentient being who’s poked enough, you leave. Then I would be like, ‘See! I knew it.’”
He knew almost from the moment they met that Kelley was his match. But patterns are patterns for a reason, and he started poking and prodding at her. It all came to a head on one night in New York City when he pushed her to the brink. As it was happening, he had an out-of-body experience, like he was watching his life, his entire chance at being happy, walk out the door.
What happened over the next few hours he likens to a decade of therapy.
“I smashed apart a construct that I had built as an 8-year-old boy to protect myself,” he says. “Because ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do that anymore’ wasn’t going to keep us together. That I managed to do that has everything to do with who she is and what she meant to me. The fact that she was powerful enough to believe me is the most incredible thing I’ve ever been given.”
Before they met, Wolf had been dating a lot in L.A. and experiencing the kind of frustration one gets when they’re in their thirties and still haven’t met their person. He vividly remembers one day that an episode of The Real World: New Orleans was on TV, on which Kelley was a cast member, and seeing her and thinking, “Where’s a girl like that in my life?”
Serendipity came when, a while later, a mutual friend set them up. Whenever they were in New York at the same time, they would go on epic, hours-long dates. On a whim, he invited her on a charity trip to Florida, and by the time they landed back in New York, he knew he was going to ask her to marry him.
It had been over a decade since he had put that diamond on layaway while he was at GW. “Finally, I was able to use that ring,” he laughs.
Last June, Wolf celebrated turning 50 in a way that not many celebrate turning 50. He posted a photo of himself on Instagram shirtless, proudly displaying—and we counted—eight abs. “If posting a shirtless selfie at 50 years old is wrong...I don’t want to be right. #thisis50 #youbetyourassidid,” he wrote in the caption.
“I trained hard for that selfie,” he says, grasping for his Old Fashioned like it could maybe save his life. “It’s funny. Uh. Uh. I don’t know what to say.”
That he was in such great shape was a byproduct of his training to play Tommy Martino in Inside Game. In 2017, NBA referee Tim Donaghy, played by Eric Mabius, was caught gambling on games he officiated in concert with two men with connections to the Gambino crime family: bookie Baba Battista (Will Sasso), and a drug dealer named Tommy, Wolf’s role.
The movie puts Wolf in full-on Italian mode—he’s referred to in the movie as “an Italian Ken doll”—with most scenes requiring him to be either lifting barbells at the gym or smoking a bong. In the opening sequence, he’s caught having sex in a bathroom stall. Considering that Wolf has made an entire career of playing some of the nicest, most well-intentioned men to ever exist, it’s a little jarring.
“I’ve been lucky and worked on a bunch of things over the years, but it had been a minute since I had done something that felt creatively demanding and fulfilling,” he says. “This role and this project, and having that kind of demand placed on me creatively, it just put me back in contact with why, the why of why I’ve always loved doing this.”
It’s a lot of existential, life stuff to think about it, but Wolf is relishing the opportunity to consider it all. He laughs about the post-mortem sure to happen when he meets his wife in a few minutes for dinner, as she’s also just landed in New York City after leading a trip in South Africa as a life coach.
“Turning 50’s a heavy thing, you know? It almost feels like the first mortality birthday. It’s like, 30 is for worrying, ‘How’s my career going?’ Forty is like, ‘How does my whole life look, with family and work?’ And 50 is like, ‘I’m going to die…’”
He lets out an exhausted guffaw, and drains the last bits of his drink. “There are days when you’re like, eh, getting hit by a bus wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. Now I’m making sure to look both ways before crossing the street.”