As a child, Charlie Korsmo made an auspicious start as an actor, playing Jessica Lange's troubled younger son in the drama "Men Don't Leave" (1990). Later that year, he was well-cast as the precocious...
When a major component of your marketability is your childish adorability, your career effectively has an expiration date. Up to this point, we’ve only examined one AWOL child actor, Charlie Korsmo, and he was a complete anomaly. Instead of waiting for the doors to begin closing in his puberty-riddled face, he made the difficult choice to retire from acting at 13. Today’s subject seems to have ridden the rollercoaster of prepubescent stardom in a much more conventional sense.
Today, we go searching for Haley Joel Osment.
Why We Love Him
Haley Joel began his acting career at the age of four, starring in commercials which few remember, but that nevertheless emphasized his cuteness. Obviously big screen opportunities weren’t far behind. Some people may remember Osment’s limited screen time in 1994’s Forrest Gump; playing the titular character’s young son. Or perhaps your earliest recollection of this cherubic half-pint was his 35-episode stint The Jeff Foxworthy Show; if you were…lucky enough to have watched that series.
But it’s safe to say that audiences were formally introduced to Haley Joel Osment in a little film about the darker side of child psychology: 1999’s The Sixth Sense. Osment played a little boy named Cole who had something of a unique extracurricular activity. Cole had the ability to communicate with ghosts who, instead of politely making an appointment to meet with him at an agreed upon time and location, would just randomly pop into view at the most frighteningly, cinematically advantageous moments. The Sixth Sense scared the proper bejesus out of people and became the first hit film for then-fledgling director M. Night Shyamalan.
What made Haley Joel so effective in The Sixth Sense was his ability to convey extreme personal torment and give the film’s young protagonist so many layers. If his character’s only response to every given stimulus had been fright, the performance would have been flat and one-note. But Osment’s acting chops, even at such a young age, were remarkably strong. He gave us a tortured young man who was confounded by a gift to see the dead while, at the same time, longing to connect with the living — especially his mother. The parallels between he and Bruce Willis’ character were profound and we come to understand how their relationship informs Cole’s journey. In essence, Osment’s performance is what makes the film’s twist so powerful. The performance earned Osment an Oscar nomination, making him the eighth youngest nominee.
What Happened to Him?
Osment would go on to work with an impressive roster of actors and filmmakers as his career progressed. Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey were his costars for the drama Pay It Forward and he then went on to star in Steven Spielberg’s cerebral sci-fi flick A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. This is no small honor for any actor, much less one so young, but A.I. does not mark the beginning of Spielberg’s interest in Osment. When it was rumored that Spielberg was going to helm the first Harry Potter film, Osment was his top choice for the heroic lead role.
But after A.I., Osment started to fade away from the silver screen. He began doing a great deal of voice work for Disney including Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Jungle Book 2, and the grizzly-sized disaster that was The Country Bears. He also lent his voice to the wildly successful Disney videogame Kingdom Hearts. It seemed as if he was vanishing into voice acting. In fact, 2003’s Secondhand Lions was his last theatrically released film. In 2006, he was involved in a rather nasty car accident in which he sustained major injuries. The accident was allegedly due to Osment’s intoxication and he did plead no contest to driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. It seemed the child actor curse was nipping at his heels.
Where He’s Been
Since 2003, Osment has been doing voice acting almost exclusively. Kingdom Hearts has become a videogame franchise and has kept Osment very busy since the last time anyone saw him on screen. Osment has also honed his stage acting skills during his cinematic hiatus; appearing on Broadway in American Buffalo in 2008. He’s been quoted as saying he’s never been interested in promoting himself so his quiet disappearance from the big screen of late doesn’t seem to be a major frustration for him.
Haley Joel Osment does have some live-action film work lined up and, I have to say, I am very excited about one project in particular. Osment will be portraying Victor Frankenstein in an adaptation of Steve Niles’ graphic novel Wake the Dead. The story is sort of a creative retelling of the legend of Frankenstein and focuses on his experiences as a young medical student.
As a confirmed horrorphile, of course this project interests me, but should this film mark Osment’s triumphant return to mainstream popularity there would exist an interesting synchronicity to his career— his first major film role in years revolving around the dead returning to life.
Last week we discussed a man who made just as much of an impact in his old age as he did when he was a young man: Sir Sean Connery. This week I’d like to take a slightly different approach and put out an APB on a former child star who hasn’t seen much screen time since the dreaded onset of puberty. Today, we ask the burning question, where in the world is Charlie Korsmo?
Why We Love Him
For a brief period in the early 90s, Charlie Korsmo was the biggest little star in the world. Anytime a script called for a precocious, brainy little boy, the phone rang at the Korsmo house. It began in 1990 when he got his first starring role in Warren Beatty’s colorful film adaptation of the Dick Tracy comic strip. He demonstrated a star power and screen presence that belied his young age and actually exhibited an arguably deeper emotional range than the film’s hero/director. While Dick Tracy served as his official big break, the fact that his character was known simply as Kid served as a nod to his pigeonhole as a child actor; something that ordinarily brands a career with an expiration date.
From there, he was cast in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s imaginative revisiting of J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. The interesting thing about Hook, in terms of Korsmo’s performance, is that so much of the soul of that world is the idea that its hero never grows up. But Hook is about a Peter Pan that did in fact grow up so the task of recapturing the essence of the original story therefore fell to the supporting cast of child actors. Korsmo, as the son of the now grown Pan, was as charming as he was fiercely independent; rising to the challenge perfectly.
Though it is a film that doesn’t get a great deal of attention, I really enjoyed Korsmo in Frank Oz’s 1991 comedy What About Bob? The film stars Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss as, respectively, a complete basket case and the media darling psychologist temporarily assigned to treat him. Murray spends the entire film dancing through a ballet of unbelievable neuroses and getting inappropriate close to Dreyfuss’ family, including his son Siggy (played by Korsmo). This role in particular showcases Korsmo’s braininess and how his beyond-his-years wit was his greatest attribute.
What Happened To Him?
Reflective of the surprising maturity demonstrated by his characters, Korsmo made the decision at the tender age of thirteen to give up acting. He wasn’t thrilled with the taxing price of fame and wanted to return to a normal life. In other words, a young man just entering puberty who is being lavished with attention and making enough money to obtain anything he may want opts to be a regular kid again? Astonishing! This may be a major reason why, unlike many child stars, Korsmo’s life wasn’t later marked by controversy and scandal. Interesting side note to his retirement is that it allowed for other child actors to be discovered. Many of the roles he would later turn down actually ended up going to a young Elijah Wood (including The Good Son) while he also declined the chance to play John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day; a decision for which Edward Furlong should still thank him.
Where’s He Been?
Korsmo did make a triumphant comeback in 1998 when he was cast in one of the lead roles in the ensemble comedy Can’t Hardly Wait. He played, not surprisingly, the high school super nerd who planned to get revenge on the jock who had tortured him the previous four years. More than ever, Korsmo got to let his inherent smarty-pantsness shine through while also proving his chops as a wildly silly and adept comedian. The scene wherein he discovers alcohol for the first time is now teen movie cannon; very impressive. But then, like Keyser Söze, he was gone again.
I know I keep mentioning the mental acumen of Korsmo as it is a major threadline that runs through his body of work. But it also serves as a precursor to where good ol’ Charlie ended up. Korsmo ended up attending MIT and scoring a perfect GPA in the area of physics. He then spent time holding various government jobs before going on to receive a law degree from Yale, only one of the most prestigious schools on the planet. Clearly, the smarts displayed by his various characters, even at a young age, were no Hollywood façade. Given his immense success in both academia and politics, I don’t anticipate his return to film any time soon. But Can’t Hardly Wait provided sufficient evidence that Charlie Korsmo is just as talented as an adult as he ever was as a Kid.
Joined the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC as a policy briefer
Last film for seven years, "Hook"
Co-starred in the TNT movie "Heat Wave"
Raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hosted the "Creative Beginnings" segment of the PBS documentary "The Creative Spirit"
Film debut as Jessica Lange's son in "Men Don't Leave"
As a child, Charlie Korsmo made an auspicious start as an actor, playing Jessica Lange's troubled younger son in the drama "Men Don't Leave" (1990). Later that year, he was well-cast as the precocious street urchin known simply as 'The Kid' in Warren Beatty's big-budget "Dick Tracy". In 1991, Korsmo appeared as the offspring of leading actors in films of varying quality: Richard Dreyfuss' death-obsessed son in "What About Bob?"; William Hurt's offspring kid in "The Doctor"; and Robin Williams' child who falls under the sway of Dustin Hoffman's "Hook". Shortly thereafter, he "retired" from acting and returned to his Midwestern roots.<p> Born in North Dakota, Korsmo was raised in Minneapolis after his parents' divorced and his mother remarried. After a trip to Universal Studios in California, he decided he wanted to try his hand at acting. Exceptionally bright, Korsmo was reading on a high school level by age four and was solving college level mathematics by age eight. A dislike for school was partly the driving force that propelled him into show business. After auditioning for local TV commercials, he was spotted by the casting director for "Men Don't Leave" and when the youth tidily summed up his character's dilemma ("My dad's dead, my mom's sick and my life is a mess."), he landed the role. After hosting a segment of the 1992 PBS documentary "The Creative Mind", Korsmo resumed his "normal life", attended high school and enrolled as a physics major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with an eye to joining the US space program). He also kept his hand in acting, occasionally appearing in college productions like "H.M.S. Pinafore". After a seven-year absence, he made a one-shot return to film work in the ensemble comedy "Can't Hardly Wait" (1998), perhaps not ironically playing a science-loving nerd. After graduating from MIT in 2000, Korsmo forsook Hollywood and in 2001 accepted a job at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC.
divorced from Korsmo's mother in 1989
born c. 1975
born c. 1982
divorced from Korsmo's father in 1989; remarried
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Making movies was a real weird kind of adult experience. In a way it was like MIT, in that it was a great education. The big lesson is people are people. They're smart, funny, creative people, but they're people." --Charlie Korsmo quoted in MIT Spectrum, Spring 1997.