As they say in Hollywood, timing is everything and, for child star-turned-“NCIS: Los Angeles” lead Chris O’Donnell, this was certainly the case.
“I got my letter from Boston College and it said, ‘You’re wait-listed,’” the Chicago-born actor recalls of senior year in high school when it was the classroom, and not a film set, on which he had set his aspirational sights. “Then I got a call from David Rubin, the casting director (of ‘Men Don’t Leave’), and he said, ‘You’ve got the part.’ And I couldn’t believe it. He says it’s going to film from July to October. And I sat there thinking, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to miss college.’ And I actually said, ‘Let me call you back.’ Because this was a huge decision. I loved acting, but I was so excited to go to college. I think there was a part of me that was scared, thinking, can I do this? What are the chances that I’ll actually be successful at (acting)? I was the youngest of seven kids and my dad worked his ass off my entire life and I said, ‘I need to have a real job. I can’t just chase an acting career the rest of my life. I need something to back it up.’ So the idea of getting a finance degree, because I also loved business, just made sense. I figured if the acting thing doesn’t work out, that’s what I’ll pursue.And then Boston College sent me a letter and said, ‘You’re off the wait-list. Unfortunately we can’t take you until January.’ And I said, ‘This is meant to be.’”
It wasn’t until sophomore year when a roommate relayed a phone message from Barbra Streisand that fellow classmates noticed O’Donnell wasn’t your average co-ed majoring in finance.
“I didn’t tell anybody what I’d been doing,” says O’Donnell of his then-burgeoning film career (His expanding resume would come to consist of roles in critically applauded dramas “School Ties,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and, in 1992, the movie that made him a break-out star, “Scent of a Woman,” in which he appeared opposite a “Hoo-ah!” spouting Al Pacino). “I didn’t want to be the kid at school that made a movie. I wanted to meet everybody on my own terms. And I had to kind of come clean and explain that I was an actor. I had almost a whole year of nobody knowing who I was. It was great. I wanted to be one of the guys.”
While it took him a while to graduate — “I took four night classes when I made the first ‘Batman’ movie, and people thought I was crazy” — O’Donnell, who will receive his star on the Walk of Fame on March 5, was committed to making it happen. “It was about fulfilling a promise to my dad,” he says. “At that point, I knew I wouldn’t be going to business school and pursuing a finance career. It’s no different than, say, a quarterback in the NFL going back and getting his degree over the summer.It was just something I wanted to do. I knew it would be hard to raise kids someday and not say that I had a college degree.”
To this day, O’Donnell, who eschewed the whole “L.A. club scene” in his youth, remains one of those rare celebrities leading a fairly normal life amidst the oft-tumultuous terrain of Hollywood.
“I never intended to get married at such a young age, but you meet the right person in life and it kind of takes care of itself,” he says of meeting his wife and raising their five children.
“And it was a choice. I knew at that point that I was going down a different path. You’ve got to know who you are. I thought to myself, this is my chance. This is the last normal person I’m going to meet. I knew it was right.”
From his 2006 stint as a sexy veterinarian on “Grey’s Anatomy” to his current gig playing opposite LL Cool J on CBS’ popular procedural “NCIS: Los Angeles,” now in its fifth season, O’Donnell seems to have the best of both worlds: a stellar career (he’s also directed two episodes of the series) and a grounded home life.
“I wouldn’t trade my current job for anything,” says O’Donnell. “It affords me the ability to be in Los Angeles, to see my kids every day and have a steady job. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and it’s just crazy. To still be providing for my family like this is so great.
And I love the people I work with. I remember sitting in my house as a kid and watching LL Cool J in videos. If you would have told me that 30 years later he and I would be spending every waking hour together, I would have been like, ‘You’re insane.’ It’s so funny how life brings you together with certain people. He and I have a solid bond and I can trust that guy with my life.”
But while working in television is “very satisfying on a professional and an artistic level,” the itch to return to the bigscreen remains.
“I want to do film again at some point,” says O’Donnell. “And I will. I’m actually excited, when the show ends someday, to take some time off for a while. I’ll be a 50-year-old guy. I’ll be a different person than people remember. And there will be exciting new roles to take on, but this is where I’m supposed to be right now.”