Saturday January 28, 2023
Lance Kerwin (1960-2023)
Oh, man. Too soon.
He was once my jokey answer whenever I had that stupid conversation about who you’d want to play you in a movie. This was in the ’80s or ’90s, long after his Tiger Beat heyday. Friends would be picking the big movie stars of the day while I went with a semi-forgotten TV actor.
When I was just becoming a teenager, though, Lance Kerwin was one of the main teenage stars of sensitive “issue of the day” TV drama. He was on five ABC Afterschool Specials, where the plots related to school bullies, step moms, and shortness. Over the years, he played a blind kid (“Shazam!”), the younger brother of a kid who ODs (“The Death of Richie”), and the child of divorced parents (“Children of Divorce”). He kept running into Kristy McNichol and Melissa Sue Anderson, and got to hang with Lynda Carter on “Wonder Woman” (where he played a rancher’s son) and Lindsay Wagner on “Bionic Woman” (where he played, cough, an Arabian prince). And in the pilot episode of “James at 15/16,” the show that made him famous, he runs away from home and winds up hitch-hiking with and learning life lessons from a Charlie’s Angel, Kate Jackson, who got Emmy-nominated for the part.
I don’t think I really watched “James at 15/16.” Right, it was opposite “Barney Miller” in pre-VCR days, so no. But it was critically acclaimed, and, I believe, quotidian. Some issue of the day stuff—a deaf kid, teen pregnancy, teen alcoholism—but mostly just, you know, crushes and friends and trying to fit in. The episode where he turns 16 and loses his virginity was controversial, and not because his uncle tried to buy him a prostitute, or because two episodes later he worried he contracted VD, but because, per The New York Times, “the network objected to the script’s use of the word ‘responsible’ as a euphemism for birth control.” Who was the lucky girl? A Swedish cultural exchange student. Quotidian.
But the performance of his that hit home for me was the 1976 TV movie “The Loneliest Runner,” a Michael Landon production about a teen who wets the bed, as I did. IMDb’s little descriptor is actually incorrect—or misses the point:
A young boy who still wets the bed finds escapism from his abusive mother and his own embarrassment by going running after school.
Not quite. His mother was abusive because she assumed his bed-wetting was laziness, and she hoped to cure him of it by hanging the wet, stained sheet out his bedroom window to dry—and where all the neighbors could see it. That’s why, every day, after school, he’d run home to pull it up. This went on for months. We got a montage of him running and running and running. And then in gym class one day, when everyone has to run 600 yards, or a half mile, or whatever it was, he pulls away from the other students. Eventually he becomes an Olympic runner, played by Michael Landon, but that’s just at the end. The brunt of the movie is him dealing with his awful mother, hoping to grow out of his bed-wetting ways, hoping to get the girl (Melissa Sue Anderson).
He continued to act into the 1980s—he, Eric Stoltz and James Spader play brothers who break their father, Robert Mitchum, out of prison in the 1983 TV movie “A Killer in the Family”—but he struggled with sobriety and left the profession in the 1990s. Per the Times obit, he was busted for theft and falsifying documents to get food stamps in 2010, which makes it sound like he was on his last legs; but in the AP story on the incident, the apparent problem was omitting the three properties he owned on the mainland, so hardly last legs. It also seems he was already running a rehab program and being a youth pastor, so not sure of his trajectory. Plus he was returning to acting? IMDb has him fourth-billed in a 2022 movie, “The Wind & the Reckoning,” about leprosy in 19th-century Hawaii.
The cause of death isn’t mentioned. He was just 62.
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