Hollywood stardom doesn’t always work out the way it should. For some Hollywood actors, a period of massive popularity can be followed by a sudden disappearance into the great big proverbial movie star graveyard.
Whilst they might still be acting, for whatever reason, they’re no longer part of the A-List as they once were, no longer a member of that group of actors and actresses who are instantly recognisable all over the world.
Chris O’Donnell, star of Batman & Robin and Scent of a Woman, and one of the hottest properties in Hollywood for a time, is one such actor.
Chris O’Donnell started out in TV commercials
Born in 1970, Chris O’Donnell was the youngest of seven children raised in a Roman Catholic family in Winnetka, Illinois.
A young starter, O’Donnell began modelling when he was just 13-years-old. Television commercials followed.
It was whilst appearing in one of these commercials, for McDonald’s, that O’Donnell was first ‘discovered’ by Hollywood talent scouts.
Chris O’Donnell made his move into the world of TV soon after, making his debut in a show called Jack and Mike, an ABC comedy-drama, in 1986.
Four years later, aged just 17, Chris O’Donnell got his first feature film role, in 1990 comedy-drama Men Don’t Leave. He was cast as a 17-year-old son to Beth Macauley, a struggling widow played by Jessica Lange.
Despite the poor box office performance for Men Don’t Leave, critics started watching Chris O’Donnell with interest.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, critic Shelia Benson described this movie as “a tender, beautifully acted, diabolically droll film on the subject of love, loss and the sheer unpredictability of life.” O’Donnell was now on the path to movie stardom.
More memorable film roles came O’Donnell’s way, in popular 90s hits including Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991 and School Ties in 1992. Chris most importantly starred in the Al Pacino vehicle Scent of a Woman in the same year.
Starring alongside a titan of acting, in what would be the role that would finally bag him his first Oscar, Chris O’Donnell’s career was given a huge boost by Scent of a Woman.
For playing the young prep schooler who agrees to chaperone Pacino’s blind, alcoholic war veteran over one fateful weekend, Chris O’Donnell was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. There followed a brief romance with Reese Witherspoon in 1993. In short, O’Donnell had arrived.
Batman Forever triumphed – but Batman & Robin was a disaster
Higher-profile roles started coming O’Donnell’s way. He was the lead in the romantic movies Circle of Friends and Mad Love. He was D’Artagnan in 1993’s The Three Musketeers.
Then came the part that Chris O’Donnell is still remembered for today, for better and for worse: Dick Grayson, aka Robin, in Joel Schumacher’s Batman films.
Selected from a field of impressive candidates reported to have included Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jude Law and Ewan McGregor, O’Donnell made his debut as Grayson in 1995’s Batman Forever.
After starring in the Gene Hackman thriller The Chamber and as Ernest Hemingway in Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War in 1996, O’Donnell returned to the Batman franchise for the last time in 1997.
On reflection, 1997 represents both the peak and the nadir for this young star from Winnetka, Illinois. It was the year he lost out on the role of Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s Titanic, after getting down to the last two (Leonardo DiCaprio was the other, obviously).
It was also the year in which Chris O’Donnell got his most prominent starring role ever, as one half of the title duo in Batman & Robin, alongside George Clooney.
“We’ll just throw money at it”
Unfortunately for O’Donnell, the film was a disaster both critically and commercially. A project he has described as a low point in his career, it was the film that stopped O’Donnell from taking another acting job for two years.
As a guest on HuffPost Live in 2013, O’Donnell noted that he still has his Robin costume at home. “I had fun making those,” he said of the two Batman movies and their cast.
But on the flop of the sequel, he commented, “I think that Warner Brothers at the time just got a little greedy with it… they jammed it out in two years. The script wasn’t ready.”
“I think there was a feeling that, we’ll just throw money at it and it’ll work,” he added. “And you’ve got to get back to thinking, it really is about script and story.”
Chris O’Donnell would re-enter the movie world with The Bachelor in 1999 and Vertical Limit in 2000, but both films achieved only moderate success.
Chris O’Donnell continued working, but the Batman sequel did lasting damage to his career just as it had done to those of director Joel Schumacher and Alicia ‘Batgirl’ Silverstone.
Post-Batman & Robin, Chris O’Donnell missed out on roles that could have catapulted him back into the mainstream.
There was Will Smith’s role in Men in Black, which O’Donnell turned down (at the urging of Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld), and the lead in 2002’s Spider-Man, which eventually went to Tobey Maguire.
And then, with his Hollywood stardom over as quickly as it began, his chance at longevity apparently been and gone, O’Donnell faded back into relative obscurity.
As G Callen in NCIS: Los Angeles, O’Donnell is a long-running success
Supporting roles in 2004’s Kinsey and 2008’s Max Payne aside, O’Donnell’s career in the new millennium has been mostly in television.
Most prominently, O’Donnell had a guest spot on Two and a Half Men in 2004 and a co-starring role in Grey’s Anatomy from 2005 to 2006, followed by the lead in the 2007 miniseries The Company.
O’Donnell’s second chance came in the form of the NCIS spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles, in which he has starred alongside LL Cool J since 2009, playing Special Agent G Callen.
Chris O’Donnell has, however, evidently given up on global movie stardom, having been absent from the big screen since Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore in 2010. To date, O’Donnell has made 240 episodes of NCIS: Los Angeles.
Now 51, Chris O’Donnell has been married to Caroline O’Donnell (nee Fentress), a former schoolteacher, since 1997. Fentress went to high school at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and graduated in 1995 alongside the actors Christopher Fitzgerald and Chris Guokas.
Caroline first met O’Donnell three years before the pair started dating, as he was living in the same building as her older brother Andrew. ” She came to visit, and we had a little smooch,” Chris told RedBook in 2010. “I knew there was something special about her from that moment, but we didn’t see each other again for three years.”
They married six years later, when Chris was 26 and Caroline was 23. On his relatively youthful marriage for a film star, Chris has since commented: “I was in the right place earlier than I thought. I would think to myself, Could I imagine not marrying her? And there was just no way.”
Together, Chris and Caroline have five children, two of whom are now adults themselves: Lily, Chip, Charles, Finley and Maeve. True to his Catholic upbringing in Winnetka, Illinois, O’Donnell remains a churchgoer.
“I’m still a practicing Catholic; I go to church all the time and take my kids,” he said at a 2008 interview. “I think it’s important to raise your kid in some kind of tradition, not necessarily Catholic.”
“I’m not some raging religious guy but I like to go to church just to sit there and think,” he later added. “I may not even be paying attention to what they’re talking about but in my own mind I know my kids are learning a lot and it’s just a good framework.”