Everyone remembers that 80s TV hit 21 Jump Street launched the career of Johnny Depp, but it’s sometimes forgotten the show introduced audiences to another young heartthrob who once had Hollywood leading man potential: Richard Grieco.
After finding small screen fame as Detective Dennis Booker in both 21 Jump Street and spin-off series Booker, Grieco quickly moved into movies with 1991 films If Looks Could Kill and Mobsters. However, further acting success proved elusive, and as the years went by Grieco has made more headlines for his off-camera misbehaviour than his body of work.
Richard John Grieco Jr was born in Watertown, New York on March 23, 1965, into a family of Italian and Irish descent. According to his official website, Grieco was a ‘gifted athlete’ in his school days as well as an aspiring performer, both as an actor and musician. However, Grieco got his first major professional break as a model.
After winning a modelling contest whilst still at high school, Grieco wound up moving to Manhattan where he signed with Elite Modelling Agency and appeared in campaigns for such major designers as Armani and Calvin Klein.
Back-to-back with this, Grieco began taking acting classes, which led to him landing his first role on TV soap opera One Life to Live. Appearances on Who’s the Boss? and The Facts of Life followed, and Grieco soon landed on the radar of 21 Jump Street’s producers.
“I went from anonymity to everyone knowing me in about two weeks”
By 1988, the youth-oriented cop drama (centred on young-looking cops going undercover as high schoolers) had been on the air for two years, and despite the teen idol fame of leading man Johnny Depp, the ratings were starting to slip. So it was that 21 Jump Street’s third season introduced Richard Grieco as Dennis Booker.
Though originally intended as a one-off character, the enthusiastic response to Grieco was such that Booker became a recurring role for him. The actor reflects, “I went from anonymity to everyone knowing me in about two weeks, so that was kind of a shock. It was a crazy time.”
The addition of Booker increased 21 Jump Street’s male eye candy by 50% (although it should be noted a young Brad Pitt also appeared on the show once). According to Grieco, this sparked “a serious rivalry” between Depp and himself. Soon enough, Grieco was appearing on as many teen magazine covers as Depp, and eventually the producers decided to capitalise on Grieco’s popularity by giving him his own spin-off show, Booker, in 1989.
The actor recalls, “They had an opportunity to make two successful shows, so they pitted us against each other.” However, Booker would ultimately only run for a single season of 22 episodes. 21 Jump Street, meanwhile, would be axed in 1991; Depp left after the fourth season to pursue film, and with neither him nor Grieco still on board, the series lost its star power.
March 1991 saw Grieco make his film debut in If Looks Could Kill (released in the UK as Teen Agent), which cast him as a high school slacker mistaken for a CIA agent. Just four months later Grieco was on the big screen again in crime drama Mobsters, part of an illustrious cast including Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey, Michael Gambon and Anthony Quinn.
Put together, If Looks Could Kill and Mobsters made roughly $30 million at the global box office, so neither film exactly cemented Grieco as a bona fide movie star. Even so, his foot was in the door, and as a handsome 26-year-old man with an enthusiastic fanbase, further success seemed assured.
Grieco, however, failed to strike while the iron was hot, and through the 90s he would quickly go from hot young thing to Hollywood almost-ran.
“I turned down everything from ’92 to ’94”
Grieco admitted in 2021, “I turned down everything from probably ’92 to ’94… I was definitely wrong at that point, about my assumption that you take one movie a year. And if it’s not the right film, you just don’t take a film.” The actor notes, “a lot of films that I turned down that went on to be big things”.
Probably the biggest role Grieco turned down was Jack Traven in 1994’s Speed, which he admits regretting (although he says that Keanu Reeves “did a great job”). Instead, Grieco appeared in a number of B-grade pictures including cut-price RoboCop rip-off The Demolitionist and biker movie Bolt (which co-star Sean Young says was referred to as “Blot” by the cast and crew).
Grieco also attempted to sidestep into a music career, signing with a German record label and recording an album, 1995’s Waiting for the Sky to Fall. The record made virtually no impact.
All the while, Grieco was embracing the Hollywood superstar lifestyle: “I’d park my Harley in front of a club. I’d sit in my booth with my bottle of Jack, and people would come by just to be with me.” He also had some high-profile girlfriends: in the late 80s, Grieco dated Married… with Children star Christina Applegate, and by the late 90s he and Baywatch actress Yasmine Bleeth were an item. It’s been reported that Grieco and Bleeth were engaged in 1998, but split after Grieco cheated on her with an ex.
Alcoholism and rehab
It has been suggested that another issue with Grieco and Bleeth’s relationship was that both were at the time struggling with addiction: for Bleeth it was cocaine, but for Grieco it was alcohol. The actor first admitted himself to rehab in 1997, admitting the following year, “If anything saved me, it was probably vanity. I knew that if I looked like s**t, I was never gonna work.”
By the decade’s end, Grieco expressed keenness to get himself back on track personally and professionally. To this end, he agreed to appear as a “caricature of myself” in 1998 comedy Night at the Roxbury: “I wear my hair really big, and I have an earring, a tight chain around my neck, the leather jacket and pants – bigger than life.″ (Nor was this the last time Grieco sent himself up that way, as 2016 also saw him play himself in an episode of TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)
Grieco was adamant that he had put drinking behind him: “I had gotten to a point where I was on the edge, where I might have become an alcoholic if I hadn’t stopped. I don’t say I’m never gonna have a drink again, but I don’t miss it.”
Grieco was so confident in his new clean lifestyle that in 2011 he pitched himself as a potential replacement for Charlie Sheen on sitcom Two and a Half Men, noting that, unlike Sheen, he was “reliable” and “doesn’t have any substance abuse issues.”
Sadly, Grieco’s sobriety didn’t last. In December 2019, the actor was arrested for public intoxication at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, after a breathalyzer test found his blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit at 1.7. He was also carrying a prescription medication which is not safe to mix with alcohol. Footage from the scene saw Grieco protest that he “did nothing wrong,” suggesting that he had been singled out due to his fame.
Just how famous Grieco remains today is, of course, highly debatable. His only major film appearance in the last 20 years were a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Which is not to say that Grieco hasn’t kept working. As well as having 90 acting credits to his name to date, mostly in the direct-to-home entertainment arena, Grieco also has 25 credits as producer and five as director.
He has also continued to pursue music, as well as art. Having practised painting since the early 90s, Grieco began to sell his work (which he dubs ‘abstract emotionalism’) in 2009, following encouragement from Dennis Hopper. Grieco reportedly sold his first painting for $10,900. He told Yahoo! in 2021 that he painted full-time for four years, but is now “all in” on filmmaking again.
“I grow and fail every day”
Now in his late 50s with his teen idol days long behind him, Grieco may never again reach the heights of fame and success he enjoyed in his youth, but he doesn’t seem set to retire any time soon.
Reflecting on his professional and personal ups and downs, Grieco has remarked, “I grow and fail every day and through that process I become a better person in the end.”