For a brief time, Michael Schoeffling looked set to be one of Hollywood’s premier heartthrobs. First appearing as the object of Molly Ringwald’s affections in teen rom-com classic Sixteen Candles, Schoeffling carved out a career as a hunk-for-hire in the 80s. However, after almost a decade in the film industry, Schoeffling wound up walking away from showbiz in favour of a very different career path: making furniture.
Brat Pack heartthrob
The directorial debut of 80s comedy writer and teen movie pioneer John Hughes, Sixteen Candles is set on the 16th birthday of Molly Ringwald’s Sam, a social outcast with a hopeless crush on the most popular guy at school. The film follows Sam through the ups and downs of an eventful day – but ends with her getting the guy, against all odds.
Most contemporary appraisals of Sixteen Candles tend to emphasise how time has not been kind to some of the film’s more provocative content, not least its troubling sexual attitudes and the overtly racist treatment of its one Asian character. However, one key component of Sixteen Candles that remains close to the heart of the film’s fans – women in particular – is the character of Jake Ryan, Sam’s crush and eventual boyfriend, played by Michael Schoeffling.
Scores of women – 90s teen icons Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt among them – have publicly declared that Jake Ryan became the benchmark by which all prospective love interests have been measured. This was demonstrated in December 2020, when news of Schoeffling’s 60th birthday prompted a mass outpouring of lovelorn surprise on social media.
As much as Sixteen Candles fans struggled to accept that their lifelong crush could now be officially classed as old, Schoeffling’s landmark birthday raised another question: whatever happened to the actor himself, and why didn’t he become as a big a star as so many of his peers in the Brat Pack era?
From GQ to Hollywood
Born December 10, 1960 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Michael Schoeffling was a 22-year-old with no acting credits to his name when he was cast in Sixteen Candles. A former high school wrestling champion and a liberal arts major at Temple University, Philadelphia, Schoeffling worked as a model for GQ before giving acting a shot.
On landing the part of Jake Ryan, Schoeffling beat out strong competition from none other than Viggo Mortensen. Ringwald pushed for Mortensen to be cast (saying the then-unknown actor made her “weak at the knees”), but the film’s casting director, Jackie Burch, felt the future Lord of the Rings star wasn’t quite right for the part.
“Schoeffling had such a sweetness about him,” Burch later explained (in an interview for Arrow Video’s Blu-ray edition of Sixteen Candles). She said the actor came off “very shy, even when he came in for the producers, he was very low key, very sad… I just knew he could do it. There was something about him, he was a real person.”
While Schoeffling’s rugged good looks played a part in his casting, the actor also managed to convincingly portray a popular high school guy who is more sensitive than he seems. This resonated with audiences, despite the fact that at the time of filming Schoeffling was in fact 22 (Ringwald, meanwhile, was 15).
Sixteen Candles proved to be a major breakthrough film for Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, and a showcase for future big name actors including John Cusack, Joan Cusack and Jami Gertz. At first, it seemed the film would prove just as great a professional springboard for Michael Schoeffling.
After playing Jake Ryan, Schoeffling made a small uncredited appearance in 1984 drama Racing with the Moon and a supporting role in 1985’s Sylvester, before appearing in Vision Quest alongside Matthew Modine, Linda Fiorentino and Forest Whitaker. Set in the world of high school wrestling, Vision Quest really plays to Schoeffling’s strengths; due to his real-life proficiency in the sport, Schoeffling reportedly had to tone down his moves for the sake of his co-stars.
Vision Quest is also notable for giving Schoeffling a role far removed from Jake Ryan: as wrestler Kuch (who claims to be of Native American descent), the actor dons a mohawk haircut, biker clothes and a bad boy demeanour. It seems likely that Schoeffling may have been consciously attempting to shake off the handsome good guy image in which he was already in danger of being typecast.
As was the case on Sixteen Candles, Schoeffling’s Vision Quest co-stars soon moved on to bigger things – yet unfortunately, breakthrough roles continued to elude Schoeffling himself. After two 1986 flops, Balizaire the Cajun and Let’s Get Harry, Schoeffling didn’t get another screen credit for three years – and when he did return with 1989’s Longtime Companion and Slaves of New York, neither film proved a hit (although Longtime Companion, a drama about the AIDS crisis, was critically acclaimed).
Things were looking up for Schoeflling when he was cast in 1990’s Mermaids, a 60s-set family drama starring Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci. The film was a box office success, earning rave reviews for the main cast, particularly Ryder; Cher even had a hit with tie-in single The Shoop Shoop Song.
Alas, in a somewhat underdeveloped supporting role, Schoeffling found himself largely overlooked. It probably didn’t help that, six years on from Sixteen Candles, Mermaids once again cast Schoeffling as the dream boy of an awkward teenager, in this case played by Winona Ryder.
This time the age difference was harder to ignore, as Schoeffling was by then almost 29, whilst Ryder was 18, and playing a 15-year-old. After this, Schoeffling took only one more film role – 1991 flop Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken – before deciding to leave acting behind.
Interviews with Schoeffling himself are hard to find, but according to Sixteen Candles casting director Jackie Burch, “he dropped out of the business. He did a couple more things after that, [but] he just wanted a normal life. He didn’t want the Hollywood scene.”
Schoeffling continued to model between acting jobs, and it was through this that he met his future wife, fellow model Valerie C. Robinson. They have two children – one of whom, Scarlett Schoeffling, is also now a model. The old pictures Scarlett occasionally shares of her parents on Instagram is the most her father has been in the spotlight since the early 90s.
Why did Michael Schoeffling trade acting for woodwork? It has been reported that even whilst pursuing his film career, Schoeffling had taken carpentry work to make ends meet between roles. In the end, he simply decided that designing and constructing furniture was the more rewarding profession.
Schoeffling’s IMDb page has this quote from the former actor: “Actors spend most of their time out of work, so I actually spend more time making furniture. The thing about furniture that’s much better than acting is that it’s just me. There’s no director, no script – the concept is me, unless a client wants something.”
While an actor leaving Hollywood behind for some other profession is not unheard of, what’s unusual about Schoeffling is how successful he’s been in going off-grid. Schoeffling has since escaped the limelight so completely that the name of his business is not even public knowledge, although it’s believed he’s based in his native Pennsylvania. As for what Schoeffling looks like today, nobody knows.
GQ tried to locate their former cover model in 2002, but the magazine came up empty-handed and wound up declaring Schoeffling “the Salinger of male model/actors” (after the famously reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye). Fans haven’t given up, however; there are whole blogs dedicated to finding Schoeffling in the present day, while contemporary photographs said to be of Schoeffling were shared to Twitter in 2020.
Short of confirmation from the man himself or his family, however there’s no way to know if any recent images of Schoeffling are genuine. Fans may always wonder what might have become of Michael Schoeffling had his acting career really taken off after Sixteen Candles – but no matter what, we’ll always have Jake Ryan.