In 1986, aged 14, Wil Wheaton starred as Gordie Lachance in Rob Reiner’s much-loved coming-of-age movie Stand by Me, bringing him the kind of fame coveted by actors twice his age. Behind the scenes, however, Wheaton – like his Stand by Me co-star Corey Feldman – was suffering extreme emotional abuse at the hands of his parents. And while Wheaton hated acting and all that came with it, his rise only fuelled their abuse.
In adulthood, Wheaton eventually cut all contact with parents Richard and Debbie, and details of their lives in recent years haven’t been made public. Now in his 50s, Wil has been sober for some time and currently lives in Pasadena, California with his wife, Anne. The former child star’s path to finding peace and coming to terms with his tumultuous childhood, however, has been a rocky one.
Wil Wheaton was born on July 29, 1972, in Burbank, California, to medical specialist Richard William Wheaton Jr and actress Debra ‘Debbie’ Wheaton (nee Nordean). The eldest of three children, Wil grew up in Sunland in the San Fernando Valley, California.
When Wil turned seven, his mother decided that he should embark on an acting career. He had a meeting with his mother’s own agent, and, with his mother’s coaching, young Wil told the agent: “I want to do what Mommy does!”
Wheaton was soon booked for countless commercials, which proved lucrative, but before long he was making the big jump to film. Wheaton’s earliest film work included various TV movies, The Buddy System (1983), The Defiant Ones (1986) and, most famously, Stand by Me.
Co-starring in the Stephen King adaptation with River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell, Wheaton received widespread critical acclaim for playing the neglected Gordie Lachance. For Wheaton today, however, re-watching the beloved movie is painful.
“When I watch Stand by Me now, I cannot ignore the unbelievable sadness in my eyes,” Wheaton has said. “And I cannot ignore the reality that it was that sadness, that isolation, that I think gave me what Gordie needed to come to life and I think Rob Reiner saw that.”
Behind the scenes, Wheaton was suffering a barrage of abuse from his parents. While his mother was relentless in promoting his career, his father was particularly cold towards him.
“I begged them to let me stop”
“My father is an abusive bully,” Wheaton said in a 2021 interview with his Big Bang Theory co-star Mayim Bialik. “My mother enabled him, protected him, and really used me to fulfil her need to be famous. If she couldn’t be famous herself, she could be the ‘momager’ of a famous kid.”
As she did with her eldest, Wheaton’s mother tried and failed to launch child star careers for Wheaton’s younger siblings, Jeremy and Amy. For unclear reasons, Wheaton’s father showed a lot of favouritism towards his younger children.
“He adores my brother and is wonderful with my sister, and just clearly made a choice: one day was just like, ‘I just don’t like this kid’,” Wheaton noted of his father. “Or, ‘I’m just gonna bully this kid.’ That’s just who he is…So much of my mental health struggles was born in the crucible of that abuse.”
To make matters worse, Hollywood was no escape for the young Wheaton. “I hated it. I hated being in traffic, I hated learning lines, I hated going in and trying to get other people to like me… and I begged them to let me stop, over and over again.”
Wheaton’s acting career caused so much stress that by fifth grade, the straight-A student began to lose all focus at school and was suffering from depression. Mental health was a taboo topic at home, and his parents ignored Wil’s pleas to quit acting.
“She was so manipulative”
“[My mother] constantly gaslighted me about how I really did want to be an actor,” Wheaton wrote in a 2019 blog post. “She was so manipulative about it. She would tell me how selfish I was, because she’d sacrificed her own career to support mine.”
After Stand by Me, Wheaton’s mother sought to capitalise on his newfound fame. She pressured him into countless interviews with teen magazines, which he detested. Nevertheless, his unwanted fame eventually led Wheaton to his dream job – a role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Star Trek had been a particular favourite of Wheaton’s in childhood, and he has since said that he experienced “unconditional love” the first time he worked with the Star Trek cast and crew. From 1987 to 1991, he played boy genius Wesley Crusher, a character that divided fans and drew some vicious feedback.
Wheaton ultimately quit The Next Generation following a falling out with producers, but he took with him a close relationship with on-screen mother Gates McFadden (Dr Beverly Crusher). In the absence of his parents’ affection, Wheaton found a maternal figure in McFadden, who would take the young Wheaton on trips to Disneyland with her family. To this day, they refer to one another as “space mom” and “space son”.
(Wheaton remains a huge fan of Star Trek, and he has since returned to the franchise with cameo performances in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) and Star Trek: Picard. Wheaton’s sci-fi fame also earned him a role as a fictionalised version of himself on The Big Bang Theory.)
“They stole all my money”
Four years after he left Star Trek, Wheaton met Anne Prince, a divorced mother-of-two, at a New Year’s Eve party. She was 26 and he was 19. He has since described it as love at first sight, and the pair married in 1999.
Wheaton’s parents were scandalised that Wheaton was marrying a woman who had two children already. But Wheaton has spoken about the immensely healing impact Anne had on him: “Anne is the reason I love my life. Anne saved me, Anne made me a whole person.”
It was Anne who persuaded Wheaton to seek professional help for the mental health problems that dated back to his childhood. Wheaton has complex PTSD, generalised anxiety disorder and chronic major depression disorder. He has campaigned for years to promote better discussions around mental health.
Although Wheaton was earning “thousands of dollars a week” on Star Trek, he saw very little of that money as it went straight into his parents’ account. “As a kid, I [was] working all the time, endlessly working, and I [wasn’t] allowed to spend any of my money on anything,” he has stated. “They stole all my money.” Today in California, parents must set aside 15% of their children’s showbiz earnings for when the child turns 18.
When Wheaton was in his 20s, acting work began to dry up. “My wife and I often borrowed money from my parents, and she was working over 40 hours a week just so we could have food on the table,” he wrote in his autobiography. But even as the young family struggled, his parents continued to steal from him, as Wheaton later discovered.
“What we did not know at the time, was that I was receiving six-figures’ worth of residual cheques for all the work I had done on Star Trek,” he later explained. “My parents were stealing it and lying to me about it. And then during that time, [they were] treating me like s***, and my dad especially [was] being really contemptuous to me that I’m not working more, that I’m not trying hard enough, that I’m not taking my career seriously enough.”
Happily, Wheaton has since found success as a voice actor, in the likes of Legion of Super Heroes, Teen Titans and Ben 10, and enjoyed renewed fame as an actor with his recurring role – as a fictionalised version of himself – in The Big Bang Theory. In particular, Wheaton has found success with his blog, Wil Wheaton Dot Net.
This project led to his memoirs Dancing Barefoot, Just a Geek and the 2022 follow-up Still Just A Geek, in which he writes broadly about the ups and downs of his acting career.
“I would rather not have parents than have my parents”
In the early 2000s, Wheaton made a final attempt to address his trauma with his parents. “I spent an unbelievable amount of time writing a very long, carefully considered letter that I sent [as] an email,” he explained in a PsychCentral interview.
“And the crux of it was, I want to have parents. At the moment I feel like I don’t and I feel like my dad has never loved me. And that hurts a lot and I don’t know what to do about that. My mom did not reply to that email for four months. My dad did not reply to that email for six months.”
“When my mom replied to that email, it was deny, deflect, lie, blame, gaslight, everything I had come to expect my entire life,” he added. He then decided to stop all contact with his parents. “It’s really painful,” he has said. “But the alternative to where I am now is a place that hurts all the time. And I would rather not have parents that have my parents.”
In contrast to the coldness of his own childhood, Wheaton found happiness with Anne and her children, Ryan and Nolan. Wheaton does not have any biological children of his own, but when his stepsons reached maturity, they both asked him to become their adoptive father and took his surname.
“Treat kids the way you wanted to be treated”
“My dad was an a**hole, my mom never showed up for me,” Wheaton has since written. “Directors and people on set had been treating me like a thing for my entire life. I got yelled at for no reason from adults who knew better almost every day.
“All of these different adults, consistently, shut me down and made me feel like I didn’t matter, the things I liked were stupid, and my opinions were invalid because of reasons I didn’t understand because I was a dumb kid…So I presumed that when you got to be a certain age, that’s what happened. I didn’t want to be that, at all, and I was sincerely afraid of the day it would happen.”
Wheaton has advice for how people in the film industry should handle child actors: “Treat kids the way you wanted to be treated when you were young. Listen to them when they offer you the privilege, because that means they trust you, and you have credibility with them. Be a mentor. Be supportive. Show up.”