I was twelve going on thirteen when I made the movie that changed my life

Twenty-five years ago today, on my future wife's 17th birthday, a movie I did called Stand By Me was released. I didn't know it at the time, but it would define my childhood and change my life.

Here are a few things I wanted to share, to mark the occasion.

I talked to NPR last week about Stand By Me. They ran it on Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. The interview, and the story they wrote to go with it, is online at NPR.

The quintessential coming-of-age film Stand by Me celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The movie tells the story of four 12-year-old boys in a small town in Oregon and the Labor Day weekend that changed their lives forever.

The film was a hit almost immediately after it was released in the summer of 1986 and has gone on to become a beloved classic. Writer and actor Wil Wheaton, who played Gordie Lachance, Stand by Me's star, tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host David Greene that he credits the cast and director Rob Reiner for the film's success.

Here is a picture of the four of us waiting to go on Good Morning America to promote the movie in 1986.

Waiting to promote Stand By Me on Good Morning America in 1986

Here's a blog post I wrote in 2009 about it.

This photo captures our personalities perfectly: River and Corey are focused and serious (Corey is even wearing a tie and drinking coffee!) I am listening to the same person they are, but I'm not even trying to contain how excited I am to be going on a television show that I had been watching with my Aunt Val since I could remember, in front of the whole country, no less.

My favorite part of this picture, though, is Jerry. It's almost like he caught my mom or dad taking this picture of us, and decided to strike a pose, just to be silly. I just love that he isn't taking the thing too seriously, and that he's just having fun and enjoying the whole thing. As I got older and began to feel like the teen magazine publicity stuff was taking over my life, it stopped being fun, and it started to feel like a chore. I always envied that Jerry seemed to take it all in stride, keep it in perspective, and just have fun with it.

I've always said that Stand By Me was so successful because Rob cast four young actors who were so much like their characters, but I think it's spooky how the four of us ended up being so much like our characters: River died too young, Corey struggled like crazy to get his personal demons under control, Jerry found success and happiness, and I'm a writer.

Finally, in March of this year, I got together with the surviving cast members, Rob Reiner, and Richard Dreyfuss to talk about the movie, as well as the special 25th anniversary edition Blu Ray disc that's been released. I imagine that a non-zero number of first time readers are coming here from NPR or Google, so I'm going to reprint the story I wrote about that day in its entirety for you, because it's special to me.

I stood in the lobby of the Falcon Theater in Toluca Lake, and looked at Twitter while I waited for the rest of the guys to arrive. The walls were covered with posters from productions like CHiPs: The Musical and It's A Stevie Wonderful Life. Being in a theater during the day, when it's just a building with a stage, instead of the performance space it becomes when an audience fills the seats makes me feel like I'm getting to see The Haunted Mansion with all the lights on, like I'm in a secret place that few people get to see, and I felt an almost imperceptible longing to perform in a play tug gently but insistently at that thing in my being that makes me an actor.

Someone came over and started talking to me. I made polite conversation, but I don't remember what or who we talked about. This was an emotional day for me (though I didn’t know precisely how emotional it would be until later), and while I didn’t want to be rude, I wasn’t in a particularly chatty mood. It was the first time Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell and I would be in the same place since 1986 or 1987. We were technically there to give some interviews to promote Stand By Me’s blu-ray release, but  — for me at least — it was much more than that. It was a reunion.

We made Stand By Me twenty-five years ago. To commemorate the anniversary, a special blu-ray disc has been produced. Among the obligatory special features is a feature-length commentary that Rob Reiner, Corey, and I did together while watching the movie a couple months ago. On that day, I was apprehensive: what would they think of me? Would our memories match up? Would the commentary be entertaining and informative? …who would be the first to talk about River, and how would we all react to it?

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about then. It was a joy to watch the movie with them, and I was especially happy to discover that, after a very troubled life, Corey seems to be doing really well. Rob made me feel like he was a proud father and we were his kids, and when we talked about River, it was … well, private. I’ll leave it at that.

So as I stood there in the lobby, waiting for a familiar face to come through the door, I was happy and looking forward to our reunion without nervousness or apprehension. This stood in marked contrast to all the times I reunited with my friends from TNG when I was younger (my problem, not theirs), and I was grateful for that.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and an incredibly tall, handsome, well-dressed man walked through it.

“Holy crap,” I thought, “Jerry grew up.”

It was such a stupid thought, but there it was. I see Jerry on television all the time, and I knew that he was tall and handsome and only two years younger than me, but I had that strange disconnect in my mind that can only come from not seeing someone for about twenty years and I simultaneously did and did not recognize him.

I was standing near some food on a table, and Jerry walked up to grab a sandwich. As he reached toward the table, we made eye contact.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, I’m Jerry,” he said, with a friendly smile.

“I’m Wil,” I said, “We worked on this movie together twenty-five years ago.”

In a few seconds that seemed to go on for minutes, I saw him look at me in disbelief, surprise, recognition, and joy. He flashed a smile that lit up the room and wrapped me in a hug.

“Oh my God, dude,” he said, “I can’t believe it’s … wow! You’re — I — Jesus, look at you!”

I smiled back, and strangely noted that my son is taller than him. “Look at you!” I said.

We talked as much as we could, trying to compress two decades into ten minutes, before he had to go to the make-up chair. As he walked away, my brain tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You know, he’s married to Rebecca Romijn. When he’s talking about his wife, that’s who he means.” “I know, brain. I know,” I thought back, “don’t be weird. Be cool, man.” A moment later, Richard Dreyfuss walked into the lobby, followed fairly quickly by Rob and then Corey.

Before I had time to do more than Twitter about how surreal it felt to see them all, we were all gathered together and directed from the lobby into the theater for our first interview. On the way in, I said to Corey, “I feel like there are all these famous, successful people here … and me.”

He laughed and said, “I was thinking exactly the same thing!”

Before I could make a witty zinger, he clarified, “about myself, I mean. Famous people and me, not, like, famous people and you.”

I laughed. “I knew what you meant, man,” I said.

It was the kind of friendly, enjoyable, effortless conversation we couldn’t have when we were younger, and I was glad for it.

There were five chairs set up for us in a semi circle. Our names were on pieces of paper so we knew where to sit. I was between Rob and Corey, and Jerry and Richard sat to Corey’s left. When we all sat down, Rob looked down the row of seats and softly said to me, “it feels like there should be an empty seat here for River.”

People ask me about River all the time. He and I were close during filming, and for about a year or so after filming, but the sad truth is that he got sucked into a lifestyle that I just don’t have room in my life for, and we drifted apart. When he died, I was shocked and horrified, but I wasn’t completely surprised. I didn’t feel a real sense of loss at the time — the River I knew and loved had been gone for a long time at that point — but I felt sad for his family, and angry at the people around him who didn’t do more to help him help himself. Since he died, when I've talked about him, I've felt like I’m talking about the idea of him, instead of the person I knew, if that makes sense.

But when Rob said that to me, with such sadness in his eyes, it was like I’d been punched in the stomach by eighteen years of suppressed grief. I knew that if I tried to say anything, all I would do was cry, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop. I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and nodded. “Yeah,” I whispered.

Later that day, when I’d had time to think about it and was recounting the whole thing to my wife, Anne, I said, “I think that having all of us together — the surviving members of the cast — made me feel like he really wasn’t there for the first time since he died. I don’t mean to be callous or anything like that, but that’s what it took to make his death and his absence a real thing that I could feel, instead of an event that I wasn’t part of but am forced to talk about more often than I’d like.”

I spent much of the next few days remembering all the things we did together during production, thinking about how much I looked up to him and how much I loved his entire family. I don’t know what would have happened to us if he hadn’t overdosed, if he ever would have come back from the edge, or if we would even have had anything in common … but when he was fifteen and I was thirteen, he was my friend. That’s the person I knew, and that’s the person I miss.

We talked about River in the interview, of course, and I think Richard put it best when he said that there is this monster in Hollywood that everyone knows about. It lurks just out of view, and occasionally it reaches up and snatches someone … and it got River.

Richard also talked about why we are actors, and what it means to him to be creative. It was so poetic and inspiring, that almost imperceptible longing to perform in a play I felt in the lobby turned into an overwhelming compulsion. Distracted by the responsibilities of every day life, it’s easy for me to forget why I love and need to perform. It’s easy to forget how satisfying it is to create a character, to discover something magnificent in a script or a scene, and then bring those things to life with other actors in front of an audience.

The entire interview lasted for close to an hour, I guess, and will be edited down to something between three and six minutes. I hope that the producers will cut together something longer, or even run the entire thing online somewhere, because it was one of the rare conversations that I think a lot of people, especially artists, would enjoy listening to.

When all of our interviews were done, I asked Jerry if he’d like to get together when he was on hiatus to have a proper conversation and really catch up on stuff. He said he’d like that, so we traded e-mail addresses. I didn’t expect him to actually want to see me once the glow of seeing each other for the first time in two decades faded, but we’re actually planning it, which delights me. Rob hugged me and made me feel like he was proud of me, and Richard blew me away with the work he’s doing for The Dreyfuss Initiative. 

As I drove home from the theater I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. It was wonderful to see those guys again, and especially to reconnect with Jerry, but it was also tremendously sad to truly feel River’s loss for the first time. That turbulent mix of joy and sorrow stayed with me for several days, which is why I haven’t been able to write about it for almost a week.

Most actors will go their entire careers without doing a movie like Stand By Me, or working with a director like Rob Reiner. I got to do both when I was 12. For a long, long time, I felt like I needed to top or equal that, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I accepted that it’s unlikely to happen — movies like Stand By Me come along once in a generation. 

But getting to spend a few hours remembering the experience with Rob, Jerry, Corey and Richard, free of the burden to prove to them that I was worthy of Stand By Me’s legacy, was something I will cherish for years. I just wish that River was here to enjoy it with us.

Happy anniversary, Stand By Me. You're finally old enough to officially be the classic people have told me you are since the 80s. Thank you to Rob, Andy, Ray and Bruce, and everyone in the cast and crew that made it possible for me to be part of a movie that I can look back on, twenty-five years later, with overwhelming pride.

71 thoughts on “I was twelve going on thirteen when I made the movie that changed my life”

  1. I can’t remember if I read the story first or saw the movie, and I can’t remember how old I was. But…wow!…the story and the movie adaptation were profound and moving for me. I even used the story within the story for an English report once. It must have been a confluence of the actors’ talent, excellent screen writer to adapt Stephen King’s story for the big screen, and wonderful directing that made this movie so timeless and memorable. And OMG!!! I did not know that Vernon was played by such a hottie!!!

  2. “Wil Wheaton’s a really cool guy, but did you notice he never gets anywhere? He just keeps Wil Wheatoning.”
    Keep on Wheatoning, Wheaton. That movie would be a crowning achievement for most actors. That it was effectively just your start is amazing (and yes, a testament to Reiner – he found the four kids that would make his greatest movie).
    Just out of curiosity: did you ever read Stephen King’s The Body as an adult?
    You would have such a unique perspective on that novella – both as a writer and as the actor who portrayed the first person narrator in the film adaptation – you are the only person on the planet who would be able to produce a review like that.
    What is eerily remarkable is that the adult Gordon LaChance’s assessment of one of his own early short stories echoes your own voice when you evaluate your own work – at turns witty, sarcastic, blushing and proud. [I’m thinking particularly the part when he humbly critiques and defends his early work in “Stud City.”]

  3. I loved reading your experience at the blu-ray release gathering, and loved reading it again. Thanks for reposting… I hope you and Jerry did get together again.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post. My husband and I (now in our early 40s) showed Stand By Me to our 10 year old son and his friend a couple of weekends ago, and they were as delighted by it as we’d expected them to be. It had been many years since I’d seen the movie, and it’s held up so well – wow, you were a skinny kid! – and seeing it as an adult and parent let me observe things about it that had gone over my head previously. I love that it’s about boys who are tough and determined, but that they also express their emotions. It’s a great film, and you all did great work in it.

  5. I *LOVE* Antenna TV, but don't have an antenna at the moment, so I didn't know SBM was airing on it. Thank you, and thanks for being part of such an awesome channel.

  6. I teared up a little reading that…As i did several times the first time i saw the movie…”Stand By Me” took me back to my childhood…and made me remember how big the world seemed back then…And how exciting it was just being alive.

  7. Stand by Me was the first (and for a long time, only) adaptation of one of Stephen King’s stories that really captured the atmosphere of the written piece. Only Shawshank Redemption (adapted from the same collection of novellas) came close.
    Do you know why the film was moved to Oregon while the novella is set in Maine?

  8. Without delving into the sociology of the thing, thanks for providing a sterling standard for gangs of us boys coming of age in that magical and laughable era. If you ever see Dreyfuss again, tell him America thanks him for delivering the single coldest titanic summation of American childhood ever.

  9. This brought back so many memories. My best friend Stacy and I grew up watching this movie and we knew the entire thing by heart. We could recite every word and would even act it out in our own little skits. When I lost Stacy 3 years ago to cancer at the age of 29, it took me 2 years to watch that movie without crying. Her husband even had B.B.King’s song Stand By Me played at her funeral and that was soul crushing. I still miss her, but now I can watch it and enjoy it and remember our wonderful times. Thank you for the memories.

  10. Wil, you make me want to write.
    Anyone else tells this story and the reader sympathizes with those feelings. You tell it and we feel them. You have a magic to your words that inspires not just understanding, but empathy.
    And it makes me want to cast that spell. Unfortunately, the same ADD that spurs my creativity, also hinders my focus and the desire to evoke emotions with words has remained nothing more than a haunting whisper.
    Thank you for telling your stories. Thank you for sharing your emotions. Thank you for your inspiration.

  11. Wow.. Can’t believe I’m actually replying on a blog post of Wil Wheaton. Its like we grew up together but you dont even know me. Reading your post about River and Corey, I feel as if i’m the ghost in the room that watched it all play out. When I was in my teens and going thru troubles in life, I watched stand by me as did most here and was moved of course. As I grew and watched you on TNG and Corey on various other movies like Goonies and Lost Boys I felt a part of something. Thanks for bearing your feelings about River. You write and discuss these things and it makes me feel what you feel thru the writing. I remember River dying and at the time, though I wasn’t a big fan or anything, I had felt a sense of loss because of stand by me. Thanks for being there thru the years to keep me sane.

  12. Love it love it! It sure is eerie though how you did all grow up to be like your characters. This movie is amazing, you write amazing, and it is hard to believe it has been 25 years!

  13. I enjoyed you interview on NPR! I agree with everyone else that it brings back memories and what was going on in my life at the time. Both my boys (now grown up) loved SBM, and they still have it in their movie libraries (as do I).
    I remember when I was 12, and watching SBM brought those memories back. I remember wanting to have adventures like Gordie, Vern, Teddy, and Chris did. And I did every time I watched the movie. Congratulations on 25 years of SBM!
    Love your blog. You are a great writer and your audiobook readings are outstanding as well!

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