I've been waiting for the right time to write about my childhood love for Jonathan Brandis, the late child actor-turned-teen idol who passed away in 2003. This week marks Brandis's birthday, so what better time to celebrate his life and career?
Though he'd popped up here and there in film and television -- notable appearances include episodes of "Good Morning, Miss Bliss," "Full House," and "L.A. Law," defeating the evil Terry O'Quinn in Stepfather II, and his turn as the young Stuttering Bill in Stephen King's It -- my first memorable Jonathan Brandis moment was probably his starring debut in the 1991 child fantasy sequel The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter. As Bastian Bux, the new protagonist of the story, Brandis made an impression... the movie, not so much.
But Brandis's 1992 was a different story. This was the year that I really obsessed over the 16-year-old actor with the blonde hair and the vulnerable face. The year he broke out on his own as a viable teen actor who could hold his own against veteran co-stars and inspired a devoted fan following with the one-two punch of a soccer movie, and, within the span of a year, a karate movie, that still hold respective places in my young movie going memories. This was the era of Ladybugs.
Older audiences might remember Ladybugs as a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, but ask any young girl in the '90s and it was Brandis's film all the way. He starred as Matthew, a teen soccer phenom who gets roped into playing for a girls team as "Martha" by his mother's boyfriend, Chester (Dangerfield). Chester wants to impress his boss, whose daughter Kimberly is on the team. Matthew wants to impress Kimberly. Their individual motives run parallel as the Ladybugs make it to the championships, until Matthew's mother finds out and pulls him right before the big game.
It's not necessarily that we all crushed on Brandis in drag, because even in that blonde wig he looked nothing like a real girl. It was more that when in character as Matthew, Brandis was the kind of boy we wished would pay us attention, notice us, and cheer us on to win the game on our own. He was sweet, snarky, and as his crush on Kimberly demonstrated, one of those adorably tongue-tied shy boys. Plus, he pulled all of the tricks on the soccer field we always wished we could. (Speaking of skills, I always gave a mental fist shake at Vinessa Shaw as Kimberly, the object of Brandis's affection, who scores the winning goal with the least convincing penalty kick in history. In 1992, it was the worst girlie kick since Kathy Ireland in Necessary Roughness.)
The following year, Brandis was back in Sidekicks, another tween-friendly flick. In it, Brandis played the asthmatic, bullied teenager Barry Gabrewski, a lonely kid who daydreams that his best friend is martial arts superstar Chuck Norris. With a local Chinese man (the late, great Mako) as his own personal Mr. Miyagi, Barry trains in martial arts in order to fight back against his bullies, win the heart of Danica McKellar, and make it into a tournament where he finally gets to meet Norris in the flesh.
Sidekicks was a great vehicle for Brandis for a few reasons. For starters, Brandis wasn't the beefcake type, so his wiry frame and those sad, lonely eyes fit Barry's underdog perfectly. Once he started fighting back and getting Winnie from "The Wonder Years" to notice him, Brandis's Barry was alight with newfound mojo that kept you rooting for him. By the time he performed his nunchaku routine, met Chuck, and found himself squaring off with his nemesis Randy (coached by Joe Piscopo doing his best Martin Kove) in a contest breaking slabs of concrete that had been freaking lit on fire, I had sworn allegiance to the cult of Jonathan Brandis.
And don't even get me started on "seaQuest DSV," which I watched religiously just to keep up with Brandis's brilliant boy wonder Lucas Wolenczak -- even when the series got silly and was canceled during its third season. Following the end of "seaQuest," Brandis popped up in a spate of small films (most notably, Outside Providence) and had begun to write and direct his own material. (An unproduced episode of "seaQuest" would have been his writing-directing debut.)
On November 12, 2003, Brandis attempted to take his own life and died in Los Angeles at the age of 27. This week, he would have turned 34, with who knows how many more beloved performances and behind-the-camera projects to his name. Share your favorite Jonathan Brandis movie memories with me below.