MEN'S FITNESS MAY, 2006
How an all-American kid found fame, fitness--and the hottest woman in town
"Pez," says Vern from Stand by Me, Rob Reiner's 1986 coming-of-age epic. When asked what food he would choose if he could have only one for the rest of his life, he says it would be "cherry-flavored Pez. No doubt about it." And while Vern's alter ego, actor Jerry O'Connell, is known in Hollywood today as being impeccably fit, clean living, and generally mature, he still lets the 12-year-old inside him call some shots.
O'Connell prefers the term husky when referring to his appearance in the movie and to the body that carried him through all those years of grade school. "I was a typical American kid," he says. 'I ate a bag of chips on the way home from school and a box of Entenmann's when I got there."
Being 10 to 20 bounds heavier than his classmates wasn't easy -- and despite his brush with fame, O'Connell still earned the nickname Cheerio (a pun on his name, Jerry O) from his peers.
"When Stand by Me came out, I was in public school, and the movie wasn't really popular with 12-year-olds -- it was more of an adult film at the time. Kids wanted to know why I wasn't in The Lost Boys or on the show Kids Incorporated," he recalls with a laugh. "At that time, it was more about trying to keep my milk money that getting famous."
Despite the buzz O'Connell's first movie role generated in Tinseltown, when filming of the flick was complete, he returned with his parents (neither of ho were in show business) to their home in New York City's bohemian Chelsea neighborhood. Just another chubby face out of millions in the Big Apple, O'Connell took his time achieving his stardom.
Though TV roles followed through the '90s, O'Connell had no time to develop the typical out-of-control, young-Hollywood ego. Rather, his family remained in New York, helping him stay free of the spotlight. And instead of the underage partying and debauchery most young actors seem so drawn to, O'Connell turned to fitness. It started when his mother, Linda, hired him a persona trainer. The experience helped him learn about lifting and nutrition, but initially it did little for his self-esteem. "I was in high school," he remembers, "talking to some older girls and telling them I was getting in shape. I told them I'd done 100 situps that morning and then dared one of them to punch me in the stomach. When she did I farted on contact," he laughs.
Degraded but not discouraged, O'Connell actually expanded his interest in fitness, even as he turned away from the screen briefly and, at the insistence of his family, began college in the fall of 1991. Honing his craft as an acting major at New York University, O'Connell also began to excel athletically, becoming a nationally ranked fencer -- a challenge that forced him to endure fierce four-hour workouts.
But that dogged determination paid off almost immediately. Upon graduation in 1995, he moved to Los Angeles to return to acting. And within no time at all, he was back at work -- landing a role on the TV series Sliders with his younger brother Charlie.
Life then became very, very good for the young actor. "All of a sudden, I was going out and getting invited to parties with an open bar," he half-laments. Moving from his previous, more sheltered existence to the role of a partying TV star was a major challenge for O'Connell, and it wasn't long, he says, before the nightlife took top billing over his health. Working hard by day and binge drinking on the weekends, he began to gain weight rapidly. Though an athletically built 6'2", he was nonetheless soon pushing 200 pounds. "It's tough," he says. "When you come home at 10 p.m., you don't feel like making a salad with fat-free dressing -- you feel like ordering a pizza."
While a crash course in hard training and diet whipped him into shape to play the hulking football player Cush in Jerry Maguire (one of his most critically acclaimed roles), O'Connell's bad habits returned almost as soon as the film wrapped. And despite sporadic efforts to get trim for roles in between, he eventually inflated to a flabby 210 pounds by 2002. That's when Jerry "Blockbuster' Brukheimer, producer of O'Connell's next vehicle, Kangaroo Jack, called him and told him in no uncertain terms to shape up. Bruckheimer signed O'Connell up with ace Hollywood trainer Jorgen de Mey, who had four months to plunge Jerry's system and pump him up for the role.
"Jorgen showed me that additives are bad," says O'Connell. "And I found that just by cutting out booze, salt, and dressings, the fat just drips off you." To get in shape for the film, O'Connell weight trained with three sets of 15 reps for one or two muscle groups per session and did cardio five days a week. "That's when I realized that my job didn't end when the director said, 'Cut.' I still had to go to the gym"
When it finally came time to O'Connell to chase a kangaroo through the Australian outback, his weight was once again under control -- he came to the set weighing a ready-and-able 185 pounds Since then, O'Connell, like most actors, has adopted a system of damage control and basic body maintenance. "I can't get super big, because what if I have to play a guy who has a hard time with girls? It's hard to feel sympathy for a guy who has a huge pump on. That's why I try to keep my body at a point where if I wanted to get big, I could do it in about six weeks, or if I needed to get really lean, I could do that, too."
But don't look for O'Connell to play the next big action hero or to star in The Machinist 2 anytime soon. With two films in the can (the Ben Affleck comeback vehicle Man About Town and the supernatural thriller Room 6) and the 100th episode of his hit NBC crime drama, Crossing Jordan, under his belt, O'Connell says that even more than movies, it's the normalcy of working on the small screen that he now truly appreciates. Getting up at five, hitting the gym at six, and then working form 7:15 till 10 or so at night, O'Connell is the working-class kind of Hollywood star, and it suits him fine.
"If you do feature films, your schedule becomes three months on, then three months off," he says. "But I'm digging the regularity of TV work." And such a strict schedule doesn't leave O'Connell time to get in the kind of trouble other stars of his caliber seem to find. "If I have a bad night and show up on the set looking like hell, I get calls from upstairs about it. You're only as good as your last close-up."
Though O'Connell admits to still "Yearning for a shot of something" here and there (as well as living it up during holidays and at sporting events like any other guy), he's struck an even balance of work and play. Never a dabbler in L.A.'s seedy side, O'Connell says the day-to-day responsibilities of a TV show keep him straight."It would be cool if I could tell you that I'm a party guy and I can balance that with work, but I couldn't. I have to watch it. And I think the days of the boozing actor are over." Far from impressed with the "Live fast, die young, and leave a goo-looking corpse" mentality of earlier movie heroes, O'Connell is inspired by longevity. "Guys like Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise really take care of themselves. That's what I aspire to be like."
That temperance might also have played a part in O'Connell's ability to sweep supermodel/actress Rebecca Romijn off her feet. Though he has had a reputation in the past for being a Hollywood playboy, courting the likes of Sarah Micelle Gellar, and Estella Warren, O'Connell has been exclusively with Romijn since 2004. And while most ladies will admit he's handsome and charming, if you're scratching you head over just how he convinced one of L.A.'s most luscious ladies to stand by him, he's just as confused as you are.
"Rebecca is a down-home girl. She keeps it real. But you look at her and think, 'This is someone who shouldn't keep it real.' But she does. I still can't believe she said yes when I asked her to marry me. I keep waiting for Ashton Kutcher to pop out an tell me I'm being Punk'd."
The couple now live together, and they're excited about the possibility of having children. Admittedly a big kid himself -- even if he is 32 and carrying only 10% body fat -- O'Connell doesn't mind people shouting out, "Hey, it's the fat kid from Stand by Me," as he passes. "I just throw a hand up in the air. There's still a 12-year-old inside everybody. I watch that movie with Rebecca now and she says to me, 'I can totally see you as that kid.' Then I say, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' and laugh. I still love cherry-flavored Pez, but nowadays I'd throw a scoop of protein powder on top."