What the Hell Happened to Andrew McCarthy?
The Brat Pack givith and the Brat Pack taketh away. By now, the “What the Hell Happened” series has documented the careers of several young actors in the mid-eighties who were branded with the Brat Pack label. Some fared better than others, but those most closely associated with the coming-of-age movies of the mid-decade generally had the hardest time escaping the kinds of roles that made them famous. Andrew McCarthy had the fortunate misfortune to star in two of the quintessential Brat Pack movies and he’s got the scars to prove it.
So, what the hell happened?
McCarthy’s movie debut was in the 1983 sex comedy, Class. It’s your typical, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy discovers that girl is his best friend’s mom, boy gets back together with girl because she’s played by Jacqueline Bisset story. Even the its leading man admits, there are problems with the movie’s premise:
It was supposed to be a silly comedy, but then it’s really weird. This isn’t funny. You’re having an affair with your friend’s mother. It’s all very weird and kind of early ’80s kind of bizarre. I haven’t seen it in a million years. I don’t know if it actually would hold up in any way, or if it held up at the time.
A lot of actors have to pay their dues to land a leading role in a questionable sex comedy like Class, but McCarthy didn’t. He got into acting when his academic career hit a snag:
I had just gone to college for two years and was asked to leave, because I didn’t go, really. Then a friend of mine called and said, “There’s an ad in the newspaper. They’re having an open call for a movie and wanted 18, vulnerable, and sensitive.” I was like, “Dude.” I went and auditioned with 500 other 18, vulnerable, sensitive kids.
Rob Lowe costarred as McCarthy’s best friend from school who isn’t too keen on the idea that his buddy is bedding his mom. Lowe, who made his movie debut earlier that year in The Outsiders, was a relative vet. John Cusack and Virginia Madsen also made their big screen debuts in Class.
Critics complained that Class was a retread of The Graduate that couldn’t decide whether or not it was supposed to be funny. It opened in fourth place at the box office and quickly disappeared from theaters. After Class, McCarthy thought his acting career was over. He went an entire year without finding more work.
When McCarthy finally found work again, it was in another coming-of-age sex comedy. Following the success of Porky’s, the eighties were flooded with movies about repressed teenagers trying to get laid. By the time Heaven Help Us came along in 1985, they were running out of ways to differentiate one bawdy comedy from the next. So this one was set in an all-boys Catholic school. What could be more funny than a sex Catholic sex comedy? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.
Heaven Help Us was an inauspicious start to what would turn out to be a big year for McCarthy. Critics complained that the movie couldn’t settle on a a consistent tone and audiences stayed home. Although it is among the lesser-known of McCarthy’s movies from the decade, the actor considers it to be his favorite from the early stage of his career. Whatever, Heaven‘s shortcomings, you have to admit it has an amazing cast. McCarthy’s classmates were played by Kevin Dillon and Patrick Dempsey and the teachers included Donald Sutherland, John Heard and Wallace Shawn. Mary Stewart Masterson appeared as a local girl who flirted with McCarthy.
Later that year, McCarthy appeared in another ensemble cast. The coming-of-age drama, St. Elmo’s Fire, featured a who’s who of young actors of the eighties. The movie follows a group of recent college graduates as they struggle to find their place in the world. McCarthy portrayed an idealistic writer who comes between a yuppie couple played by Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. Rob Lowe played the bad boy and Demi Moore appeared as the party girl of the group. Emilio Estevez portrayed McCarthy’s roommate who spends much of the movie pursuing Andie MacDowell.
St. Elmo’s Fire was released a few months after John Hughes’ high school drama, The Breakfast Club. While the two movies are not related, St. Elmo felt like a spiritual successor to The Breakfast Club. In between these two movies, a reporter for New York Magazine wrote an article about the young actors from these movies that painted them in a bad light. He coined the phrase “the Brat Pack” and it stuck. According to McCarthy:
The whole Brat Pack thing was this weird thing that just sort of happened. Because then, it was after the publicity for St. Elmo’s Fire, Emilio Estevez was doing an interview, and he had the brilliant idea to go get drunk with a reporter for New York Magazine. They went out with a couple of guys and got drunk with a reporter and behaved like young people do when they’re drunk in a bar. The guy clearly thought these guys were total little brats and wrote that and came up with this very witty name, which we were all appalled and aghast at at the time, and everyone else was thrown into this thing. At the time, it was this sort of, “Oh, my god, what’s this?”
As it turns out, McCarthy wasn’t actually a member of the real life Pack. Estevez, Lowe, Nelson and the others all lived in Los Angeles at the time. They spent a lot of time hanging out together. But McCarthy still lived in New York. He said that while they were making St. Elmo’s Fire, he felt “pretty isolated” from the rest of the cast since he was the only one staying in a hotel. But as far as the general public was concerned, McCarthy was guilty by association. Appearing in St. Elmo’s Fire made him an honorary member of the Brat Pack whether he liked it or not.
If McCarthy had any hope of escaping the Brat Pack label, his next movie ended it. You couldn’t get more Brat Pack than starring in a John Hughes movie opposite his muse, Molly Ringwald. Ringwald played a girl from a poor family who starts seeing a rich, sensitive guy played by McCarthy. John Cryer completed the love triangle as Ringwald’s eccentric friend, Duckie. Harry Dean Stanton, James Spader and Annie Potts rounded out the cast.
Originally, the role of Blane, was written as a macho jock. But Ringwald used her influence over Hughes to go a different way with the character:
I had actually got the part in Pretty In Pink because I had just been in St. Elmo’s Fire, and then they said, “Well, this part, the part in Pretty In Pink, we’re shooting for this, like, hunky, you know, square-jawed quarterback type.” And I was young and sensitive. So, they said, “Well, you’re not really right for it, but you’ve just been in this St. Elmo’s film. You can audition. We’ll give you a courtesy audition.” So, I went and auditioned, and Molly was there reading with people. When I left, Molly said, “Now that’s the kind of guy. He’s all like pouty and dreamy that I’d fall for.” And John Hughes was like, “That wimp?” But he listened to her, and there I was.
Following test screenings, the ending of the movie was also changed. In the original ending, Ringwald ended up with Cryer’s character after McCarthy dumped her. But audiences who saw that ending hated it, so the cast was brought back together for reshoots. Unfortunately, McCarthy had shaved his head for a play he was doing in New York, so when he shot the new ending in which he professes his love for Ringwald, he did so wearing a cheap wig.
I’ve always said that if they’d known we’d still be talking about it 30 years later, they’d have paid for a better wig. So it’s wig-acting basically at the end. I look so forlorn and sad with this really bad wig on while I’m telling her I love her. That wig does 90 percent of the work for me, because I just look… ‘Something is wrong with him. Look, it looks horrible.’ And it’s just bad wig-acting.
McCarthy has said that Pretty in Pink is the movie he will be remembered for. It was the biggest box office hit of his career up until that point and his only first-place opening. More importantly, Pretty in Pink became *the* prom movie for a generation of girls who grew up with John Hughes movies.
After the success of St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, McCarthy’s stock was on the rise. He was offered the leading role in the romantic comedy, Mannequin, without having to audition. On the upside, that’s a sign that an actor has “made it”. On the other hand, it was a movie about a guy who falls in love with a plastic dummy. McCarthy had second thoughts about the movie just before shooting began:
I was like, “What? What am I doing? This is a movie about a guy who falls in love with a mannequin.” I told [my agent], “I’ve got to get out of this movie.” They’re like, “You read it. It starts on Monday. You’re not getting out of it.”
The movie was originally written with Dudley Moore in mind. But when McCarthy agreed to take the plunge, the script was rewritten for a younger actor. Kim Cattrall costarred as the inanimate object of McCarthy’s affection, Meshach Taylor played a flamboyant window dresser and James Spader was cast as McCarthy’s rival. Spader and McCarthy knew each other from Pretty in Pink and McCarthy encouraged him to join the cast of Mannequin.
When it was released, Mannequin was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert wrote, “This movie is a real curiosity. It’s dead. I don’t mean it’s bad. A lot of bad movies are fairly throbbing with life. Mannequin is dead. The wake lasts 1 1/2 hours, and then we can leave the theater.”
Audiences didn’t care. Mannequin opened in third place at the box office, but surprisingly it had legs. The movie hung around in the top ten for nine weeks and ended up outgrossing Pretty in Pink. McCarthy remembers the movie’s silly charms, “It’s a very sweet movie in many ways. It’s so uncynical, and so unhip and savvy. There’s something about it that’s very pure. It’s lovely.”
As the eighties wound down, the Brat Pack actors were trying to distance themselves from the coming-of-age roles that made them famous. If they wanted to have any kind of career in the coming decade, they needed to make the difficult transition into adult roles. McCarthy made his bid for grown-up status in Less Than Zero, the big screen adaptation of the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis.
Today, Ellis is a known quantity, but Less Than Zero was his first novel. McCarthy referred to the movie adaptation as “a classic example of studio executives buying a hot book and never having read it.” The book focused on a group of rich young college students who deal with their isolation by experimenting with drugs and casual sex. The movie retained the title, the names of the characters and not a lot else.
For the movie, McCarthy’s character was changed into a straight arrow who returns to his hometown to help his friends kick their drug habits. Jami Gertz played his ex-girlfriend who is addicted to cocaine. Robert Downey Jr., who was struggling with real life addiction, portrayed McCarthy’s best friend who has started having sex with Gertz. Downey’s drug dealer in the movie was played by James Spader.
Even in its watered-down state, the studio was horrified by the first cut of the movie. Audiences at test screenings disliked the characters played by Downey and Gertz, so the movie was reshot and recut to make them more likable. Most critics felt that the movie missed the mark. It opened in fourth place at the box office behind Baby Boom which has been in theaters for five weeks already. Over time, audiences have warmed to Less Than Zero including Ellis who initially refused to watch the movie but now appreciates it as a representation of the eighties lifestyle.
Next up, McCarthy costarred opposite Matt Dillon in the crime drama, Kansas. As usual, McCarthy played a nice young man. Only this time, instead of taking Molly Ringwald to the prom, he runs into a drifter who forces him to help rob a bank.
Later that year, McCarthy reuinted with Ringwald for the coming-of-age drama, Fresh Horses. But this was no John Hughes movie. McCarthy played a college student whose seemingly perfect life is upended when he falls for a country girl played by Ringwald. After McCarthy’s character breaks things off with his fiancee, he discovers that Ringwald’s character has been keeping a few secrets.
These projects made sense for McCarthy. The parts played to his strengths (If you were looking for a guy to play a sensitive college student in the late 80’s, McCarthy had to be on your short list), but they also offered him the opportunity to transition into adult roles. Unfortunately, neither of these movies was very well-received. McCarthy said his choices at the time were not part of some carefully constructed plan:
There was no, you know, the hands were not on the wheel. I was just a young guy doing the next job that came along in very real ways. I didn’t have the wherewithal or the savvy to plot and buy material and plan… I just didn’t come from that. It didn’t really even occur to me in a real way. So that job came up, and I’m thinking, “Oh, Molly. I like Molly. And we did well in the last movie. Sure.” I mean, it didn’t work out at all, that one.
The next job that came McCarthy’s way was the high concept comedy, Weekend at Bernie’s. McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman played employees at an insurance company. When they discover a case of fraud, they report it to their boss who invites them to spend Labor Day weekend at his island beach house as a reward. The guys think they are climbing the corporate ladder, but in reality their boss is planning to have them killed to cover up his crimes. But you know how these things go. Instead, Bernie gets himself killed by his mob connections and the guys spend the weekend pretending that their boss isn’t dead. Hijinks ensue.
Weekend at Bernie’s is a movie with only one joke stretched out for nearly an hour and a half. To enjoy the movie, you have to really like slapstick comedy. Fortunately for everyone involved, there were just enough fans of this brand of silliness to make Weekend at Bernie’s a modest hit. Emphasis on the word “modest”. The movie opened in eighth place at the box office and grossed a so-so $30 million dollars which qualified it as the 39th highest-grossing movie of the year.
The end of the eighties was a rough time for the Brat Pack. The coming-of-age movies that had made them famous had fallen out of favor. And they were aging out of those roles anyway. But audiences weren’t willing to accept a lot of these actors in adult roles.
Certain actors were more successful than others in making that transition. McCarthy fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. As the nineties kicked off, he fared better than Judd Nelson but not as well as Emilio Estevez.
At the start of the decade, McCarthy was making movies most audiences never saw. For example, he played Henry Miller in a French movie based on the writer’s autobiography. He also showed up in an episode of the HBO anthology series, Tales From the Crypt.
In 1991, McCarthy returned to the big screen in John Frankenheimer’s political thriller, Year of the Gun. McCarthy played an American writer in Italy during the 70’s. His character is researching a novel about the Red Brigades when he meets a photojournalist played by a pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. She unwittingly hands his manuscript over to the actual Red Brigades which puts them both in danger.
While McCarthy liked the movie, he later admitted that he wasn’t right for the role at that time. “If there was ever one movie that I did that I would love to have had another chance at doing, it would have been that one. I was wrong for the part. I was too young, and I was not right for it. But I love that kind of political intrigue kind of movie. But they’re hard to do, and it didn’t work.”
The following year, McCarthy starred opposite a pre-fame Helen Hunt in the romantic comedy Only You. In this one, McCarthy gets dumped by his girlfriend just before they were supposed to leave on a trip to Mexico. Hunt played the travel agent who informs McCarthy his tickets are non-refundable. So McCarthy goes to a bar where he meets a party girl played by Kelly Preston. He offers his extra ticket to Preston, but their vacation doesn’t go as planned. She keeps running off with other guys leaving McCarthy to bond with his travel agent. In a sign of things to come, Only You skipped theaters and went direct to video.
In 1992, after several years of struggling with alcoholism, McCarthy began a detox program and sobered up. “It took a while for alcohol to really sort of kick my (butt), which it ended up doing completely … maybe 88 to 92. The first Bush presidency, I like to say, I missed.”
By 1993, McCarthy had nothing to lose. So he figured, sure, why not make a sequel to Weekend at Bernies? The obvious answer to that question is that the first movie just barely managed to milk a single joke for 90 minutes. There was no way two guys carrying around their dead boss’ corpse could sustain a second comedy, but they gave it a shot anyway. McCarthy seems to have a sense of humor about his decision to return for another Weekend. “I mean… no one was really thinking there, were they? [Laughs.] We just did it again, you know?”
Critics liked the sequel even less than they did the original. And they didn’t like the first movie. Audiences who were charmed by the silliness in 1989 stayed home for the sequel which grossed less than half of the original movie’s $30 million dollar take. And thus, any hopes for a trilogy were dashed.
McCarthy also had a small role in The Joy Luck Club that year. The adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel was a big prestige picture that was positioned for Oscar nominations that year. But the movie didn’t connect with critics or audiences as hoped.
The good news for McCarthy was that it showed he had left his Brat Pack days behind him. The bad news was that he was no longer a leading man. At least not in mainstream movies.
By the mid-nineties, McCarthy moved into the indie movie circuit. He had a small role playing Dorothy Parker’s husband in Alan Rudolph’s biopic, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle in 1994. Jennifer Jason Leigh starred as the famous writer with a cast that included Campbell Scott, Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Beals, Matthew Broderick, Keith Carradine, Peter Gallagher, Heather Graham, Stephen Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow and Wallace Shawn.
When leading roles came McCarthy’s way, they were in the kinds of movies that played in select cities or film festivals or went straight to video.
Every once in a while, McCarthy would show up in a supporting role in a Hollywood movie. In 1996, McCarthy appeared in the noir thriller, Mulholland Falls. The movie was about the LAPD of the 1950’s known as the “Hat Squad.” Nick Nolte starred as the detective in charge of an investigation into the murder of a young woman played by Jennifer Connelly. McCarthy portrayed Connelly’s gay best friend who filmed of her sexual exploits.
The next several years consisted primarily of direct-to-video and TV movies. In 1999, McCarthy married his college sweetheart. Twenty years after they had first dated, the actor tracked down his ex after hearing that she was seeing someone else. Three years later, the couple welcomed a son but two years after that the marriage ended.
Eventually, McCarthy started showing up in guest spots on TV shows. In 2000, he appeared in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Three years later, he played a different character on the original Law & Order series. And then in 2007, he portrayed a third character on L&O: Criminal Intent. He also dropped by shows like The Twilight Zone and Monk while starring in a steady stream of TV movies like Georgetown and Straight from the Heart.
In 2004, McCarthy landed the starring role on the TV show, Kingdom Hospital. Stephen King adapted Lars von Trier’s original Danish miniseries for American television. The show was set in a hospital in Maine that was built upon the site of a mill that burned down during the Civil War. McCarthy played a surgeon who works with a psychic played by Diane Ladd to uncover the hospital’s secrets. After the success of the first episode, ABC extended Kingdom Hospital from a mini-series to an on-going show. But as ratings steadily declined, the network cancelled the show after the first season.
The following year, McCarthy had a recurring role on the NBC military drama, E-Ring. For five episodes he played the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs on the show about the Pentagon.
In 2008, McCarthy returned to the big screen with a small role in the fantasy movie, The Spiderwick Chronicles. The movie was intended to launch a franchise based on the book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, but the follow-up films never materialized. Freddie Highmore starred as a pair of identical twins and Sarah Bolger played their sister. The kids’ parents were portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker and McCarthy as the estranged father.
From 2008-2009, McCarthy was a regular on the NBC drama, Lipstick Jungle. The show was based on a book by Sex and the City writer Candace Bushnell. The premise is basically the same – a group of glamorous women living in New York City balance their careers with men and fashion. But the women (Brooke Shields, Kim Raver and Lindsay Price) were older and the show was subject to network standards.
It’s probably not all that surprising that a sanitized version of Sex and the City was not a big ratings hit. Making matters worse, the show faced competition from the similarly themed Cashmere Mafia from Sex and the City creator Darren Star. Star had originally developed a version of Lipstick Jungle for television, but when that deal fell through he came up with own show. Meanwhile, NBC went ahead with plans to adapt Bushnell’s book. The end result was two very similar shows competing for a modest audience.
Although Lipstick Jungle only lasted two seasons, it had a massive impact on McCarthy’s career going forward. McCarthy was allowed to direct two of the show’s twenty episodes. That opened the door for McCarthy to move behind the camera. Over the last decade, McCarthy has directed episodes of Gossip Girl, Alpha House, The Blacklist and Orange Is the New Black among others. According to McCarthy, directing came naturally:
It’s an interesting job, because I have every actor neurosis that there is, right? So I understand what the actor is dealing with. I’ve been on a set my whole life. I just know how sets run. I know what is wasting time on a set. It’s just a job that I found when I started doing it: ‘Oh, I have an aptitude for this, and I can do this. And I really enjoy it.’ Not being the center of attention—I’ve found it to be really satisfying.
Meanwhile, McCarthy was still spending time in front of the camera often on TV shows he was directing. He appeared in episodes of Gossip Girl, White Collar and The Family many of which he also directed.
But McCarthy wasn’t done exploring new career opportunities. He also took up travel writing.
That was all an accident. I traveled a lot. I found travel changed my life. I love what it did for me. And I read a lot of travel [writing], and none of it seemed to capture what was happening to me when I was on the road, so I was just writing about it. And I met an editor then. And he eventually let me write for his magazine, and I just started writing. And then I won an award at it, and like anything, you win an award, and suddenly you’re a genius. And so then people who wouldn’t return my emails, they’re suddenly asking for me to write for them.
In 2010, while writing for the travel magazine Ash, McCarthy had a harrowing experience. He visited an underground church in Lalibela, Ethiopia to witness an exorcism when he was confronted by a guard. According to McCarthy, he had left his ticket in his hotel room. Since he lacked proper documentation, the guard escorted him from the church at gunpoint.
His gun [was] pointed at my back. I thought his reaction to my offense was extreme; I tried to say as much. He grunted something in Amharic and prodded me with the tip of his rifle.
But McCarthy wasn’t put off by the experience. In 2012, he released his own travel book, The Longest Way Home. In 2015, he wrote an article for National Geographic about traveling to Ireland to explore his roots.
So, what the hell happened?
McCarthy got into acting almost by accident. He was a young kid with no idea what he was doing and he was struggling with a drinking problem that would only get worse once he became famous. Like the rest of the Brat Pack, McCarthy was thrust into the spotlight and became a household name overnight. Then almost as quickly, his career cooled off as he outgrew the coming-of-age movies that made him famous.
Fortunately, McCarthy has done pretty well for himself since then. As his movie career was winding down, McCarthy was able to get sober. He has continued to acting, but he’s branched out into directing and travel writing. Along the way, McCarthy remarried. He and his second wife have two children together.
Posted on August 24, 2017, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged andrew mccarthy, Mannequin, pretty in pink, st elmo's fire, Weekend At Bernie's. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.