Tommy Howell ‘veteran’ actor at age 17
By Diane Haithman
Tommy Howell, a heartthrob among junior teens, is already a veteran of five films at age 17 (“E.T.,” “Tank,” with James Garner, Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” “Grandview U.S.A.” and “Red Dawn”). But he said that “Secret Admirer,” in which he plays a boy smitten with the high school prom princess, will mark his debut as an actor.
“I’m just now learning to act,” Howell explained during a break on one of the final location sets of the shooting — a lesbian bar called the Flamingo, in the Silver Lake area near Hollywood, covered into a high school hangout for the film.
“I mean, I never really knew what I was doing. I was just smiling and being cute, and blowing things off and sliding by,” continued Howell. “This is my first film that I really had to work.
“By the time I’m 25, I really want to be, you know, a really respected actor in the business. I know that’s what every teen idols says. What’s really hard is making the transition from a teen idol to a major name.
“See, I want to get old,” said Howell earnestly. “I want to play older, I want to get out of the teenage, high school, beer-drinking, partying, naked-women movies. Which I haven’t had to do yet — but you know, that’s what most of the young actors are doing now.
“Most people, when I tell I’m 17, they go, wow, ‘I thought you were 20, or 21!’ My roommate is 20, all the people I hang out with are 20, 21 — the girls I go out on dates with are 20, 21.
“I really don’t get along with people who are 15 or 16, because there really is a difference. I really feel like I have to come down to their level, and be a kid.”
Tommy Howell [now known as C. Thomas Howell], the son of a film stuntman and rodeo professional in the San Fernando Valley, got his first starring role as Ponyboy, a sensitive young poet, in “The Outsiders.”
“I think (director) Coppola picked me because I wasn’t raised in a big city and wasn’t real Hollywood and wasn’t a real jock,” Howell said. “Because I was raised on a farm, and was very vulnerable. I looked like the type he wanted, and I was just a piece of clay that he molded into the project.
“I still can’t believe it — I cleaned stalls for a buck an hour so I could go to the movies on Saturday nights, and now, here I am!”
Although Howell professed disdain for his teenage peers, his dreams are sweetly adolescent. “I’m hoping for Westerns to come back some day — that’s what I want to do real bad,” he said. “But you know, what I would really like to do is, like, a knight in shining armor film, with horses and knights and the round table. That would really be great. ‘Excalibur,’ man — I mean, I would have killed to do that film.”
Like the rest of those on the set of “Secret Admirer,” Howell has a humility one has to admire. “I got to work — I happen to be an actor,” he said. “The electrician has just as important a job as I have, so I don’t have a big head about that, that I’m proud to say that.
“I guess I’m proud of my image at the moment, and I hope it’s always this good. I hope I have life this easy for the rest of my life. This is reality for me — really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, I love it.
“Whoever’s watching over me is doing a pretty good job.”