’80s teen idol Tommy Howell was already a veteran movie actor at age 17

Tommy Howell is already a ‘veteran’ actor at age 17 (1985)

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Tommy Howell ‘veteran’ actor at age 17 (1985)

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.

Secret Admirer movie - C Thomas Howell and Kelly Preston

“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.

Sixteen covers of 16 magazine from the '80s

“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.”

Tommy Howell - vintage Secret Admirer movie

“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 someday — 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.”

MORE: Matt Dillon: An insider’s talk with The Outsiders star (1983)

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.”

Vintage magazine poster of Tommy Howell

Tommy Howell: Newest teen idol escapes never-never land

By Elaine Warren, King Features Syndicate

C. Tommy Howell [C Thomas Howell] , one of the newest teen idols to make young girls hug their pillows at night, is sitting cross-legged on the sofa at his publicist’s West Hollywood office, leafing through one of the fan magazines currently featuring articles about the color of his eyes and the way to his heart.

Diamond stud earring in one ear, his loose, wrinkled greenish-gray jacket and pants hanging limply on his thin body, he is the picture of drop-dead teen-age chic.

Howell has been a fan mag favorite for a couple of years now — ever since appearing as Pony Boy in Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders.” And now that he has two new movies out — “Red Dawn,” and “Grandview, U.S.A.,” — his popularity seems to be increasing.

Carefully coddled by agents, managers and publicists for the past two years, he is ready now, at the age of 17, to emerge from the protective cocoon and greet the world by submitting to interviews. And everybody wants to know the same thing: What is it about him that’s special?

Looking inside 'The Outsiders' movie (1983)

“I have no idea,” Howell says, laughing in a voice that escapes for just a moment back to the school playground. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

Vintage C Thomas Howell photo

Since Hollywood discovered teen-agers a couple of years ago, Howell has joined the parade of pubescent males who’ve parlayed good looks and stylized grunting into instant stardom.

Howell and others like him — Matt Dillon, — Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise — are in demand from all sides: Fan magazines manufacture an image for them. Teenage girls fantasize about them. Screenwriters write for them. Studio executives bank on them.

To many moviegoers, the players must seem all but indistinguishable: Handsome yet baby- faced. Tough yet vulnerable. Men yet boys. James Dean reincarnate.

Almost all teen films portray their characters in the schizophrenic throes of adolescence — roles requiring mercurial displays of fear, courage, sensitivity, often a little violence and sometimes a little sex. In “Grandview,” Howell is a high school valedictorian at war with his parents over his love affair with an older, divorced woman.

1982 - Jamie Lee Curtis and C Thomas Howell in Grandview USA

In “Red Dawn,” he is forced to suddenly shed his childhood and join a band of teenage insurgents who try to defend their small mid-America town during a military invasion by Soviet-bloc forces. He courageously suffers the loss of his father. He drinks the blood from a fallen deer. He learns to kill.

For all the fun it looked like he was having in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis in “Grandview,” Howell says he had a difficult time getting comfortable with the scene.

“When you’re doing a lovemaking scene, you’re just opening yourself up to the world. You think, ‘Wow, America’s going to know so much about me.’ So I was real nervous. When you’ve got these lights shining in your face and a big camera sitting in your mug and you’re trying to pretend it’s not all to be a prima donna and, it’s real tough.”

Tommy Howell vintage pinup poster from 16 magazine

But it was tougher still, Howell says, enduring the cold — 20 degrees below zero — during four months of filming “Red Dawn” in northern New Mexico. “You had to really toughen up, and there wasn’t time to be a prima donna and crybaby and check your hair and makeup. It wasn’t one of those movies. It was be there, know your lines, and toughen up.

“When we first got there, (director) John Milius set us down in this big room. We weren’t even unpacked yet, and he looked us all in the eyes and said, ‘You know, I hired you guys because I knew you weren’t sissies.'”

Lance Guest saves the day as the Last Starfighter (1984)

Howell is being frequently asked, he says, about the political intentions of the film, but Milius, he says, didn’t talk about any of that on the set. “We just made the movie.”

Like the characters they portray, most teen idols are middle-class children of the suburbs. Howell’s story is slightly different.

He grew up in Agoura, the son of Chris Howell, a rodeo and stunt man. Tommy grew up wanting to be a rodeo man just like his father, and he could ride before he could even walk. At the age of 15, he left his family to ride the rodeo circuit around the country, and then did it again after the small part he played in the movie “E.T.” as one of the bicycle-riding neighborhood kids.

He had appeared in a number of television commercials and a couple of TV specials, but it wasn’t until his role in “The Outsiders” that he decided to stick with acting.

For the past four months, he’s been taking acting classes and his career is being carefully guided by his manager agent, who are for roles that him to stretch.

Vintage 80s Tom Howell - He's got that magic touch

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