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WTF Happened to Chris O’Donnell?

WTF Happened to Chris O’Donnell?
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In the 90s, Chris O’Donnell was one of Hollywood’s most prominent young heartthrobs. Whether it was acting opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman or playing a young D’Artagnan in the Disney version of The Three Musketeers, it can’t be denied that the movie that put his career into overdrive was Batman Forever. In it, O’Donnell reinvented the role of Batman’s ward and sidekick, Robin, for the nineties, with him an acrobatic badass that proved so popular that the next movie was Batman and Robin. And there is where things started to change, with Joel Schumacher’s sequel ridiculed. 

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While sitting across from talk show host Conan O’Brian, actor Chris O’Donnell confessed that he owns a Robin costume, nipples and all! The actor went on to say that it is nice, it is cool, but what are you gonna do with it? That’s the same question Hollywood had about Chris. He’s nice and cool, but what will we do with him?  

He was the ultimate sidekick for a time, playing off of legends like an Oscar-winning Pacino,  The 3 Musketeers and Batman. He never stopped fighting, kept climbing to the top (Vertical Limit footage here), and found great success on TV with NCIS: LA…, but that’s all over now. So what is a grown-up boy wonder to do? WTF are we gonna do with him now?!  But how did he go from Golden Globe coulda-been to blockbuster supporter to Sunday night favourite to…pizza guy? Holy WTF, Batman! 

But to truly understand what the fuck happened to Chris O’Donnell, we go back to the beginning. And the beginning began when he was born on June 26th, 1970 in Winnetka, Illinois,  just north of Chicago, a pizza haven of its own.  

Young Chris appeared in the TV dramedy JACK AND MIKE in 1986; in the 1990 movie MEN  DON’T LEAVE as the older son of a widowed mom (Jessica Lange), and in 1991’s FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, playing someone who gets flattened by a train.  

The same year he graduated college, O’Donnell co-starred in SCHOOL TIES as the loyal friend to Brendan Fraser’s targeted Jewish character. More important to his career, he played a prep schooler tasked with watching over Al Pacino’s blind, hoo-ah-ing lieutenant colonel in SCENT  OF A WOMAN. This was undoubtedly O’Donnell’s breakout, standing against Pacino in a  thankless yet appropriately lay-up performance–easy-looking enough yet purposely restrained– earning a Golden Globe nod in the process.  

O’Donnell had become a casual and unusual commodity in his generation: he had charm without charisma and boyish looks without poster appeal, all opposing forces that would make him appealing without being egotistical. Chris O’Donnell was vanilla, but it worked for him–and most of us.  

Next was 1993’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS, taking the role after Brad Pitt snubbed it.  Unfortunately, his basic-ness fell victim to the movie’s panned reception, earning a Razzie nod just one year after the most acclaim of his career.  

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1994 brought BLUE SKY, actually completed back in 1991. Thankfully, the timing worked out to show off O’Donnell’s early potential, which parlayed into his biggest year yet, as 1995 brought his first lead role in the pleasant enough CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, teen romance MAD  LOVE opposite Drew Barrymore and BATMAN FOREVER, somehow edging out everybody from DiCaprio and Damon to the Coreys. For his part, O’Donnell called the movie “terrific”,  putting him in the minority but showing he cared for the work. And maybe we will all get a  chance to see the Schumacher Cut, which will give Chrissy Boy another batty boost in his career. 1996 saw him in THE CHAMBER, the John Grisham adaptation you forgot about (even his agent called him “one-dimensional”) and in a miscalculated turn as Hemingway in IN LOVE  AND WAR.  

1997 found him reprising Robin for BATMAN & ROBIN, showing the studio had faith in him  (hey, even Batman was replaced). Still, he felt like he wasn’t acting and was only making a “toy commercial”. Until its dud of a release, O’Donnell was all but promised a standalone movie, which, of course, never happened. But this wouldn’t be the only role he lost out on, as 1997 had so much potential for O’Donnell but also had so much against him: Barry Sonnenfield talked him out of MEN IN BLACK because he wanted Will Smith, while DiCaprio edged him out of  TITANIC because he was too old (even barely in his late 20s).  

And so O’Donnell fell into bit and boring parts: a deputy with some oddball appeal in Altman’s  COOKIE’S FORTUNE (1999); the flat lead in THE BACHELOR (1999), which hinged on a dumb; physically demanding yet stunted go in VERTICAL LIMIT (1999); and go-nowhere crime flick 29 PALMS in 2002, the same year he was briefly considered for Sam Raimi’s  SPIDER-MAN.  

By this point, O’Donnell started getting familiar with what he would later excel in: television,  which let him play against type as a man who murdered his pregnant wife in a four-episode arc on THE PRACTICE (season eight). Over the next few years, he would balance both movies and  TV: he would appear in KINSEY (2004) as a collaborator of Liam Neeson’s sexologist, do a one-off on TWO AND A HALF MEN, co-star in the TV movie THE AMAZING WESTERMANS;  and turn up in the unlikeable drama THE SISTERS (2005).  

That same year, O’Donnell got his first sitcom, HEAD CASES, which he took so he could be close to his family. It turns out he would be closer than expected, as the show lasted just two episodes. But on the horizon was a nine-episode arc on GREY’S ANATOMY as Meredith Grey’s love interest throughout seasons two and three. Soon after he got dumped, O’Donnell led the damn good Cold War-era miniseries THE COMPANY (2007) before going on to play Abigail  Breslin’s father in KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL and a minor, ineffective character in MAX PAYNE (both 2008). In 2010, O’Donnell played the only lead human role in CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE, a sort of indicator that his career needed just what the title of his next movie was: A LITTLE HELP.  

Thankfully, by this point, Chris O’Donnell was on NCIS: LOS ANGELES, playing special agent  G. Callen in the spinoff (he’d reprise it for NCIS: HAWAII later on). O’Donnell finally found his niche, making television work for him. He didn’t need to be great but rather present. His sheer unapologetic meh-ness and lack of controversy (save Robin’s nipples…) made him an ideal  Sunday night TV staple for the demographic of adults who want to wind down to predictable nothingness weekly. He turned up randomly during this stretch on shows ranging from the HAWAII FIVE-0 reboot (2012), ROBOT CHICKEN (2014), and the 2016 movie  PG.  

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With NCIS: LA ending its 14-season, 300+-episode run in 2023, that leaves Chris O’Donnell spending most of his time with what he loves: his family of seven–whom he shifted much of his career around for–pizza and golf. As for pizza, O’Donnell co-founded Pizzana, a restaurant essentially born out of weekly pizza nights held, like NCIS: LA, on Sunday nights, when nothing’s going on, and you’re just looking to relax. As we see it, if Chris O’Donnell took a  free online quiz asking, What Kind of Pizza Are You? he’d find out he is a medium cheese. But it is a delicious medium cheese… with nipples.



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