Wil Wheaton was a frail, perpetually worried-looking teen actor, seemingly ubiquitous for a time in the '80s. For those of us who were teens or preteens in 1986, he fell somewhere between Anthony Michael Hall and one of the Coreys, and is now best remembered for his starring role in Stand By Me (1986) and a few seasons as Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. After a scrap with Next Generation's producers, he left the series during the fourth season and promptly vanished, a Hollywood has-been before he'd reached his 21st birthday. That was 1990, and if you had told me then that 13 years later I'd be a big Wil Wheaton fan, I would have laughed myself blue.
Through most of the late '90s, Wheaton was an online laughingstock; dozens of agonizingly geeky websites were devoted to cataloging the myriad of ways in which Wesley Crusher blew. But a couple of years ago, Wheaton launched his own site. I don't remember who first introduced me to wilwheaton.net, but I'm thankful they did. Indeed, a lot of people who never gave Wheaton much thought before are now glad to have rediscovered him; it turns out that Wheaton is a hell of a lot more fun to laugh with than to laugh at. His site, along with Dancing Barefoot, a new, self-published book of essays collected from the site and expanded with some new material, is testament that should he ever decide to leave acting, he has a promising future as a writer.
See, the thing about Wheaton is that he's a smart, funny guy who knows he's Wil Wheaton, former '80s teen star, and he approaches the subject with disarming candor and a bent, self-deprecating wit. (I still giggle remembering his answer to one of the site's FAQs: "Is it true that you were Ashley Judd's first onscreen kiss?" "Yep. It is 100 percent true… Uncle Willie went to bootytown.") His Trek money long gone, Wheaton now struggles with being famous mostly for not being famous anymore, and it takes a big man to write so honestly about life on the has-been beat. On his website he has recounted the time when a Hooters waitress asked him, "Hey, didn't you used to be an actor?" and his desperation over the state of his acting career once left him, as he put it, "weeping like a bitch" in the arms of his loving wife, Anne. Read just a little of his stuff and you'll soon find yourself hooked; you'll be wishing Wheaton well every time he announces he has an audition, disappointed when he loses out on a part, and delighted when he scores an acting job of any sort, be it an infomercial or a PAX TV movie of the week. You might even start looking at old Next Generation reruns in a new way, drawing a mental connection between that dorky kid realigning the warp core and the dorky adult you've grown to care about.
A few months ago I saw one of his recent films, a fairly dreadful indie comedy called Jane White Is Sick and Twisted(2002), and I hesitated to give it the crappy review it deserved because I knew Wheaton would probably read it and he'd be crushed. We critics had best hope that more actors don't find ways to make us actually like them; after all, if we start giving Adam Sandler a free ride because he's a nice guy, all of America will suffer.
Dancing Barefoot, like pretty much everything else in Wheaton's professional life for a while now, is a quirky, low-budget affair with visible seams and the occasional greasy thumbprint. It is also a terrific read. There is some funny Hollywood stuff, such as when Wheaton takes us on a journey behind the scenes at a Vegas Trek convention where he learns a new appreciation for the bewigged master thespian he has invariably referred to as "William Fucking Shatner." But some of the stuff that sticks with you most has nothing to do with Wheaton's acting career. He writes affectingly of the loss of a relative and the passing of his own youth; the joy in the family he's made for himself is palpable. Even if Wil can't get Hollywood's elite to answer his calls, we read his story "We Close Our Eyes," about a marvelous moment that he shares with Anne in the middle of a downpour, and we can only conclude that Uncle Willie is a very lucky man. Far from being a mere has-been–Corey Feldman, I'm talking about you–Wheaton has proven himself as a will-be.
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Dancing Barefoot is not generally available through bookstores. It can be bought directly through Monolith Press at monolithpress.com, or through Amazon.com.