So, Charlie Korsmo, You’ve Become a Pirate

Touchstone Pictures/Disney

Charlie Korsmo starred in six movies between 1990 and 1991, acting opposite such megastars as Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Robin Williams, and Bill Murray. For comparison, Hoffman, hot off Rain Man in 1989, starred in just three films during that same period, two of them with Korsmo (Dick Tracy and Hook). A contemporary of Elijah Wood and Macauley Culkin, Korsmo was on track to become a huge child star. Instead, he quit acting to go to high school, briefly un-quit in 1999 to appear in the teen party romcom Can’t Hardly Wait, then quit for good to go to MIT and eventually law school. Charles R. Korsmo is now a corporate law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two young children. He hasn’t acted on film since 1999, but he still performs, in a way. Witness the hourlong lecture he gave on “Appraisal Arbitrage and the Future of Public Company,” now streamable on YouTube. His film career is mentioned in the introduction (“How many of you saw Charlie in Hook?” followed by a legitimate smattering of applause), but otherwise, it’s all about law. At the start, Korsmo refers to himself as “a shameless shill for appraisal litigation.” A shameless shill: one who sells something without self-consciousness. Appraisal litigation: how should I know, I didn’t go to law school, I’m just here to talk about one of the best child actors of all time.

Actors are among our most lauded shills, and little Charlie Korsmo was good. He made his feature film debut in the 1990 oddity Men Don’t Leave, written and directed by Paul Brickman of Risky Business fame. In the opening scenes, Korsmo runs along train tracks on a cold winter night. In voiceover, he explains, “Sometimes I got real scared because I was all alone. I remember getting home and mom would make me something warm. We’d make this big fire and dad would rub my hands and feet. And then, I was saved.” The foot-rubbing father is dead within the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the film focuses on his wife (Jessica Lange) and sons’ (Korsmo and a fresh-faced Chris O’Donnell) efforts to move on both geographically, as they relocate from a small, rural town to big-city Baltimore, and emotionally, as grief reshapes them all.

Korsmo’s first film performance walks the line between naive and knowing, sincere and wry. A short, skinny kid with wide eyes and sharp features, he was described as “bird-like” in more than one review. He was cute, but not cloying. He was smart, but not unbelievably precocious. He was funny the way bright children surrounded by adults often are, alternating between practiced emulation of the grown-ups around them, and unselfconscious, emotional reactions to a big, scary world. In other words, he was just a kid. In Men Don’t Leave, Korsmo’s character is a sensitive, observant boy who sees his grieving mother panicking over how to support her family, and offers a practical solution: “Why don’t you be a lawyer?” he asks. “Lawyers make a lot of money.” In the film’s emotional climax, he hops a train to his hometown and locks himself in the playhouse he was forced to abandon after his father’s death, as if physically returning to the place he’s from can somehow change the past.

Longing for one’s lost childhood is nothing new. My own extended family is full of aging men who start endless Facebook arguments about their magical, rural youth: who pushed who off a tractor, who cheated the most at Monopoly, whose memories of their long-deceased parents are the most accurate and true. By objective accounts it was a hard existence, but formative experiences can take on a cinematic sheen in memory, even traumas holding a kind of dark magic. In Men Don’t Leave, little Charlie Korsmo conveys the immediate impact of grief, and telegraphs the future nostalgia that has his narrator ascribing mythical meaning to a simple fireside scene. Men Don’t Leave is a curious film, tonally strange, not quite authentic in its portrayal of grief (Jessica Lange’s immobilizing depression is seemingly cured by a hot air balloon ride, for example). But whether due to innate acting ability or simply his essential kid-ness, Korsmo is the film’s believable, beating heart.

In a New York Times feature on child actors of the 1990’s, Nora Ephron said, “When you do find the right kid and he or she gives a wonderful performance, it really has nothing to do with you, because with kids what you see is what you get.” She implies children don’t really act at all; it’s not “a wonderful performance” so much as who that kid is in that moment, captured forever on film. It’s easy to imagine real-life Charlie Korsmo exactly as he comes across on screen: smart, sensitive, tough, funny, and yes, wise beyond his years. Even in hyper-stylized Dick Tracy, in which he acts his bird-like face off opposite Warren Beatty and Madonna, there is something impressively realistic about Charlie Korsmo.

Dick Tracy, of course, is Warren Beatty’s 1990 homage to the classic comic strip. Much-hyped before its release, it turned out to be one big meh, a cautionary tale about what can happen when blind nostalgia and source loyalty combine. As “The Kid,” Korsmo is the most visceral character in a two-dimensional world. A street orphan who witnesses a mob hit and attaches himself to the titular detective, The Kid is all hunger and attitude. In his first scene, he steals a watch, plays chicken with a locomotive, and snarls at Tracy, “Go suck an egg.” After some convincing (i.e. physical restraint and a few kind words), The Kid realizes Tracy is a reliable source of food, if nothing else, and agrees to spend time in his company. In a series of diner scenes, Korsmo eats like a starving dog, scarfing down sandwiches and pumpkin pie, barely breathing between hulking bites. Later, he meets Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) and sizes her up like a Thanksgiving turkey: “Now, that’s what I call a dame.”

Another child actor might not sell such campy comic book lines (I’m thinking of the assembled Newsies, quipping and dancing all over New Yawk), but Korsmo is believably clever and tough. He has moments of pure vulnerability, too, like when Tracy mentions “the orphanage business” and The Kid’s face registers impending doom. In a film where most of the actors are disguised by prosthetics and affected character traits (Hoffman’s sweaty Mumbles is particularly unsettling), Korsmo’s innate acting ability shines through. It seems clear Korsmo wasn’t just some cute little boy being himself onscreen; he’s an actor. He’s not a kid; he’s The Kid.

In a 2014 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Charles Korsmo himself calls Dick Tracy his favorite film: “That was the most satisfying in terms of what I did. I don’t think I could have done any better than that.” It’s hard to disagree, except the film itself hasn’t aged as well as the kid’s performance, and anyhow, more people know him best from What About Bob?: “That seems to be one that people still voluntarily watch,” Korsmo admits. He seems disappointed, which is a shame. What About Bob? is a cynical comedy driven by the over-the-top performances of its two adult stars, Dreyfuss and Bill Murray, as much Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner as a therapist and his compulsive, boundary-ignoring patient. As Sigmund, the moody son of Dreyfuss’ Dr. Marvin, Korsmo again stands out as the flesh-and-blood anchor of a cartoonish world. He’s sweet, funny, sarcastic, sad, and aching to connect. He sulks in the backseat of the station wagon but grins wide, braces gleaming, when his new buddy Bob makes him laugh. He’s also funny as hell.

“Why are you always wearing black?” his judgmental father asks.

“Maybe I’m in mourning for my lost childhood,” the child actor replies.

This is the Charlie Korsmo I love most, dropping deadpan truisms not too far beyond his eleven years, and then dissolving into giggles he hasn’t quite aged out of. Korsmo as Siggy is the kind of kid I like to think I was at his age, the kind I’d like to have if I had any interest in having kids. Siggy also seems closest to the real-life Charlie Korsmo, who said in an interview, “I don’t plan to be an actor when I’m an adult. I want to act while I’m growing up because I hate school. It’s boring and a waste of time.”

The final film Korsmo made as a child was, appropriately, all about what happens when a famous kid grows up. Hook is Steven Spielberg’s 1991 adventure-fantasy about an adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams), now a corporate attorney named Peter Banning, returning to Neverland to rescue his kids after Captain Hook (good old Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps them in the night. A weird, bloated, notorious critical flop, Hook has moments of Spielbergian sweetness and awe, albeit bookended by baffling scenes of Hoffman method-chewing the theme park scenery. It’s full of familiar Spielberg themes (scrappy sidekicks; childhood wonder; absent and/or distant dads) that were more artfully rendered in, say, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Despite its shortcomings, Hook endures as a nostalgic favorite among a certain subset of older millennials who saw it in theaters when it came out (some of us twice; some of us invited Robin Williams to our 10th birthday party and received a sweet form letter and an autographed Jumanji postcard in return). It’s one of those 90’s films that 90’s kids love to revisit, whether because it made a lasting impact on us as children, or because the internet and capitalism won’t let us forget. Sometimes, it’s hard to separate the true ache of nostalgia from what Forbes Magazine calls “nostalgia marketing,” the commodification of a generation’s fondness for the recent past.

In 2016, 25 years after Hook’s release and two years after Robin Williams’s death, a production company specializing in “unique, buzz-worthy, pop-culture driven content” orchestrated a cast reunion. The fan in me is delighted to see what the Lost Boys look like now, but the cynic in me knows I’m being played. Like so many advertisements and memes, the reunion asks the audience to “remember this” without acknowledging the dark side of remembering, which is recognizing how much we’ve lost. The Lost Boys are posed in adult-sized versions of their costumes, faces smeared with cosmetic dirt, impersonating their childhood selves. They reminisce about making the film, and speak of Williams with appropriate reverence, but the tone is light. There’s no room for the genuine pain that comes with being grown up and reminded of what we no longer have. Something is missing, and anyhow, Charlie Korsmo isn’t even there.

For better or worse, Hook is probably Korsmo’s most famous role. As Jack Banning, he has moments of genuine heartbreak in the midst of the antics surrounding him. In one of the film’s strangest and yet most moving scenes, Captain Hook urges Jack to take a hammer his father’s pocket watch, a gift the elder Banning had given Jack as a (broken) promise that he would always show up on time. At first, Jack laughs at the pirate’s suggestion (Korsmo had a perfectly wry laugh, just right for mocking adults to their faces). But then, he starts smashing clocks and listing the ways his father has disappointed him: “This one’s for always making promises and breaking them…for never doing anything with me,” he says, and dissolves into tears. Spielberg excels in directing young men, and Korsmo excels in a movie full of them, a realistic counterpoint to the cinematic Lost Boy frolicking in artfully-dirtied clothes on a Disneyland tree fort. To be clear: I love those lost boys, bangarang for life, but there’s a reason Peter Pan leaves them behind to go back to the real world with his kids at the end of the film. His grown-up trip to Never Neverland makes Peter Banning realize how much he’s kept from his children and himself. Revisiting his childhood makes him a better father, and a better man.

Korsmo himself is a father now, and far be it for me to speculate (except he didn’t respond to my request for an interview, and speculation is kind of my job), but he must be aware of the startling coincidence that a kid perhaps best known for playing the wise-cracking, clock-smashing son to Robin Williams’ uptight corporate lawyer became an uptight corporate lawyer himself. In an early scene in Hook, before the titular pirate steals him away, Jack explains his father’s job to Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith): “See, when a big company’s in trouble, Dad sails in, and if there’s any resistance…any resistance, he blows them out of the water!”

“So, Peter,” Granny Wendy says, a note of disappointment in her voice, “You’ve become a pirate.”

According to IMDB (never a reliable source), in law school, Korsmo was a member of the Federalist Society, an organization for politically conservative law students. There are few people less appealing on paper than “politically conservative law students,” and it’s hard to imagine the kid who so convincingly delivered the line “maybe I’m in mourning for my lost childhood” growing up to enter that world. But then, it’s hard to imagine him growing up at all. That’s the problem for many child actors who stay in the business through puberty and beyond. We can all remember our favorite washed-up or dead child stars, and the jokes made at their expense (friends of mine named a horrendous, Sparks-based cocktail after Jonathan Brandis shortly after he died). Korsmo’s decision to leave acting when he went to college meant he could become a man outside the public eye. He survived, and seems without nostalgia for his former career.

Those of us who grew up watching Korsmo take care of the nostalgia on his behalf. As someone just a few years younger than him, who watched the films he made when I was a kid myself, of course I realize that some of my Korsmo appreciation stems from the kind of remember-this recognition that makes cast reunions profitable. Movies like What About Bob? and Hook were childhood staples, and it feels good to revisit those worlds. We often view nostalgia as a trap, a pirate’s net dangling us high above deck, preventing us from living in the present. Certainly, that kind of passive nostalgia is enticing—why else do we buy vinyl figurines of our favorite cartoon characters, take quizzes to find out which Goonie we are, and rewatch mediocre movies made for children long into adulthood? My most recent Hook viewing was on the original VHS, a glitchy, deteriorating copy I’ve moved around for the past twenty years; I didn’t do this out of nostalgia so much as necessity, but the line between the two can be thin. Novelist Michael Chabon writes of a more specific form of nostalgia: “Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing.” This more active nostalgia is not a habit or a hindrance, but a human feeling like any other. It can be intense and lasting, or it can pass like weather, and it should be felt without shame because it connects us to something true about ourselves.

I reached out to Korsmo to request an interview; he’s no longer famous, and his contact information is not hard to find. He did not write back. I don’t know what I would have asked him, anyhow, beyond Chris Farley Show-style stuff: Remember when you were in Hook? Remember when you were in What About Bob? Remember when you were a movie star for three brief years of pre-adolescence before the word “tween” was even invented? Wasn’t that cool?

All children, even actors, grow up. It’s easy to project one’s entire childhood onto the child stars one loved most, and to imagine them growing up into the kind of person you want them to be, maybe even a person like yourself. But Charles Korsmo is a conservative contract lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio. Charles Korsmo seems good-humored, but his interests are very far removed from my own, and from the work through which I know him best. I wonder how he looks back on that time in his life now. I wonder if he lets his own children watch his films. I wonder if he knows how truly great he was, and if revisiting the past fills him with the same recognition and regret that I feel when I watch him now. I suppose my real question for Charles Korsmo is rather basic: Charlie, don’t you know who you are?