SETH WAGERMAN: THE BOY IS THE MAN
Continuity is the most important element in making a film work. In this particular case as I refer to continuity, I'm not talking about, for example, a cup being at one side of the table one second and then on the other side the next. That's object-continuity. Here I'm referring to character-continuity, that is, films that begin with a young version of a character that will then grow up into a different person within a few seconds of screen time.
When I saw INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, I didn't believe that a long-haired-blonde skater looking kid (played by an otherwise talented actor, River Phoenix) would grow up to be Harrison Ford. In the first two new STAR WARS installments (Episodes 1 and 2), I didn't buy for a single moment that Jake Lloyd would have become Hayden Christianson. It just didn't mesh. This has happened in many other films – another being BACKDRAFT. The young version of William Baldwin looks amazingly like a young Ron Howard, who directed the movie (this might have been on purpose for that reason, but it was still quite lame). In these cases, the film's beginning (which sets the stage) is not believable since in most cases we know what the older person will look like. And I'm sure we can all think of many other examples of bad young-to-old casting.
But let's take a quick look at the other side of the coin; something like GOODFELLAS, in which the actor who played a young Ray Liotta was very fitting. Other examples that worked are the two actors who played a young Howard Stern in PRIVATE PARTS; the young girl who'd become Jennifer Jason Leigh in DOLORES CLAIBORNE; and last but not least, Buddy Swann as the young "Charles Foster Kane" in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE.
But (in my humble opinion) the greatest casting of a young actor playing the child version of the adult star is in the cult TV-movie from 1976, THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE. Seth Wagerman plays "Young Todd", who will grow up to be John Travolta. Seth's part in the movie is relatively small, but is extremely important for a number of reasons.
Not only was Seth, looks-wise, completely believable as a young Travolta, but the title of the film is in fact THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE, not THE TEEN IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE, or THE SWEATHOG IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE. Seth plays "the boy" – and his few scenes substantiate the entire movie – giving it a base, a purpose, character-continuity, and most importantly… a legitimate title! (Also note: the real life "boy in the plastic bubble", David Vetter, was around the same as "Young Todd" during the film’s release, and sadly passed away before reaching high school age.)
So without further ado, here's an interview with former child actor, Seth Wagerman, the man that played the boy in THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE, and who also appeared in a handful of other movies – both made for television and theatrical – up until the mid-eighties.
SETH WAGERMAN INTERVIEW
What were some of your first experiences acting as a child pre-Bubble?
I believe Boy in the Bubble was my first acting job, although my baby-memory might be failing me. I know that I did a commercial for child safety caps on pill bottles when they first came out… I must have been fairly young. I've been told that I was a real pain during that shoot because they gave me a pile of bottles to play with and I kept opening them! … which of course is very real-to-life. Only children can open childproof bottlecaps (natch).
What are your memories of first getting involved in the project "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble", and how did it come about?
Ha! I've got no memories of that whatsoever! I was three, for God's sake. But the story I've been told goes something like: my grandpa was a fairly well-known TV producer (Howie Horwitz of "Batman," "Hawaiian Eye," '77 Sunset Strip," and "Baretta"); my distantly related cousin is Lesley Gore ("It's My Party…"). My Mom and Dad were also in the "business." Mom's watching some TV show when a commercial comes on – something about how expensive it is to raise a child and put them through college (at the time, it was probably some exorbitant amount like $36). Whatever it was, it freaked my mom out a little, and she decided to get me into acting, too, to save me up a college fund. At least, this is how she told it. With all my family’s background in showbusiness, this was probably just a rationalization. There was no avoiding it. =).
How many other young actors were up for the part of "Young Todd"?
I'm sorry, James. I honestly don't know the answer to this one.
What was the main reason (or reasons) (besides sheer talent!) did they choose you for this role?
My understanding is that it was because I had the right coloring to conceivably end up looking like John Travolta, and was fairly easy to work with. Sheer talent?! I didn’t have any. Except for making faces, which I did with great success during the movie, especially at the little girl who played my neighbor.
About how long did you work on the shoot (how many hours a day did it take? and how long did the entire shoot for your part take)?
I really wish my parents were alive to help me with these, being that I was so young! There were child labor laws in place that kept me from working too many hours per day. I think I might have worked for a week or maybe two on this one, but I can’t be certain.
While filming, did you realize that your fictional "dad" was "Mr. Mike Brady" from "The Brady Bunch"?
"While filming," I barely realized I was on a movie set! =) It actually wasn't until a few years ago that someone pointed out to me that my father had been Mike Brady. Cool, in retrospect.
Did they mostly film the shots of you alone (and then film the other actors later for cutaways) or were you on set working along with the other actors (Robert Reed, Diana Hyland, Ralph Bellamy, etc.)?
Nope! That was me on the set with the other actors!
What kind of direction were you given to do the choking on the Teddy Bear’s eye scene?
Funny you should ask this particular question – it's one of my only solid memories. I was given a grape-flavored lifesaver and asked to pretend I was choking. "Cough!" the director told me. Cough, cough. I could do that. "Now, spit it out!!" Yyyeah, not so much, buddy. I kept chewing them up and swallowing them. Were they insane?! Honestly, who gives candy to a three-year-old and then tells them to spit it out?! I wasn’t having any of this nonsense. In the end, I think we went through a whole roll of lifesavers and the director just cut from me coughing semi-convincingly to one of the crew chucking a button onto the sheet. This was my 3-year-old equivalent to being a demanding and impossible movie star.
Was it difficult catching the ball with those bubble-gloves (during the catch scene with you and Robert)? Were those cutaway shots or did they film it with you and Robert in the same room?
It would probably have been difficult to catch the without the bubble-gloves. I was never very sports-oriented… I do remember doing a lot of playing with my "Dad" (Robert Reed) through the gloves, though, even between takes. He was very nice, but I also remember it hurting when he tickled me and when he shook me during the "coughing" scene. I'm quite certain he didn't mean to – it’s just one of those weird things a kid remembers, like having your cheek pinched by a well-meaning aunt. Or maybe I was just a sissy.
Did you ever meet David Vetter, the real boy in the bubble?
Ever meet your "older self", Mr. John Travolta?
Apparently, I did! I'm disgusted that I remember the lifesavers but not John Travolta. I’ve been told time and time again how he held me on his lap and played with me (I have vague memories of sitting on his knee, but I'm convinced this is a made-up memory after having heard the story so many times). I think we may have visited him also on the "Welcome Back, Kotter" set – was he working on that at the time? He was purported to have been very nice to me, and I can't help but have a lingering positivity towards him, despite Battlefield: Earth.
On the scene where they were carrying you into the house and the little girl was making a face – do you have any memories of that scene? Was it a thrill being the center of all that attention (twofold: being that the paparazzi-actors were focused on you as well as the cameras) or was it just another day of work?
Don't remember this scene at all, which makes it quite weird to watch. I didn’t know to think of any of this as "work" – I just thought I was playing a game with people. My mom and the director would tell me what game we were going to play (the "choking" game or the "act like this guy is your Dad" game) and I would go along with it. I can't pretend that I was so professional that it felt like "just another day of work." =) It was all just fun and games.
Did you see the movie when it first came out? What did you think after seeing it the first time?
The first I remember of it is being around 7 or 8 and seeing a big, black beta-max tape of it that the director had made for my mom. I thought, "Cool! I'm in that movie!" But I never watched it.
Have you seen the film recently – and if so, what do you think of it now?
The funny thing is that after I quit acting, I went quietly on with my life and no one noticed or cared (which was fine by me). While I was in grad school, there was some sort of classic movie revolution on the internet or something, and suddenly – after years of silence! – I started getting random e-mails from strangers asking me about my movies. To boot, my students and colleagues found me on Google and thought it was utterly fascinating that I had been in movies!
One of my grad school friends went so far as search the internet until he had bought every movie I had been in that was available on VHS or DVD. He kept threatening to have a "Seth-fest," and – horrifyingly – there were a few people who would have attended! Luckily, everyone was generally too busy being beaten by their respective graduate advisors to actually commit time to anything as frivolous as that… I was a little embarrassed about the whole thing, to be honest. So a few years ago, as a joke, my little sister bought me a copy of Boy in the Bubble for Christmas. I think it was like $3 at Wall-Mart. I may be overestimating…
I've always hated seeing myself on film. I think I like to imagine that I was more precocious and charming than I was, or that I had some sort of innate acting talent. I wasn't, and I didn't. I was just like any other little kid, and seeing myself always shatters these illusions I like to harbor about myself. Somehow, being normal embarrasses me, which is stupid and presumptuous. But my girlfriend begged me to watch it with her, so I eventually did. I realized that, if nothing else, I was at least a cute little kid, and that was a nice realization.
As for what I think of the movie itself? It wasn't bad. I don't think I see what others do in it, but then again, I didn't grow up with it – I was too young! It tells a good story, and John Travolta does a good job.
Were there any scenes with "Young Todd" that were edited out?
Don't know. There aren't any “deleted scenes” on the DVD. =).
Being that you played a young Travolta, did you grow up to have any sort of inclination to disco dance? Or date an Australian girl with pony tails? Or to ride a mechanical bull? Or to become a wig-wearing hitman?
Nor to suddenly spout Portuguese and die of a brain tumor. Sorry. Although if I had to pick one, it would definitely be the disco dance; somehow, when Travolta does it, it doesn't look quite as corny.
Ever think of calling Quentin Tarantino and asking "Hey buddy, how about casting ME as a young "Vincent Vega" in a "Pulp Fiction" Prequel?
No. I dislike Quentin Tarantino films. I'm a big goody-goody boyscout, and his films are way too dark and twisted for me. I hardly ever find death amusing, but maybe that's because I lost both of my parents earlier than I should have. If only they'd make a "Look Who's Talking" prequel… =).
How, why and when did you get out of the business?
I tried out for Doogie Howser, M.D. when I was 13. God, I wanted that role. As an actor – even a kid actor – you learn pretty quickly not to get too invested in any part you try out for. The chances are always slim that you'll get any particular role. But I really wanted to play Doogie. I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, and I thought it would be fun to play the part…
I got to "go to network" on this one, which means I met with the network execs and writers, etc. I had made it pretty far in the interview process and was starting to get excited. When I didn't get the role, I was told it was because they were looking for a kid who was a little more "goofy-looking" (poor Neil. He grew up okay, though). It didn't make sense to me, and suddenly I was tired of it all.
I had once lost a role to a little black girl and I remember wondering, "How could we possibly compete for the same part? These people don't know what they want!" I had had my teeth examined like a horse's by a casting director. I had been told I looked too old, too young, too cute, not cute enough, too brunette, and too feminine. I was 13, and just coming into my awkward, pimply stage. And I knew well that Hollywood rarely hires 13-year-olds to play 13-year-olds. They hire 17-year-olds to play 13 (and 25-year-olds to play 17, as we know from watching Beverly Hills, 90210 and the O.C.!). It just wasn’t fun anymore.
My parents, luckily, were the non-stage-parenty-est parents any kid could hope to have. They asked me often if I enjoyed acting and wanted to continue, promising me that if I wanted to stop, I could anytime. The next time they asked, I said I wanted to stop. And that was the end of that, no questions asked. I really appreciate them for that. To the degree that I left Hollywood behind and grew up with any normalcy, it's because of them…
The rest of my teenage years were uneventful. The only negative things I carried away from Hollywood were: 1) Low self-esteem (it’s hard when you’re told frequently how adorable and handsome you are, and then you quit acting. No one at school walked up to me and told me I was handsome! It took a long time to reach the conclusion I hadn’t suddenly become hideous) and 2) An abiding dislike for actors, wannabe actors, and people generally associated with Hollywood. I’ve met a number of nice people, but by and large, I got the impression that they were all pretty well enamored with themselves. Nothing I’ve seen since has really changed my opinion…
I got my B.A. in psychology with honors from CSUN in 2002, and went to graduate school for social and personality psychology at UC Riverside. I got my M.A. in 2004, and recently graduated with my PhD. It was the hardest 5 years of my life, but I really feel as though I’ve accomplished something. I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. I guess I just didn’t know which kind. =).
What are you doing now?
Nowadays, I'm a professor at California Lutheran University. I teach research methods and statistics, personality, social psychology, gender studies, and the psychology of evil. I enjoy my students and my research immensely.
Do you ever get anyone telling you that you resemble Travolta as you got older? If so, did anyone tell you this not knowing you played a younger version of him?
That's funny. I don't think I look like John Travolta at all anymore, except for my coloring. If anything, when I was younger, I got people saying that I looked like Alec Baldwin, and later, like Dylan McDermott. A few years ago, I got Collin Farrell. These are all perfectly complimentary, but I don't see the connection, and no one's ever said Travolta! Nowadays, I'm going bald in the trendy professorial style, and people don't comment much on my looks anymore. =) It's amazing what a difference hair makes. Maybe I'll shave my head and people can tell me I look like Bruce Willis or Vin Deisel.
You had mentioned that once every few years someone will "approach" you (via email or otherwise) bringing up this film… What does this make you feel knowing you're part of cult-movie-history?
Real honesty here? Completely bemused. I hardly remember it – it's like someone else's life I'm getting credit for. I'm too fascinated by the phenomena and flattered to ignore it entirely, but I'm too reasonable to think it means much. The bottom line is: I have lots of weird, random, cheesy movies I love, and if I could meet the people who had been in them, I guess I'd think it were pretty cool. So if someone somewhere is vaguely excited to write to me or whatever, I can hardly be a jerk about it. Maybe one day I'll get to meet the guy who played "Sho 'Nuff" in "The Last Dragon." Not that I’m anywhere near as cool as him. Sho 'Nuff.
How was director Randall Kleiser to work for?
I'm so sorry. I don't remember him.
If they ever get around to making an actual legitamate DVD release of this film (the one they've been selling for years is very grainy), would you agree to an interview on any "Special Features"?
Hahahahaha! That's funny stuff… Yeah, ok. If someone asked me, I suppose it would be cool to be a "Special Feature." Although, a) I'm not holding my breath on this one and b) You can see how much useful information I have on the film! I have exactly two memories if I really concentrate. =).
You worked with a very controversial director, Ken Russell, in a very controversial film, "Crimes of Passion" – if you can briefly summarize your memories of "Crimes of Passion" (including how the director was to work for, how the shooting went, etc.) and your reaction seeing it for the first time?
Ok, I was a little older for this one. But I had no idea what kind of film I was making. My scenes were completely separated from the rest of the movie. I remember a breakfast scene with Annie Potts, and that she was nice to me, and said she was allergic to MSG (random memory; we were talking about Chinese food). The crew guy was arranging my breakfast cereal in Elmer's glue so that every flake was placed the way they wanted it, which I thought was utterly crazy. I mean, it wasn't a cornflake commercial! I remember a scene where I was supposed to be watching TV with my brother, only it was just a cardboard box with a flickering bluish light in the middle, so it would reflect off our faces as we lay there, looking bored and zoned-out…
The interesting thing about probing these recollections is what a kid remembers. I don’t remember stuff about "how the shooting went." I remember craft tables full of food, how some of the sets looked, the other kids I played with, and having to be in "school" with the on-set teacher. I guess that was what was salient to me at the time…Oh, yeah – and I DO remember seeing it for the first time. I went to the special cast-only viewing, and it was X-rated. I don't remember what age I was, but I remember my Mom telling them all it was ok for me to watch (she was a huge hippie and always told me that sex was no big deal). I remember sitting next to her and watching stuff and getting a little turned on and being extremely uncomfortable. This is probably why I've never watched the movie since, come to think of it. Weird. Thanks, Mom.
How was John Laughlin to work with in "Crimes of Passion"? What other actors from that movie do you remember working with?
I have no memories of John. I'm sure he was pleasant to me, but he didn't spend a lot of time. The person I remember the most was Kathleen Turner – she was really nice and I distinctly remember playing cards and football with her. I liked her a lot. Erm, and then I saw her as "China Blue" and it was… yeah.
If you can briefly describe any memories of your other projects (just write a sentence or two summarizing… or if anything else comes to mind)
"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"?
I have random memories from both of these, but nothing particularly interesting.
"Love Thy Neighbor"
I have to honestly say that this was the favorite movie I ever made. I met Jerry Supiran and Bobby Jacoby and we all became friends – Jerry was my best friend for a long while after that (Lucas Haas was incredibly annoying to me at the time, although I can't remember why). The director and crew were really nice and funny – the prop guy let me play with all his props, and even got me a bike to ride around the neighborhood. But best of all was John Ritter. He was literally the nicest actor I ever worked with. He treated me like a favorite nephew, so when I played his son during shooting, it was no problem at all. He talked to me like I was a human being instead of a child – he talked to all the kids that way. When the movie was over, the entire cast signed my script, and it has to be my favorite memento, because I was old enough to remember it and they were all so kind to me. John sent me a huge, laptop-sized slab of chocolate that said something goofy and sweet, and I actually have it in my freezer to this day. I was really, really upset when he passed away. He was a very good-hearted man.
Two great memories from this film, and one bad:
1) Sitting on Morgan Fairchild's lap. She was wearing a white silk nightie. Then I got passed around to Morgan Brittany, who was similarly attired in baby blue. They both hugged me and pet my hair and cooed over how cute I was. At the time, I just liked the attention. Boy, I wish I could travel back into little Seth's head and appreciate that moment a little better!
2) Mark Harmon was my second favorite, right after John Ritter. I remember wandering around the set when it started pouring rain. I was looking for my trailer but got a little lost. Mark found me outside his trailer, took me inside and made me hot cocoa. He was wearing a fake moustache for scenes in the film, and he put it on me and made me laugh. That's a good memory.
3) Bad memory: in the movie, I was supposed to fall off my horse and get trampled. The falling/trampling scene was to be done by a midget stuntman, but I wasn't about to let someone else steal my thunder: the pony I was riding got its foot caught in a gopher hole and actually threw me! While stomping around, trying to pull its foot free, it trampled me, breaking my arm and stepping on my head, giving me a concussion. All I remember is my Mom running into the scene, crying and trying to shield me so the horse would stomp on her instead and the director shouting, "That was great!" My Mom was pretty pissed off. I had to go to the hospital and get shots and I had hoofprints on my head and arms for weeks! Mom made me go back the very next day and literally "get back on the horse" so I wouldn’t be scared of horses forever. Didn't work. They still frighten me a little.
To this day, I think the director would have used the footage of me being thrown and trampled if my Mom hadn't had the gall to ruin it by running in right in the middle of a good stomping. Another reason I don't miss Hollywood .
"Dennis the Menace in Mayday for Mother"… After working in live action films, how was it doing voice-over work (and whatever memories you have of the difference between live-action and in-studio-voice work)?
Thought it was cool I was in a cartoon, loved doing the voice-over. That kind of acting, I would do again today.
What was your favorite movie you worked on and why?
Love Thy Neighbor, as described above!
Growing up, did any kids at your school mention any of your roles?
Being a kid actor didn't earn me any points with the kids at school. I'd be gone for weeks and then return, and the teacher would be extra nice to me, and they hated me. If someone asked what I’d been doing, I'd say, "I was in a movie" but I meant it innocently – you know, answering the question. This only made them meaner, and they would call me "actor-boy" (I know. Their cleverness was unbounded). Eventually, I just stopped telling anyone what I was doing and ended up being a loner throughout junior high and high school. I didn’t really have many friends at all until my senior year, when I was president of the speech and debate club, in the academic decathalon, and on the swim team. Honestly, academics earned me more recognition than acting, and I always fit in way better with the smart, nerdy kids than the cool ones. I never really wanted to be part of the cool crowd, anyway – I'd sit in the bushes behind the lunch area, reading books from home or school, and watch the other kids. I thought it was funny that they didn't know I was down there. I realize this sounds a little pathetic, and I guess I did get a little lonely. But generally, I was perfectly happy with my books. I can see how I ended up in academia now. And I've always been really close to my family, so I always had my parents and my little brother and sister to come home to.
Have your kids, or if you don't have kids, any younger relatives, seen "Bubble" or any of your other movies? And what was their reaction(s) to seeing a young-you on a TV screen?
Nope! Acting is so passe in my family that no one's ever really pulled out a movie of mine to watch. I think it will be pretty cool when I have kids, only because my parents didn't take home video. If my kids want to see what I was like when I was their age, Bubble is gonna be their only chance. =).
What was your favorite film growing up (that you enjoyed watching)?
Growing up, it had to be Star Wars, all the way. I was a Star Wars freak. I dressed up as Luke AND Darth for Halloween (not simultaneously, mind you) (no, I never dressed up as Leia). I would pretend I was a Jedi all the time. Although the mind tricks never worked on my Mom (the Force was strong with her). Funny story: I never ever bother actors when I see them in public because: a) I think it's impolite and b) I generally don't care. But one day, working at Universal Studios (as an adult in the marketing department, not as a kid actor) I saw Mark Hamill. I started to walk past him and pull my usual "I don't care" attitude and then I stopped myself. Who was I kidding? I shook his hand and made a huge fuss over him and he was very pleased… Absolute highlight of my week.
What's your favorite film of recent years?
Sticking true to my nerd-genre, would be The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the original Matrix (I like to pretend they never made sequels to that one). I also love The Princess Bride and Adam Sandler movies generally crack me up. Juno is the most recent movie I've seen, and I really really liked it. I actually have a huge movie collection and tend to memorize my favorite movie lines – so picking just a handful of favorites is hard for me!
Any favorite directors?
I admire Peter Jackson’s work with LOTR. I think Spielberg is great, except for his propensity to include wacky antics in all of his films (except, probably, Schindler's List – which perhaps not coincidentally, was also his best film in my opinion). I guess I don't pay much attention to directors and producers and stuff.
Favorite Actors or Actresses?
For actors, I really like Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, and Hugh Grant (I know, pretty eclectic). Oh, yeah, and I'll always love Nimoy, Kelley, and Shatner - I love Star Trek nearly as much as Star Wars… Actresses don't get to stick around as long because of the double-standard, and there are zillion pretty faces out there. I guess I only truly respect a handful of them, and the ones that come to mind right now are Michelle Pfeiffer, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman. There are more – actors and actresses both – that I really like, but it's hard to recall them without doing a google search. Which shows you in the end how much I must really like them, or how poor my memory is, one or the other?
What was your favorite band (and/or genre of music) as a teenager (I'm way into eighties and seventies nostalgia so I had to ask)? What kind of music are you into now?
I've always been and probably always will be a die-hard Beatles fan. They represent roughly 85% of the songs I can play on my guitar. Paul was always my favorite, but I like them all. I like other classic rock bands, too, like the Kinks and the Stones. In the 80's, I loved George Michael, Richard Marx, Phil Collins, and Sting. And you know what? I still do. I love 80s music. My favorite group nowadays is The Killers, who my girlfriend introduced me to.
Favorite sports teams as a kid? Any now?
Never into sports at all – I always got picked last. I'm too short and my parents never ever stressed sports as important. The only sport I'm good at is martial arts – I got into it when I was 12, and got my first black belt at 16 from a Chuck Norris studio in Studio City. I taught karate for many years at various studios before and during my undergraduate years. I miss it. I think teaching – whether it's psychology class or karate – is my chance to let the performer in me out a little. He's still in there. At least my students tend to get an animated professor. =).
Any messages to child actors out there or young actors thinking of getting into the business?
You're asking the wrong guy, here. My message would be, "Don't do it, dude." I enjoyed my time but I'd never go back. Well, unless I got offered a role as a Hobbit or a Jedi. But who in their right minds would turn that down, anyway? =).
Interview by James M. Tate
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