thomas ian nicholas in rookie of the year
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Entertainment

What Happened to Thomas Ian Nicholas?

From ‘Rookie of the Year’ to ‘American Pie,’ the former child actor opens up to VICE about his decades-long career.
March 11, 2021, 4:03pm
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What Happened to...? is an investigation into the whereabouts of former icons.

If you were a young white boy who wanted to act in the 90s, it behooved you to have three names. Preferably these would be three first names that could be arranged in any order and still convey an overwhelming sense that you were approachable and knew your way around a hacky sack.

The triple-monikered lineup included such titans as Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Zachery Ty Bryan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Taran Noah Smith, Jason James Richter, and our lad of the hour: Thomas Ian Nicholas. 

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For Nicholas, the reason for his tripartite autograph was pure business. There was already a Thomas Nicholas in the Screen Actors Guild when he ventured into acting at age 8, so he'd need to differentiate and add in his middle name. (Technically, Ian and Thomas are both middle names and his true last name remains shrouded in secrecy. "If I told you, as the saying goes, I'd have to kill you," he told VICE ominously.)

Now, at 40, he's going simply by Thomas Nicholas—the other SAG-card carrying Thomas Nicholas is out of the business—but thanks to what he terms a "semi-photographic memory," Nicholas' recollections of his days starring in Rookie of the Year, A Kid in King Arthur's Court, and American Pie remain fresh. He opened up about his decades-long career to VICE.

Starting out

Born on the same day as esteemed chanteuse Jessica Simpson in July 1980, an infant Nicholas moved from Las Vegas to Santa Cruz, California, with his mom before relocating to Los Angeles when he was six. His mother had dallied with acting in her teens and was eager to get back in the business, this time working as a casting director tasked with finding background actors for low-budget films. Soon, she saw the perfect chance to cast her own son in a role that needed filling at the last minute. 

"They needed an altar boy on set for a 6 a.m. call," Nicholas said. "And she was like, 'You're playing hooky from school today, and you're coming to work with me.'"

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From there, Nicholas' life became a series of endless auditions, though Nicholas said his mom didn't pressure him to succeed in the business. "She always asked me every couple of weeks whether or not I wanted to keep pursuing it, because it wasn't easy," he said. "It's not like I was six and said, 'I want to be an actor,' and that was it." 

He struggled to get an agent while he was losing his baby teeth, and even after he found someone willing to take him on, he was "doing 100 to 250 auditions a year just to land one or two jobs." Those early gigs came in the form of TV guest roles, playing young Tony Danza on an episode of Who's the Boss? and a kid who got trapped in a storm drain at high tide on Baywatch. And then he heard about a baseball movie.

Rookie of the Year

When Nicholas first auditioned for Rookie of the Year in 1992, he didn't get a second look. "I came out of that audition with no callback and no agent. And then I got a new agent and she said, 'You should audition for this movie," he recalled. "I said, 'Oh, I already went on that and they didn't call me back.' And she goes, 'Well, they don't remember you, obviously. So, go again.'" 

Behind the scenes, director Daniel Stern (who was fresh off of playing one half of the Wet Bandits in Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) was getting desperate to find a kid for the lead role of Henry Rowengartner. As Nicholas recalled, Stern was about to just give the part to his own son, who's now a California state senator, if no suitable child actors materialized.

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But when Nicholas auditioned again, he got the part. Though the Rookie producers never asked if he had any baseball skills (he did not), he spent weeks diligently practicing his pitch at a local baseball diamond in the Valley before flying to Chicago for the shoot. "By the end of the two weeks, I was throwing strikes at 60 feet six inches," he said.

While on its surface Rookie of the Year is a pure-hearted kids' sports movie about a little leaguer whose broken arm heals back with rocket-pitching abilities and lands him a spot on the Chicago Cubs, it also conveys a sinister warning about the dangers of fame and child stardom: A 12-year-old boy wakes up one day with an exceptional gift. The adults in his life clamor to make use of his prodigious nature, ultimately capitalizing and exploiting his talents. He's forced to star in a "sexy" commercial. There's a blowup between his mom and his sleazy potential stepdad-turned-agent that escalates to, "He's my son!" vs. "He's my client!" Grim. 

On set, Nicholas remembers co-star Gary Busey, who played aging pitcher Chet "Rocket" Steadman, causing ample chaos of his own, once screaming at Nicholas' mom before he realized she was the mother of the star of the movie. And then there was this:

"One day in the lunchroom, he got in line behind me and was kind of poking at me. I was just trying to get my lunch, and then he grabbed me by my underwear and gave me the ultimate wedgie and carried me, like, 25 feet across the lunchroom in front of 100 crew members," Nicholas said. "I just kind of took it in stride because Gary was really nice to me [otherwise]. If that was the brunt of it, I was okay with it. Because there were a lot worse antics happening."

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(A rep for Busey did not respond to a request to comment on the incidents. Busey has previously spoken about how a 1988 head injury left him with brain damage that made him more impulsive and unable to control his anger, and also contributed to a cocaine addiction.)

But for most viewers, the lasting memories of Rookie are of cheering crowds and childhood fantasies of superhuman athletic prowess. And Nicholas is so devoted to the film and its legacy, he still journeys to Chicago often to throw out the first pitch at Cubs games and sing the seventh inning stretch. He's also hoping to convince Disney to greenlight a sequel that would see him co-star with his now 9-year-old son. 

"Maybe they end up on the field playing together somehow," he said. "I'll use this article to show to Disney that I want to come meet with them about a real Rookie of the Year sequel, not a reboot without me or the Cubs."

A kid in Europe

After the success of Rookie of the Year, Nicholas' acting career surged ahead with a starring role in Disney's A Kid in King Arthur's Court. While the film was universally panned and holds a pitiful 5 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it did provide an invaluable coming-of-age experience for Nicholas who filmed on location in Budapest alongside a pre-007 Daniel Craig and pre-Titanic Kate Winslet when he was 14.

"In Hungary in the mid-90s, marijuana was growing wild. Daniel and [co-star] Art Malik collected a bunch of it," Nicholas said. "I'm pretty sure they filled up a bathtub with it and dried it out. And they said it was terrible." 

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(Reps for Craig and Malik did not respond to requests for comment. The majority of wild cannabis in Hungary is non-psychoactive hemp.)

When they'd finished shooting the film in Hungary, the required cast and crew then journeyed to England to do some post-production audio work. "I actually had my first beer in a pub with Kate Winslet," Nicholas said of ordering his inaugural pint of Guinness. (The drinking age for beer in England is technically 16 when accompanied by an adult.)

Throughout the Kid in King Arthur's Court era, Nicholas enjoyed his fair share of Tiger Beat and Bop coverage and didn't resent the teenybopper attention at the time like some of his contemporaries

"I had a good time doing those interviews, I think part of me was always like, 'Man, I'm not on the cover ever,'" he said. "And then looking back, I'm like, thank God, I was not on the cover."

But following the straight-to-VHS sequel, A Kid in Aladdin's Palace, Nicholas drifted between agencies as he looked for roles in his mid to late teens—before a sliding doors moment that would change everything. 

American Pie

It's hard to overstate just how much American Pie dominated popular culture after its release in July 1999. It felt taboo and risque (and, in hindsight, very problematic on several levels) and made phrases like "this one time at band camp" and "Stifler's mom" shorthand for a generation. A popular but unproven theory is that the $235 million global box office for American Pie would have been even higher had not a bunch of underage teens bought tickets to Disney’s Tarzan and snuck in to see the raunchy R-rated comedy instead. 

Before its premiere, however, American Pie was just another low-budget teen movie starring a largely unknown cast. And again, Nicholas almost didn't make the cut. His friend Andrew Keegan was originally supposed to play Kevin, the schemer hoping to lose his virginity to his girlfriend (Tara Reid). But Keegan was already committed to 10 Things I Hate About You and filming dates conflicted, opening up the role for Nicholas.

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"He told me just last year that there was only one date that was in contention," Nicholas said. "The [10 Things] director had booked Save Ferris, the ska punk band, for a scene and they couldn't move it with their schedule. So, Andrew couldn't take the American Pie role." (A rep for Keegan confirmed the casting details.)

One American Pie scene in particular that hasn't aged well involves a group of high school boys rigging a webcam to secretly film a foreign exchange student (Shannon Elizabeth) while she changes clothes. It's played for laughs as they accidentally broadcast the livestream, which also includes an embarrassing sexual performance by Jim (Jason Biggs) that pulls the audience's sympathy. The girl, meanwhile, retreats back to Europe in shame. 

American Pie - Jason Biggs, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Eddie Kaye Thomas in the webcam scene.png

"The webcam scene was an homage to the hole in the girls’ locker room wall in Porky's," Nicholas said. "They would just probably do it in a different way today. But at the same time, there is a bit of, what are we calling it now? I don't want to pigeonhole a term, but there are a lot of things that are being cancelled now. So, it's definitely not the right time to push the envelope on a teen sex comedy." 

Still, after three theatrical sequels, including most recently 2012's American Reunion, the cast has spoken about reprising their roles for another iteration. 

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"Never say never. I think it could be fun to revisit," Nicholas said. "I've joked for a long time that it was going to [end up] American Geriatrics." 


A turning point

Nicholas believes part of the reason he didn't skyrocket to fame like some of his 90s and early 2000s brethren was his reticence to hire a publicist. 

"I didn't want to do more interviews. I just wanted to work more," he said. "I remember showing up for some American Pie press that Universal had scheduled and every single person had a publicist there. I was the only guy who didn't get the memo that we were supposed to all have publicists. It was at least seven years [after American Pie came out] before someone pointedly said to me, 'Wait a second. You were the same kid in American Pie that was in Rookie of the Year."

Now, Nicholas is focused on a shift in his career. While known for his comedy roles, he stressed that his true love lies in the dramatic. And his new thriller, Adverse (available now on VOD and DVD), showcases a gritty side to him as a gun-wielding, heavily tattooed man out for revenge on an LA drug lord. Nicholas produces and stars in the film alongside Mickey Rourke, Wizards of Waverly Place's Jake T. Austin, and his old buddy Keegan. 

"I've been looking for a long time for this sort of turning point," Nicholas said. "I feel like the best parts are yet to come. I may be 40, but I feel like now I'm ready to start this new facet of my career."

He also continues to play music with his band, and he's focused on the fledgling entertainment careers of his and wife Collette's two kids: Nolan River, 9, and Zoë Dylan, who turns 5 in April. Like Nicholas, they go by their first and middle names professionally. "My wife and I tried to give them cool names that would be cool stage names should they decide to follow in our footsteps of entertainment," he said.

Together, they're working on a kids' music project called The Robot Kid, and River also co-stars in Adverse and M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming film Old. While Nicholas had a generally good experience as a child actor, he said he's determined to protect his son from the pitfalls of young fame.

"I don't really know when our son will get his own phone or have access to his social media. Currently, that's all me running it, and if I ever see anything that is not appropriate, you can rest assured he will not hear that," he said. "I remember reading an article when I was 13, where someone said that I smiled so much in Rookie of the Year that I looked like I was on Valium." 

But after three decades in Hollywood, Nicholas said, "I'm just here and I'm enjoying the journey."

Follow Ashley Spencer on Twitter.