Chris O’Donnell is afraid of heights. This didn’t help during the summer of 1999, when he was filming Vertical Limit among the icy peaks and sheer cliffs of New Zealand’s 12,349-foot Mount Cook. Though he had never climbed before, O’Donnell did many of his own stunts for the mountaineering thriller, which opened December 8. For several scenes, he was attached to a rope and lowered over the lip of a 2,000-foot cliff. As the cold mountain winds bounced him against the rocks and he tried not to look down, O’Donnell had a lot of time to think. “I was like, ‘Um, can someone please show me a copy of my paycheck?’ ” he says. ” ‘Remind me what I’m doing here.’ “
The money was one reason to hold on, but O’Donnell had also tethered himself to the mountain to save his career. The last few years have not been kind to Hollywood’s onetime Boy Wonder. After early success in such films as Men Don’t Leave (1990), Scent of a Woman (1992) and Batman Forever (1995, as Robin), O’Donnell took a downward slide. The Chamber (1996), Batman & Robin (1997) and The Bachelor (1999) all bombed – an avalanche of disappointment that left O’Donnell, 30, dazed by the time he arrived in New Zealand. “I was bummed out,” he admits. “You work as hard on the movies that suck as you do on the ones that are great.” Now, as a climber who must save his sister (Robin Tunney) when she gets trapped in an ice crevasse, O’Donnell makes a bid for acceptance as an action-movie star. “Chris has a reputation for being soft,” says Vertical Limit director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro). “But he stepped up to the mark on this one. He looks great.”
Even if O’Donnell is a stud onscreen, however, he’ll probably always be a softy in real life. None of his high-altitude training for Vertical Limit prepared him for the adventure of September 3, 1999, when his wife, Caroline Fentress, gave birth to their first child, Lily Anne. Fentress, 28, accompanied O’Donnell to New Zealand for the shoot, and she had the baby in the town of Christchurch. The proud father took a helicopter from the set to be with Fentress in the delivery room, but as soon as O’Donnell got to the front door of the hospital, he started feeling queasy. “I’m not really good with hospitals,” he says. “Blood doesn’t make me very comfortable.” As he saw Lily’s forehead emerge, O’Donnell, who had never fainted before, “hit the deck,” he says. “The next thing I knew, they got me up and put scissors in my hand so I could cut the umbilical cord.”
“Macho” is not a word that comes up frequently in discussions of O’Donnell, who has often been described as “wholesome,” “clean-cut” and, yes, “bland.” During the filming of Batman Forever, he got flustered when asked to wear an earring. When he called his Irish-Catholic parents back in Chicago to tell them about it, his mother was so upset she hung up on him. O’Donnell has a reputation around Hollywood for drinking only soda, but that’s inaccurate: Just two years ago, he bought 60 cases of beer (one per reveler) for a giant tailgate party in South Bend, Indiana, before the football game between Notre Dame and his alma mater, Boston College. Most of the time, however, O’Donnell wears his “square” badge with pride. “The terrible scandal about Chris O’Donnell,” says Joel Schumacher, the director of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, “is that there’s no terrible scandal.”
Like every cute young actor, O’Donell has faced temptation over the years. When he was single, he often received letters from female fans, many of which included revealing pictures and presumptuous proposals. O’Donnell’s college buddies thought the letters were great. “It was like chum in the water,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘Please, let me call this one, man, seriously!’ ” (Of course, he never gave permission.) O’Donnell dated Reese Witherspoon for a couple of months in 1992, and the next year he hooked up with Fentress, the younger sister of one of his college roommates. For the next three years, O’Donnell made movies around the world while Fentress finished her sociology degree at Florida’s Rollins College and worked as a kindergarten teacher in her native Washington, D.C. (She’s now a full-time mother.) Throughout the long-distance relationship, they stayed faithful, and they never considered living together, partly because of O’Donnell’s schedule and partly because of their morals. Sounding more like a grandmother than a Hollywood hunk, O’Donnell says, “I think a lot of guys who move in with girls before marriage are thinking, Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?”
On Thanksgiving weekend in 1996, O’Donnell proposed – but only after checking with Fentress’s father first. (“That’s how we do things in my family,” he says.) Five months later, on April 19, 1997, the couple married in a traditional Catholic Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., before 250 guests, including Schumacher, Senator Edward Kennedy (a friend of the bride’s family) and O’Donnell’s In Love and War costar Sandra Bullock. During the reception, held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, he and his friends led the room in a conga line to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” For their honeymoon, he and Fentress spent two weeks sailing on a private yacht around the Caribbean.
These days, O’Donnell, Fentress, Lily Anne and the family’s newest addition – Chris junior, who was born October 24 – split their time between a modest California ranch house in the Hollywood Hills and a three-story brick town house in Chicago, just 10 blocks from O’Donnell’s beloved Wrigley Field. The town house was O’Donnell’s bachelor pad, but a lot has changed there since his single days. “The pool room is now the guest bedroom,” he says, “and the guest bedroom is now the nursery.” Also changed is O’Donnell’s taste for mildly rambunctious escapades. He and his pals went to this year’s Notre Dame-Boston College game in early November, but the party beforehand was far more subdued than the last time around. “It was still me and the boys,” he says, “but without all the knuckleheads.”
O’Donnell learned his altar-boy values in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, as the youngest of seven children. His father, William O’Donnell, owned radio stations, and his mother, Julie O’Donnell, was a real-estate broker. As the baby of the family, O’Donnell often got what he wanted, but he surprised everybody when, at 13, he decided what he really wanted was to become a model. “I figured it was easy money,” he says. “So one day, I literally took the Yellow Pages and started calling talent agencies.” The cold calls didn’t work, but before long his sister met an agent at a wedding and asked her, as a favor, to see Chris. “We went downtown,” O’Donnell says, “and the agent said I was perfect.” Soon he was modeling pajamas for Sears and Montgomery Ward’s and using his earnings to play the stock market. In 1987, while in high school, he played a cashier who waits on Michael Jordan in a McDonald’s ad. “Now they pull that clip out every time I go on one of the talk shows,” he says.
Around the time of the Jordan commercial, O’Donnell’s agent got him an audition for Men Don’t Leave, starring Jessica Lange, but O’Donnell figured the part was impossible for him to land – if only because the director was Paul Brickman, who had done 1983’s Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s breakout film and a movie O’Donnell revered. O’Donnell actually blew off the first audition in favor of a Bruce Springsteen concert, then, at an audition he did show up for, he left early so he could get to crew practice. (O’Donnell, who is 5-foot-10 now, was only 5-foot-1 and 95 pounds until the age of 16; he was the varsity coxswain at his parochial school, Loyola Academy.) Despite O’Donnell’s dithering, Brickman cast him in the part. The drama came out during O’Donnell’s second year at B.C., where he was a marketing major, and he took about 50 dorm mates to a local theater for opening night. “You can imagine the sort of people who’d go to Men Don’t Leave,” O’Donnell recalls, “and we were there all rowdy, dropping our beer bottles underneath the seats.”
Men Don’t Leave won O’Donnell rave reviews and quickly led to more films, giving the youngster a chance to star with some of Hollywood’s best actors, including Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. In those days, some struggling actors were resentful of young O’Donnell, whose only theater experience had come in high school, when he’d tried out for the “Follies” talent show so he could get closer to a girl who was in it – and then quit after she agreed to go out with him. “I didn’t go the traditional theater route,” admits O’Donnell. “And some people hold that against me. But you know, I’ve worked with some pretty good actors, and I think I’ve learned a lot.”
Hollywood certainly seemed to agree, especially after Scent, in which O’Donnell held his own as a mild-mannered prep-school student working as a guide to
Pacino’s alternately charming and obnoxious blind old man. Pacino won his first Oscar for his scenery-munching performance, and O’Donnell was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe. It was during that year’s Golden Globes ceremony in Los Angeles that O’Donnell realized he had arrived. “I ran to the bathroom during a commercial break, and I passed Mel Gibson,” he says. “He goes ‘Hey, Chris!’ and I go ‘Hey, Mel!’ Then I stopped and I’m like, Oh, my God! That was Mel Gibson! It was the craziest thing that had ever happened to me.”
Since then, O’Donnell has grown more comfortable hanging out with celebrities. During the shoot for Batman & Robin, he played basketball with George Clooney and fellow superhero Dean Cain, whose TV show, Lois & Clark, filmed nearby. On both Batman movies, he was the frequent victim of director Schumacher’s practical jokes. Schumacher once filled O’Donnell’s convertible to the rim with popcorn, and another time he made the most of a doctored O’Donnell photo from the Internet. “It was my head on a naked body with this enormous, you know, male part,” says O’Donnell, “and Joel put it on the Bat Screen in the Bat Cave just before I entered for a scene. Of course, they got it all on film.”
O’Donnell, a dedicated golf fanatic with a seven handicap, still calls Clooney every once in a while to see if he wants to tee it up. But to his family and longtime friends, O’Donnell will always be “O.D.,” the old-fashioned, steadfastly normal guy they know and love. O’Donnell likes L.A.’s Oscar-night parties because “they’re like a school reunion,” but given his druthers, he would choose to be with his wife and children. “It’s the most amazing feeling in the world to hold your child in your arms,” he says. “You’re sitting in the rocking chair holding that little baby. You’ve got the bottle going, and she’s just looking you in the eye. She’s going ‘You’ve got to take care of me. You’re my only hope in the world.’ I’d do anything for her.”