Before he was the writer-director-star of Don Jon, or the do-it-yourself impresario behind hitRECord.org, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a kid actor. For the current Entertainment Weekly cover story, we talked with the one person who vividly remembers those early jobs – his mom.
The kid’s first job was so miserable his mother doubted there would be many more. After enduring months of auditions in 1987, 6-and-a-half-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt had finally landed a TV commercial for Sunny Jim peanut butter. “It was a cute Little Rascals kind of set,” Jane Gordon recalls. “The children were dressed in 1920s clothes, sitting on this log under a big tree, and it was raining. When he opened this jar of peanut butter, the sun came out. Sunny Jim – get it?”
There was trouble from the get-go. “The first thing they wanted to do was cut Joe’s hair, to make it kind of Alfalfa-like,” said his mother. She couldn’t allow that because he had also booked a second gig for the following week, playing Tommy Lee Jones’ son in the 1988 TV movie Stranger on My Land. As a hairstylist tried to arrange the boy’s uncut locks, the director snidely warned them: “If it doesn’t work, it’s going to be: ‘bye-bye.’” A half-a-dozen child understudies were standing by, ready to take his place.
He eventually got the go-ahead, and ended up doing take after take as the production dragged on and his mother watched with frustration. “I was in uncomfortable clothes, with fake rain, on this damp soundstage,” the now 32-year-old actor says. “She was sure I would never want to do it again.” Mama Gordon snuck her son snacks (peanut butter sandwiches, of course) because the producers were behind schedule and not taking the legally required meal breaks. “We knew absolutely nothing at the time. We were total neophytes,” she said.
By the time they finished making fake sunlight come out of a peanut butter jar, nighttime had descended in the real world. “When they pulled open the soundstage door, he said ‘Whoa, it’s dark out. When did that happen?’” Jane Gordon remembers. She couldn’t believe that he couldn’t believe so much time had passed. “I really did expect him to say, ‘I get what this is. Nevermind. I don’t want to do it anymore,’” his mother says. “Instead it was the exact opposite: ‘That was great!’”
Not only did Joseph Gordon-Levitt keep acting, but he would eventually want to do most of the other jobs on set, too.
Before he started on his breakthrough project, the 1996-2001 sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, Gordon-Levitt would do countless small roles in commercials, TV shows such as Family Ties, Roseanne, Quantum Leap, and the 1990’s reboot of Dark Shadows, and movies like A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield.
Jane Gordon says that even as a kid, he was allowed to decide what projects he wanted to do. The only thing his parents forced him to do was honor his commitments.
“What we said to him over the years was if you have an appointment, you go to that appointment,” Jane Gordon told EW. “We said, ‘If you don’t ever want to do this anymore, I will call the agent tomorrow and tell her we’re done, nd you don’t ever have to do this again. Absolutely, we’re not doing it for money, or for fame. We’re doing it because it’s fun for you.’”
Little Joe never wanted to quit – and got used to having a lot of creative freedom.
“He totally made his own choices,” says his mother. “The only time we tried to talk him into doing something was a TV movie that would be shot in Africa.” That was 1995’s The Great Elephant Escape, “a kind of hokey little movie on ABC,” Jane Gordon says. “He didn’t want to miss whatever sport it was at the time, flag football, or all-star little league.” But his mother (who didn’t work outside the home, but accompanied him to all his shoots) and father (a radio station news director), really liked the idea of an extended visit to Kenya. “He wasn’t delighted that he went, but he was glad later on,” his mother says with a laugh.
They can’t all be classics…
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