Few child stars seem to find the already perilous transition to adulthood an easy one. Wheaton, now 25, spent his early years on TV and movie sets, was driven from school by the open disdain of other students and was so disillusioned by his rocky, three-year stint on Star Trek: The Next Generation that he thought at age 18 he'd had enough of acting. It took time for Wheaton to regain his footing—professionally as well as personally. After taking a sabbatical to study with an acting coach, Wheaton returns to the screen with a part as a spoiled student of absent-minded professor Robin Williams in Disney's new Flubber. Mature beyond his years, Wheaton also embraced instant parenthood last year, when he invited his girlfriend and her two sons from a previous marriage to move in with him. "I have spent 13 years trying to get out of the shadow of Stand by Me," he says. "That little kid is now a 25-year-old adult who is helping to raise two children, who spent four years studying intensely to be the best actor he can be."
Wheaton's course work didn't prepare him for the thrill of returning to the spotlight. "I had not worked on a major studio film in a long time. But I tried to play it cool," he says. "Then I look over and there is a chair that says 'Flubber—Wil Wheaton.' And it is right next to Robin Williams's!" The two bonded. "I would talk to him a lot about science fiction," Williams says. "In between watching this little green ball [of flubber] fly around, he was standing around talking about quantum physics." Director Les Mayfield says Wheaton was no trouble: "He was a total professional."
Following his mother, Debbie, into commercials (his father, Rick, is a medical specialist), Wheaton broke into acting in a Jell-O spot when he was 7. "I have acted for so long that I don't remember if I wanted to or not," he says. He got a taste of stardom—and a look at its dark side—as the sensitive Gordie in 1986's Stand by Me. Wheaton avoided the drug problems that plagued two of his costars, River Phoenix (who died of an overdose in 1993) and Corey Feldman (who pleaded no contest to heroin and cocaine possession in 1990). "I remember [Phoenix] telling me about pot, and I wasn't interested," says Wheaton.
Instead, Wheaton yearned to be a regular guy. But when he entered public school in La Crescenta, Calif., at age 14, "it was a nightmare," he says. His classmates "decided I was a stuck-up actor. People were putting things in the school paper like 'Wil Wheaton, don't "stand by me" because you stink.' " He left after one semester, only to plunge into another thorny situation as teen genius Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation. Fans sporting Nuke Wesley buttons decried his addition to a series that had never had a kid character. He left after three years. "He went his own way, and I think he is better for it," says Patrick Stewart, Trek's Captain Picard. Wheaton spent two years working for a computer company in Kansas, then returned to L.A. to take full-time acting classes.
He met girlfriend Anne, a divorced cosmetology student, two years ago. She and her sons Ryan, 8, and Nolan, 6, moved into Wheaton's San Fernando Valley two-bedroom bungalow several months later. The boys call Wheaton (who plans to wed Anne, 28, "when the time is right") their stepdad. Says Anne: "Wil and Ryan were making cookies last week, and Ryan stuck his hand into the cookie dough. Wil said, 'Ryan, what are you doing?' Ryan said, 'Well, we are family.' Wil was so excited." Parenting is hard work, but as with his career, Wheaton is trying to take the time to do it right. "You know what you are going to hear in a year?" he says, smiling. "Wil Wheaton, the overnight comeback."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan.
WIL WHEATON WAS 13 WHEN Stand by Me made him a teen pinup. "It went straight to my head," he says. "I remember being mouthy to everybody. I have spent the last couple of years apologizing." Even worse, he groans, were the. fashions. "I wore all those horrible '80s clothes—parachute pants, 11 watches on one arm. It was so lame."