For Ilan Mitchell-Smith, the best part about his fantasy and medieval role-playing pursuits may well be wearing a helmet. Without the face cover, Mitchell-Smith, a Ph.D. student in medieval English literature at Texas A&M University, still gets recognized as Wyatt, the nerdy, squeaky-voiced teen who in the 1985 hit movie Weird Science creates the perfect woman on his computer. "My first instinct is to deny it," says Mitchell-Smith, 31. "People say, 'You look like that guy, and you sound like him too,' and I always say, 'Yeah, everybody tells me that.' "

These days he'd much rather be known as the future Prof. Ilan Mitchell-Smith. While teaching English classes and preparing to write his dissertation on chivalry, Mitchell-Smith leaves his unlikely history in acting largely unrevealed. His friends are often the last to know. "Other people suspected," says his pal Rebecca Stout, 27, a fellow graduate student. "He finally admitted it, and I said, 'No, you're not!' "

Even when he was onscreen regularly, Mitchell-Smith could hardly believe it either. Once, Kelly LeBrock, Weird Science's dream woman, invited him to a big party. As he was leaving, he marvels, LeBrock "grabbed me by the lapel and laid a huge, warm, movie-style kiss on me" before speeding off in her limo.

That proved to be his most memorable brush with the Hollywood high life, which in any case was never his dream. Growing up in Amherst, Mass. (where his parents, who divorced in 1970, shared custody of him and his sister), he trained to be a dancer. When he was discovered at ballet school at age 11 by a casting agent for the film Daniel, he couldn't turn down the chance to make money. Most of the earnings from his six movies went to pay for his schooling and career-related expenses. (His mother, Clary Mitchell-Smith, is a psychotherapist now living in Hawaii; his dad, Larry Smith, 63, teaches art history at a Massachusetts community college; and his sister Natania, 33, is an artist in England.)

At 15, Mitchell-Smith snagged the Weird Science role, his biggest. "I kind of laughed my way through the audition, and somehow I got it," he says. "It's probably just because I looked geeky." Though he shared the screen with future stars Anthony Michael Hall, Bill Paxton and Robert Downey Jr., he still stood out. "All the other boys on the set were extremely wild and carefree and crazy," says Judie Aronson, who played Wyatt's girlfriend. "Ilan was very well-bred, well-mannered."

After finishing a decade in acting with two seasons of Superboy, a kids' TV series, he decided to quit. "The feeling I had," he says, "was I don't like this very much; it's getting in the way of what I really want to do, which is to be in academia." And specifically, studying the medieval era, which had always fascinated him. "From my first memory of looking at a little mounted knight by my dad's bed," he says, "I thought, 'That's it, that's the thing that I love.' "

Armed with a high school equivalency degree he earned at 17, Mitchell-Smith enrolled at Santa Monica Junior College, where he met Susannah Demaree. She didn't find out that he had been an actor until after they started dating, when she told a mutual friend that one of her favorite movies was 1988's The Chocolate War, in which he had starred. "He laughed and he laughed," she says. "It all came together then." They wed in 1995.

After earning a B.A. in medieval studies from the University of California at Davis and an M.A. from New York City's Fordham University, Mitchell-Smith moved to Texas in 1998 to pursue his Ph.D. while Demaree, 34, a former special education assistant instructor, cares for their 19-month-old daughter Eloise and 2-month-old son Asher at their rented home near campus. Though Mitchell-Smith made more money acting than he does now, he doesn't regret leaving Hollywood for a different kind of fantasy. "Choosing to do something I love, even if it's about knights and chivalry, is a valid choice," he says. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing."

Julie K.L Dam
Gabrielle Cosgriff in Bryan, Texas

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  • Gabrielle Cosgriff.