Even at 13, Charlie Korsmo had his priorities in place. By then the child star of 1990's Dick Tracy and 1991's Hook had worked with Oscar winners Steven Spielberg, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, and Fox studio, he says, was offering him $1 million to play the role that went to Elijah Wood in 1993's The Good Son. But Korsmo wasn't interested. No boost to his bank balance or his ego, he felt, could compensate for a lost childhood. "I was missing school dances, homecomings," says Korsmo, now 23. "Acting was never something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so it was easy to walk away."

Although he returned to Hollywood in 1998 to play a geek in the high school comedy Can't Hardly Wait, Korsmo is now more content in the corridors of power. Last fall the MIT physics graduate signed on as a special assistant with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., where his duties include briefing the policy director on the science of EPA issues. "It's my first real job, and I want to work at it," he says. His friends aren't surprised. "He's such a science buff," says Can't costar and pal Seth Green, who recalls Korsmo's doing structural-mechanics homework between takes. "He's not nerdy. He's very engaging and very kind, but he doesn't throw around a lot of frivolous words."

He had a simple enough upbringing. Raised in Minneapolis, the Fargo, N.Dak., native was solving college math problems at age 8 and only got into acting to get out of classes at his elementary school. "I was very bored," says Korsmo. On vacation with his parents—John, 51, chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board, and Deborah Ruf, 52, a Minneapolis educational consultant—and his two brothers in 1986, he saw an L.A. taping of Punky Brewster. When he came home, Korsmo began auditioning for local commercials.

His break came a year and a half later, when he was cast as Jessica Lange's son in 1990's Men Don't Leave. After seeing him onscreen, Warren Beatty hired him to play Dick Tracy's rapscallion Kid, opposite Pacino and Madonna. "She would always act provocatively," he recalls of the singer, who signed his scrapbook with the cryptic "Someday you'll appreciate me." Korsmo adds, "She thought I would make more of her antics later in life than I did at 10."

Next up was Hook, Spielberg's big-screen version of Peter Pan. Robin Williams recalls being impressed by his young costar's "powerful double bill" of intuition and intellect. "He is basically a prodigy," says Williams. But Korsmo was already tiring of the film world. Away from home and school for three years, "I was burnt out," he says. "I felt like I was starting to miss an important part of my life." Hoffman, who played Hook, offered some guidance. "My advice," he says, "was get an education before you decide what your career will truly be."

Korsmo listened. After filming wrapped he returned to Minneapolis, finished high school and then enrolled at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Midway through his freshman year, he decided to give acting another go, filming his winning audition tape for Can't in his dorm room. Acting "was better as an adult," says Korsmo. "I was on my own; I had a car. It was like being in college and having money." But after graduating in 2000, he decided again that it wasn't for him. Besides, he says with a laugh, "to be honest, there's been no clamoring for me to return to Hollywood." No matter. Though Korsmo credits his Hollywood experience with giving him confidence—and picking up the tab for his education—his mom says the acting credits are irrelevant. "He's a good man," says Ruf, divorced from John Korsmo since 1989. "He's very sane and that's a wonderful thing."

Currently single, he spends his free time in D.C.'s museums or puttering around his studio apartment. But you won't find him reliving his halcyon days in front of the VCR: Korsmo says he "can't stand to watch" his films. Not that he's wrestling with regret. "I'm happy with the movies I did," he says, "and the movies I didn't do."

Susan Horsburgh
Christian Toto and Ashley Buford in Washington and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Christian Toto,
  • Ashley Buford,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan.