ONE MORNING LAST WINTER, ONE OF THE hottest recording stars of the early '90s tramped through New York City's Central Park to report to work on a film. The movie was the suspense thriller Ransom. The celebrity was Donnie Wahlberg, 27, aspiring actor, young father and former New Kid on the Block. As he approached the set, fans screamed, flashbulbs popped—and Wahlberg flinched. "It's started all over again," he thought. Drawing nearer, he finally made out what they were yelling: "Mel! Mel! Mel!"
Mr. Gibson, it seems, had arrived. "I was so relieved, man," says Wahlberg. "I think it was at that moment where I really became happy at where I am now."
For Wahlberg, a role in a Hollywood film—as Cubby, the kidnapper with a conscience—is a saner, more down-to-earth job than his previous gig as teen idol. "Who knew that we would become so big?" he says. "It was a little hard to understand why we were ripped to shreds for it."
Before, and while, being ripped, the New Kids were huge, selling more than 50 million records and inspiring almost as many dismissive reviews. "What we did good was blown out of proportion," Wahlberg says, "and what we did bad was blown out of proportion." The road from Boston's rougher neighborhoods to the sides of America's lunch boxes took its toll on the five teens and particularly on their lead vocalist, who only recently has felt any desire to ease back into public view.
In 1985, Wahlberg, a 15-year-old tough from a blue-collar family in the Dorchester section of Boston—his father, Donald, delivered school lunches, and his mother, Alma, worked in data distribution at a bank—met Maurice Starr through a mutual friend. Starr had created another of the decade's teen sensations, New Edition, and was looking to do it again, this time with a white group. Wahlberg signed on as lead singer; his neighborhood friends Danny Wood, Jon and Jordan Knight and Joe Mclntyre followed. Their second album, 1988's Hangin' Tough, hit No.1, and in 1991 the New Kids sat atop the Forbes list as America's highest-paid entertainers—with $115 million in earnings. Wahlberg helped make a star of his younger brother, "Marky" Mark Wahlberg, by producing his debut album, and won a bad-boy rep through public brawling and a charge (later dropped) of hotel-room arson. Feeling burned out, the group finally took time off in 1992, but a 1994 comeback, Face the Music, just didn't sell. "I can't look back with anger or regret," Wahlberg says. "We were little kids who had an opportunity to make music."
Unemployed, though hardly needy, Wahlberg retreated to his Braintree, Mass., home to collect his thoughts. "I remember watching him wash his car," says Alma Wahlberg. "He said, 'I gotta learn to do these things.' "
One of "these things" was acting. Wahlberg, who had appeared in plays at Copley Square High School, went to a small talent agency in New York City, auditioned and waited for callbacks. "I didn't want to do it as a handout," he says. "I wanted to earn it." He could afford to wait; his share of the New Kids bonanza had left him flush. His first break was an appearance in Bullet, with Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur (it goes straight to video in January); then he got Ransom director Ron Howard's attention—and eventual approval—via an audition tape and several callbacks. "He was very natural, very honest in what he was doing with the scene," says Howard. "Everybody loves to see someone turn a page."
Despite the fact that he put on 15 pounds during the snow-delayed Ransom shoot—"it was bacon and eggs for breakfast, fried chicken for lunch"—Wahlberg is up for more roles and will star in the independent film The Brass Ring, due next summer. He also produces albums for Boston-area artists, including ex-New Kid Jordan Knight. But his priority is helping to raise his 3-year-old, Xavier, his son from a relationship with Kim Fey, 27, a Los Angeles recording engineer. (Wahlberg splits his time between L.A. and Braintree.) "I suppose I'm happy now," he says. "It's more peaceful. I'm able to go to the grocery store." Some old fans still turn up at his door, but if most barely recognize Wahlberg, that's fine with him. "I don't know if I want to be as big as Gibson," he says. Been there. Done that.
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Braintree
- Stephen Sawicki.