Prince of Whales

updated 08/14/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1995 01:00AM

His hero is Jimi Hendrix, not Moby Dick

IN FREE WILLY AND ITS NEW SEQUEL, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, Jason James Richter plays a street-tough buddy to the world's most lovable killer whale. But today, in the backyard of the sunny, three-bedroom Sherman Oaks, Calif., home he shares with his mother, Sandy, 37, Richter is complaining good-naturedly about a boy's traditional best friend, his dog. As Richter's frisky 7-month-old beagle, Lucy, steals a cookie from her master's lunch plate, the actor sighs. "She can't sit, and she can get out of the backyard through the fence. She's a full-time job."

Richter, 15, hasn't had much of a summer vacation. When he's not minding Lucy, he is promoting Free Willy 2—and he just wrapped up a second round of photo shoots for, among others, 16 and Teen Beat. A true heartthrob now, he averages 500 fan letters a week. Typical, he says, is one from "an 11-year-old girl who said we were going to get married and have 10 kids." Such ramifications of fame aren't to his liking. "People think they have a right to know everything about you," he says. "When you're l5, you don't know everything about you."

This much about Richter is certain: he has thick curls, sparkling blue eyes and a full, pouty mouth. "He's a young Steve McQueen," says Lauren Shuler-Donner, a producer of both Willy movies. The actor is paid commensurately. He doubled his salary to $1 million for the sequel, in which Willy must be rescued from an oil slick at sea. "It's more action, more stunts," he says, "more me in the water."

For Richter, a dedicated bodysurfer, there is no place like foam. He was born in Medford, Ore., but spent his early years in Honolulu, where his dad, Greg, a Navy serviceman, was stationed. "I used to swim up and down the beach," recalls Richter, who has a married sister, Tricia. His parents divorced when he was 12. His dad, now stationed in San Diego, is often on the high seas. They seldom see each other, says Richter, and neither he nor his mom likes to talk about the split.

His career is a much more pleasant subject. At age 5, Richter started acting in Japanese commercials filmed in Hawaii. He beat out 4,000 kids for the role of Free Willy's Jesse. Showing up for his audition in torn jeans, with his hair unwashed and mouth in a scowl, "he was exactly what we were looking for," says Schuler-Donner. "A kid with a troubled face and a heart of gold."

But it was his costar, a trained orca named Keiko, now 17, who ended up making waves after the movie became a surprise $78 million hit in 1993. Stuck in a too-small tank in Mexico City, where much of Free Willy was shot, Keiko was in precariously poor health even during production, suffering from a skin disease, bad diet and a lack of fresh seawater. (Free Willy 2 uses only animatronic puppets and nature footage.) But Keiko's karma has improved, thanks to a fund-raising campaign by a San Francisco group called the Free Willy Foundation. In December, Keiko will be moved to a new, 2 million-gallon tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. "He won't have to do tricks there—he'll just be happy," says Richter, who visited Keiko a year and a half ago, but isn't sure the whale recognized him. "How can you tell if a whale remembers you?"

Richter is not into serious relationships. "I have friend girls," he notes, "not girlfriends." His real passion: electric guitars. He keeps six on display at home. And he's crazy about Jimi Hendrix. "When I first heard him, I had no idea who he was," says Richter. "I didn't know he was dead!"

Next month he'll start 10th grade at a private school in the San Fernando Valley. Last year he was voted class clown. "He's not a Hollywood boy," says his mother. But he is mulling over movie projects. "I like acting," he says, "as long as it stays fun. When it becomes a job, it's time to quit."

TOM GLIATTO
KIMBERLY CHRISMAN in Los Angeles

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