JAMES WALTERS STILL ISN'T SURE WHAT hit him. One minute the actor-singer and his bandmates from the Fox TV series The Heights were enjoying the muffled hush of the limo on the way to their Philadelphia concert date. The next minute: Fandemonium. "People were slamming on the hood, and hands were getting caught in the windows," says Walters, 23. "There were screams, shirts getting ripped off. I felt this mix of adrenaline and utter fear."
What had brought out the bubblegum-and-braces set this day was Walters's husky lead vocal on "How Do You Talk to an Angel." The catchy single, introduced in an August episode of The Heights, quickly soared to the top of the pop charts just as the series—a sort of Commitments-meets-Melrose Place about twenty somethings in a rock band—was starting its fade into oblivion. It also transformed Walters, previously best known as actress Drew Barrymore
's fiancé, into a teen idol averaging 500 mash notes a week.
Actually, Walters's first big hit is "good but not our taste," says the singer, speaking for himself and Barrymore. His personal playlist favors bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and soulful rockers such as Neil Young because "they were willing to take a chance." Cautions Steve Tyrell, The Heights' music producer and one of "Angel's" three writers: "Jamie's more down 'n' dirty blues."
Perhaps, but he is a blues brother whose beginnings go back to manicured Marblehead, Mass., where he was the only child of attorney Jim Walters, now 51, and his wife, Libby, 47, a Harvard-educated high school guidance counselor. His parents divorced when he was 4, and by his teen years had acquired new spouses, kids and stepkids. Although Walters continued living with his mother, "I felt very much like an outcast, caught in the middle of these two families," he says.
At Northfield Mount Hermon, an artsy boarding school he attended in Massachusetts, Walters shaved his head, formed a punk band and dabbled in alcohol and drugs. In 1986 he entered New York University's film school. Within two years he had dropped out and was juggling guitar-playing in local punk-rock bands with work as a "dessert boy," whipping up crème brûlées at Manhattan's then trendy Canal Bar. It was there that an agent spotted him and sent him off to some TV-commercial auditions. Soon his appearance in ads for Levi's jeans, Gillette, McDonald's and others gave him enough confidence to head west in 1990 in search of movie roles.
Cast first in the little-seen, art-house comedy Bed and Breakfast, Walters went on to win a flashy starring role as a guitar-playing delinquent in the high-profile John Travolta movie Shout. The film flopped, but it was seen by Aaron Spelling, who invited Walters to audition for the new band-centered series he was producing.
By then, Walters had begun costarring with Barrymore, whom he'd met through their mutual agent, J.J. Harris, last March. "I never felt so comfortable and free with someone," says Barrymore, 17, of their first date, a nine-hour chat-and-stroll through Venice, Calif. Says Walters: "What turned me on the most is that she was there, looking me in the eye."
Walters moved in with Barrymore a month later, and in June he proposed. "She was crying; I was charged," he reports. "It was really cool." The couple, who share his 'n' hers tattoos of each other's names on their backs, plan to marry in May.
Although they posed together semi-nude for the cover of July's Interview magazine, they've agreed on boundaries when it comes to sex scenes with others. "No tongue—that's the first rule," says Walters with a smile. "And no real being naked."
Lately the pair, who call each other Bear-Bear, haven't had much time together. Barrymore's career keeps her in L.A. (most recently on CBS's 2000 Malibu Road) while Walters, until lately, was in Vancouver taping his Heights series and occasionally barnstorming the country to promote the show. "I heard stories about the mall appearances, how the girls were yelling, 'Are you really gonna marry her?' " Barrymore says. "I get a little jealous sometimes, but I'm so happy for him."
For his part, Walters worries more about his new image as a TV sugar-popster. He proudly points to a smoky blues he wrote for Barrymore titled "So Hot" on the album, and is encouraged by talk of a Capitol Records contract. He dreams of directing a film script he cowrote. Naturally he has already composed the score.
"I don't want to turn into someone like David Cassidy," says Walters, considering a prime-time predecessor. "Most people's impressions of those kind of guys are that they're cheezers. I'd like to think of myself as a lot more real than some of the pop stars I grew up watching."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles