How Sweet It Is

updated 02/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

KIDS TODAY RIGHT? WHEN CHRIS O'Donnell was 17, his mother, Julie, had to bribe him with the promise of a new car to get him to try out for his first movie role, the part of Jessica Lange's rebellious teenage son in 1990's Men Don't Leave. O'Donnell had shown some interest in acting and had some successful commercials to his credit, but he was deeply immersed in his real-life role as coxswain on the varsity crew at his suburban Chicago prep school, Loyola Academy. Besides, says O'Donnell, now 22 and a Boston College senior majoring in marketing, "the audition was such a long shot." He went to L.A. anyway, though, and wound up getting the part. "I'm still waiting for that car," he told his mom on a recent visit home to Winnetka, Ill. Julie, a real estate broker, laughed off the reminder. The way things have worked out, she says, "Chris is going to buy me one."

He can certainly afford to. Three films later—Fried Green Tomatoes; School Ties and the critically acclaimed hit Scent of a Woman—O'Donnell is in the driver's seat of a shiny new career. In Scent, he costars with Al Pacino. who plays Frank Slade, a blind, blustery ex-Army officer living with his married niece. O'Donnell is Charlie Simms, a sweet-natured scholarship student at a New Hampshire prep school whom she hires to care for her uncle while her family takes a Thanksgiving weekend trip. But almost as fast as Slade can bellow a triumphant "Hoo-ah!," he whisks Charlie off for an alternately hilarious and harrowing Manhattan adventure.

The film's director, Martin Brest, was worried about the relationship between the two characters. "Frank is outlandishly aggressive, and Charlie is self-effacing," says Brest. "I had a feeling we had created this fatal imbalance." But O'Donnell, he says, "has a quiet strength, and he made it look believable that Charlie could win over this raging tyrant."

He had some help. During one tense confrontation scene, when O'Donnell was being shot in close-up, Pacino stood off-camera and shouted invectives to help the young actor get the proper stricken look. "It worked great," says O'Donnell. Pacino, who invited his costar to one of the weekly poker games at his Manhattan apartment, says he and O'Donnell bonded immediately. "I just felt happy to be around him."

That comes as no surprise to O'Donnell's family. Growing up the youngest of seven children in the six-bedroom brick house where his mother and his father, Bill, a radio-station owner, still live, Chris was the charismatic kid. His mother called him "precious love," says sister Angela, 23. "When he spoke, we all listened. If Mom was serving eggs for breakfast and he wanted pancakes, we'd have pancakes."

The family was startled, however, when Chris, at age 13, announced that he was tired of mowing lawns for chump change. A classmate of his was making $60 an hour as an actor in TV commercials and, he remembers, "I thought that would be so cool." His oldest sister. Sally, 31-had met a talent agent, Maureen Brookman, at a wedding, and she was able to schedule an audition for her baby brother. Soon O'Donnell was (lashing a grin at Michael Jordan in a McDonald's commercial.

Though he has never taken acting lessons. O'Donnell Has had a smooth ride to the top. In Fried Green Tomatoes he was the cocky Southern boy killed in a freak train accident: in School Ties he was the WASPish roommate of a Jewish prep school student. Even his rejections have been impressive. Barbra Streisand phoned him at his off-campus flat to apologize for having to uncast him from a role she had already promised him—as her son in The Prince of Tides. Her real-life son, Jason Gould, would be playing the part. "Your mother will understand," she told O'Donnell, who got paid anyway.

His father, meanwhile, says, "We'd like him to get his degree" before doing am more films. Chris, in his final semester at BC, has been looking forward to graduating this spring with the rest of his class. But last month he got an offer from Disney to costar (with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland) as D' Artagnan in a remake of The Three Musketeers, and he says, "I'm definitely leaning toward it." The lure of Hollywood may prove irresistible. Recalling some advice he received from Pacino—"Never date an actress"—Chris just laughs. "Nah. I love L.A.," he says. "The girls out there are the cream of the crop." As Frank Slade would say: Hoo-ah!

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
BONNIE BELL in Winnetka

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