The Geek Grows Up
"Can you believe Arsenio turned me down for his show?" says Hall, sitting in his New York City loft. "Carson and Letterman turned me down too. It's unfair, because I'm a changed person." Hall has changed—as anyone could see when he played a bully in Edward Scissor-hands in 1990. After a two-year absence from the screen, the charmingly gawky string bean had matured into a 180-lb., 6'1" demithug. But the transformation Hall refers to is internal. "The reason my career had a lull," he explains, "is that it took me a while to conquer my demons."
Hall's particular demon was vodka. His problem began when, already a veteran performer at 13, he started sneaking drinks. His precocious tippling continued off and on while he attended Manhattan's Professional Children's School and made such movie flops as the infelicitously titled Johnny Be Good (1988). Filming Out of Bounds (1986), he remembers, "I was drinking vodka by the quart every day. I'd mix it with Sprite."
The New York City kid who shot his first commercial at age 7 had obviously come a long way—probably too far too fast. Hall, at 15, had played Chevy Chase's son in National Lampoon's Vacation, where he caught the eye of writer John Hughes, who proceeded to cast him in his teen-oriented hits. Soon, though, the budding actor was beginning to behave like a celebrity experiment gone wrong. "I always wanted to be like Eddie Murphy," says Hall, "cool with a cool image." Instead, he says, "I found myself walking down the streets of New York looking to see if people were looking at me." At 17, as one of the youngest Saturday Night Live regulars ever, he was drinking his way through a single, largely unfunny season. And his nights, in general, were much too lively. Frequenting clubs, he says, "I sometimes got in fights and punched people in the face and got drunk."
His mom is more diplomatic. "We all do different things to cover up the pain," says cabaret singer Mercedes Hall, who divorced Hall's father, Larry, an auto-body-shop owner, when their son was an infant (her second husband, Tom Chestaro, is part of the actor's management team).
Hall's girlfriend of one year, model Teresa DePriest, 21, has her own theory about his two-fisted phase. "He felt very angry that his father was not there all those years," she says. But in November 1990, more than 20 years after the messy breakup, Hall finally went to visit Larry. "It was incredible," says Hall of the reunion, which was arranged using a godfather as middleman. "Now I've got two new sisters and a stepmother." For his part, Larry—who had phoned his son a few times over the years—seems bemused by the grown-up Hall: "When he's here, he's following me around with a video camera. He's 100 percent showbiz."
Make that 110 percent—and primed for a comeback. "Only in recent months have I really felt like myself," says Hall, who hasn't quit drinking ("I'll have a glass of wine or beer") but believes he has grown up enough to control it. He stresses also that alcohol was the only substance he abused. "I never had a problem with drugs."
Hall has two films out this year. Into the Sun, an action-comedy, was released in January, and The Adventures of a Gnome Named Gnorm, another action-comedy, will be out in the spring. Hall is determined that there'll be more films. "I'm not just a good actor, I'm a great actor," he says. "I haven't proven it yet, but I will. I only wish I hadn't acted irresponsibly." And he hopes the newest young star from the John Hughes stable, Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin, 11, doesn't make the same mistakes. "I'd tell him: Stay clean and keep your head on straight," Hall says. He pauses. "He's the reincarnation of me, isn't he?"
DAVID HUTCHINGS in New York City