When Free Willy was released in 1993, a whole new generation of marine-life conservationists were created. Watching the story of young delinquent Jesse form a close bond with the beautiful orca whale named Willy was enough to make us all wish that one day we too could have such a cool water-dwelling friend. The film was so popular that there were even three sequels, ensuring the unlikely duo were a firm part of many of our childhoods.
Free Willy had it all, a troubled young protagonist, caring-but-misunderstood foster parents, a wise mentor, and evil corporate fat cats trying to kill a whale for his $1 million insurance policy. Thankfully, the good won out in the end, and in the process one of the most iconic scenes from '90s movies was created when Willy jumped a seawall right over the top of Jesse.
12-year-old Jesse was played by child actor Jason James Richter, who won the role after being chosen from over 4,000 other candidates. See if you'd recognize him these days without Jesse's stylin' mullet:
Though it's been over 20 years since Free Willy was released, a now 35-year-old Richter is still in the industry! Following the success of Free Willy, he also starred in Cops and Robbersons, played Bastian in The Neverending Story III and even voiced a character for an episode of Rugrats.
After starring in the 2001 Kate Hudson film Ricochet River, Richter took a break for acting for much of the 2000s, but has returned to the industry in the last 6 years as both an actor, and a filmmaker! In 2013 he released a short film titled The Quiet Loud which he not only wrote, but also produced and directed:
Jason will star in several upcoming film projects, including thrillers Inhumane and Vicious (which he is also helping to produce), horror film 3 Solitude and drama High and Outside. Here's a teaser promo for Inhumane, a film about a scientist conducting experiments on criminals in a secret government facility:
With all of these amazing upcoming projects, I think it looks pretty clear that Mr. Richter has skipped over the rocky path that many child actors end up on after big success early in their careers, and has big things on the horizon. Although I can't wait to see some of his new films, I know for many he's best remembered as the kid with the coolest best friend ever.
Source: IMDB, Twitter