Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lee Thompson Young :: A Remembrance

I met Lee Thompson Young when he was 14 years old. We had been searching and searching for the young teen actor who could play the very difficult dual role of Silverstone/TV action hero and Jett Jackson, the kid who longed for a normal life. We saw many young actors – many of them convincing and compelling playing a teenage boy, but none of them believable as a young Hollywood star who is already living and working in an adult world. We sent our ever-patient casting director, Pat McCorkle, out yet again, to cast an even wider net.

Then Cas Hyman spotted a boy in a Robitussin commercial – and he was the one. It was meant to be – Pat had recorded his audition the previous day and before we could even ask for it, the tape arrived. Lee Thompson Young WAS The Famous Jett Jackson. As Cas wrote last night, this young actor carried our production effortlessly on his shoulders. He had absolutely no experience – just some school plays and a commercial – yet he instinctively knew what was required of a professional actor. He was completely believable in both roles. The series could not have succeeded, indeed, could not have been filmed, without him.

Lee was an incredibly old soul in a boy’s body. He had perspective, confidence and an abiding calm, no matter how much pressure we were under in shooting the Disney Channel’s first original series. One day he came up to me, touched my arm, and told me that he thought I was doing a really good job. It makes me smile to remember how thrilled I was to receive that compliment from a 14-year-old, but that was the power of his presence on set. Yet, despite this maturity and obvious star quality, he was unfailingly professional, fun to be with, and connected to the people around him. His default instinct in any situation was kindness.

We did an episode about Jett’s first girlfriend, and the story called for his first kiss. The Disney Channel was freaking out at the thought of an onscreen kiss, with numerous conference calls, meetings and admonitions to be sure that it didn’t “go too far.” Frankly, I was a little worried about it myself. Lee was not a typical teenager, he was stunningly attractive and charismatic, and I suspected that he was more experienced than his onscreen character. Finally, we came to the day of the actual shooting of THE KISS. After much haggling back behind the monitor, Cas and Disney Channel’s Adam Bonnett decided that I should be the one to talk to Lee. I took him aside, looked into those unforgettably wise, steady, amber eyes, and explained the concept of a “chaste kiss.” I was in my early 40s then, but I blushed like a teenager, detecting a flicker of amusement behind his level eyes. Nonetheless, he listened respectfully, processed the input, and perfectly portrayed a shy kid who had never kissed a girl before.

Cas and I have worked with so many child actors over the years. Despite the pressure to get the job done and stay on budget, we always tried to be mindful of their youth, respectful of their futures, and to honor the promise we made to their parents when we hired them. We took school time and tutoring seriously, and used our collective power as “the bosses” to make sure they knew how important we believed it was for them to keep their feet on the ground and use the money they were earning to go to college (Lee did so – USC, with Honors). Of all the young actors I have worked with, I would never in a million years have thought that Lee Thompson Young would end up in the class of fallen child actors.

Please don’t remember him this way. Lee Thompson Young was one of the most deeply spiritual, grounded, multi-faceted individuals I have ever met. I don’t know what happened. We may never know what happened. I do know that he brought the best of himself, every day, to the rest of us. My heart breaks for his mother, Velma Love.

Rest in peace, sweet prince.

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