See '80s Teen Idol & "Star Trek" Star Wil Wheaton Now at 49
The Stand by Me and Star Trek star took a hiatus from Hollywood.
As a teenager, Wil Wheaton seemed to have everything an actor could dream of. At age 13, he starred in the acclaimed 1986 coming-of-age drama Stand by Me alongside River Phoenix and began to appear regularly in teen magazines like Tiger Beat. A year later, he was cast as young genius Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which quickly became one of the most popular dramas on television.
But just a few years later—when The Next Generation was still flying high in its fourth season—Wheaton walked away from fame. He quit Star Trek and, shortly thereafter, dropped out of Hollywood altogether. But that was far from the end of his journey. Keep reading to discover why the now-49-year-old stopped acting, what brought him back, and where he is today.
His Star Trek character got a lot of hate.
Though Star Trek: The Next Generation was embraced by audiences, becoming the first TV series to be nominated for a Hugo Award—science fiction fandom's highest honor—in more than a decade, not all of the attention Wheaton received was positive. Some fans of the show took issue with his character, calling the precocious teen genius a blatant attempt by the producers to appeal to younger viewers.
But the negative fan reaction apparently had nothing to do with why Wheaton decided to leave the show at the height of its popularity. According to a post on his personal website, he felt like the show was holding him back from a career in film—and that the producers were actively trying to sabotage him.
Wheaton writes that the conflict came to a head when he was cast in the film Valmont, from Academy Award-winning director Miloš Forman (Amadeus). Star Trek's producers refused to rearrange his shooting schedule for even a single day, giving the reason that Wesley played a key role in that episode. Wheaton turned down the movie, only to later learn that he'd been cut from the episode altogether.
"What they were doing was they were sending me a message," Wheaton says on his blog. "The message was, 'We own you. Don't you ever try to do anything without us.' That was the last straw for me…That's what really pushed me over the edge…That's why I left."
He dropped out of Hollywood for a few years.
Unfortunately, Wheaton's post-Trek film career wasn't quite what he dreamed it would be. After appearing in a handful of movies—including 1991's critical and commercial flop Toy Soldiers—he ended up leaving acting altogether. He moved to Topeka, Kansas to work for a software company called NewTek.
After two years helping to develop the Video Toaster, which was intended to make video production more accessible to the masses, Wheaton decided to give Hollywood another go. He moved back to Los Angeles and attended five years of acting classes while trying to relaunch his career.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wheaton worked regularly, landing roles in independent films, TV movies, and the occasional guest spot in shows including The Outer Limits and Love Boat: The Next Wave. But he didn't enjoy the grind of seeking out parts and had trouble convincing casting agents there was more to him than Wesley Crusher, according to a 2005 profile in The Los Angeles Times. His journey back into the public eye would end up taking an unexpected detour.
He used the internet to speak directly to his fans.
In 2000, in order to speak directly to his fans—and try to rebuild his brand—Wheaton started a blog called Just a Geek, which soon became one of the most popular personal websites on the internet.
"When I started my blog, I was very excited about the opportunity to get around media filters and go directly to the audience with whatever was on my mind," Wheaton said in a 2005 interview with Forbes. "I just wanted to write, and maybe show my fellow geeks that I wasn't Wesley Crusher. But in doing that…I was one of the only people you could see on TV or in movies, and then communicate directly with via his blog."
Wheaton used the platform to speak openly with his readers and fans about his career struggles, his personal life, and his struggles with depression and anxiety. The success of the blog, which he turned into a published memoir of the same name in 2004, garnered Wheaton a large online fanbase. He's still blogging today and has more than 1.1 million followers on Instagram. His direct connection with his community of fellow geeks helped him turn his career around.
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He played himself on one of the most successful sitcoms ever.
There's no clearer example of the internet's effect on Wheaton's career than his string of guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular sitcoms on television. He played himself on 17 episodes across eight seasons of the series—a role he secured by tweeting about the show. Around the same time, he also popped up in guest roles on the series Num3ers, Leverage, and Eureka, and hosted a short-lived talk show on the Syfy network, The Wil Wheaton Project.
But it was his work online that kept him busiest. In 2012 he launched the webseries TableTop, in which he got together with his friends, family, and famous fellow celebrity geeks like Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Amber Benson and Seth Green, Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan, and comedian Kumail Nanjiani to play board games. Released on YouTube, the show was a massive success, with an Indiegogo campaign for its third season garnering more than $1.4 million in pledges. TableTop ended in 2016 after 81 episodes.
Lately, Wheaton's voice might be even more familiar to fans than his face. He has voiced characters in more than a dozen animated series and video games and narrated over 50 audiobooks, earning five "Audie Award" nominations from the Audio Publishers Association.
He's come a long way in healing from his child star days.
Over the past few years, Wheaton has continued to act here and there—mostly voicework, but also occasionally on camera, including a villain role on the CW series Supergirl. He's admitted that he still he finds the latter upsetting due to the stress he experienced during his years as a child actor.
"It was really important to [my mom] that I become famous so she could be the famous actor's mom-ager and it sucked," Wheaton told Metro in 2020. "That choice cost me my relationship with my parents and as a consequence of that, I don't really enjoy on-camera acting. It's a little triggering and a little traumatic.'
He's still writing, too. He has completed two more essay collections and a novel, and continues to use his blog to speak out about his mental health. In January 2021, he announced on Facebook that he had just celebrated five years of sobriety and that his decision to stop drinking led him to confront the source of his pain: his relationship with his estranged parents.
Life with his immediate family, at least, seems much happier. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Anne Prince, whom he married in 1999. Together, the couple raised Nolan and Ryan, Anne's two now-grown sons from a previous relationship. Wheaton eventually adopted them when they were adults, after they asked him to.
This April, Wheaton will release an updated and annotated edition of his 2004 memoir. According to a reviewer on Goodreads, in Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir, the one-time teen idol revisits blog posts and essays originally written nearly 20 years ago and reflects on where he was in his life at the time, and what he would do differently today.