“Making movies was a real weird kind of adult experience. In a way it was like MIT, in that it was a great education. The big lesson is people are people. They’re smart, funny, creative people, but they’re people.” Ditching his acting career nearly two decades ago in exchange for a normal childhood outside of Hollywood, the 39-year-old Charlie Korsmo doesn’t have any regrets about his decision, especially since he’s at the top of the list of favorite professors at Case Western University’s School of Law. So, how did a child actor once known for his roles in Dick Tracy, What About Bob? and Hook end up in a suit and tie teaching law and ethics to aspiring attorneys? It’s a story you won’t want to miss.
The second of three sons born to an attorney and an educational psychologist, Charles Randolph Korsmo made his debut into the world on July 20, 1978 in Fargo, North Dakota but was raised alongside his brothers, Ted and Joe, in a suburb of Minneapolis known as Golden Valley. With endless energy as a child and well ahead of his classmates in terms of his studies, Korsmo was bored with the monotonous routine of school and decided to liven things up by trying his hand at acting. Only jumping into the industry for fun, Korsmo had a natural talent and shocked himself and his parents when he auditioned for and won the part of Matt Macauley in the 1988 film, Men Don’t Leave.
Korsmo’s acting career quickly blossomed when he joined the legendary Warren Beatty in the 1990 American action comedy Dick Tracy. Cast as The Kid in the film, Korsmo’s performance earned nominations at the Saturn Awards and the Young Artist Awards for Best Performance as the film itself became a box office hit and took home three Academy Awards. Months later, Korsmo starred as the 12-year-old Jason in Heat Wave before joining the talented Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in the 1991 box office hit, What About Bob? Undeniably at the height of his career, he was 13 years old when he won his first Young Artist Award for his performance as Jack opposite Robin Williams as Peter Pan and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell in Hook.
Despite earning nominations at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards and the Young Artist Awards as well as a $1 million contract from Fox Studios to star in the 1993 film, The Good Son, Korsmo struggled with his career and overnight stardom. “I worked pretty much constantly from age 10 to 13,” Korsmo said. “I did five or six movies, but my family was living in Minneapolis at the time and I hadn’t been in school regularly, and my voice was going to change soon. I decided I was tired of the grind and wanted to go back to school.”
Announcing his retirement in 1991, Korsmo gently broke the news to his fans saying, “I don’t love acting enough to give up my life… I don’t know what I’ll do. I always thought it might be neat to be a philosopher.” Luckily, Korsmo found it incredibly easy to walk away from Hollywood after never really planning on making a career out of acting in the first place. But, that didn’t stop the rumors from spreading that the young actor had a bad experience on the set, which he later denied wholeheartedly after working with legends like Dreyfuss, Beatty and Murray.
“I never had a bad experience on a movie,” he promised. “You read about various people that are supposedly hard to work with. You hear stories about Warren Beatty or Bill Murray, but everyone was very nice to me. Maybe it’s because I was a kid. And they would use the fact that I was a kid. So, when everyone was waiting and they needed Warren Beatty on set, they would send me to get him. You know, ‘Hey, there’s 200 people waiting for you. You better come out here.’”
Only returning to Hollywood in 1998 to star alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt and Seth Green in Can’t Hardly Wait, Korsmo called the project his final “what if?” “I did it to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind what I was supposed to be doing,” Korsmo said. “I did it, it was fun, and I’m glad to be a part of it, but I knew afterwards I didn’t want to continue acting as a career in my adult years…” Instead, Korsmo graduated from Breck High School and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Graduating with his physics degree in 2000, Korsmo said his major was all part of giving himself a little credibility as he later worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. “I feel I need to overcome some preconceptions when people find out I was a child actor,” he said. “If I had just gotten a poetry degree from Swarthmore or something, they would have thought I got in because I was in the movies. You can’t fake a physics degree.” You certainly can’t fake a 4.0 grade point average, which Korsmo held throughout his four years at MIT.
Working in Washington, D.C. with the Republican Party ignited Korsmo’s interest in law, which he pursued at Yale Law School from 2004 to 2006. Passing the New York State Bar Exam in 2007 and settling down in the city with his wife, Adrienne, and their two children, Korsmo’s interests shifted when he realized he spent more time at the office than with his family. “I practiced law for a few years in New York, but then I got married and had a kid and I thought, ‘Well, I’d kind of like to know my children while they’re growing up.’ I had an opportunity to get a teaching position part time at Brooklyn Law School and then went out on the real academic market.”
Korsmo was hired at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law and moved his family to Cleveland, Ohio where the 39-year-old still works today as one of the faculty’s most beloved professors. Of course, most of his students are too young to remember films like Hook, What About Bob? or Dick Tracy but, for Korsmo, his early career in Hollywood has given him an edge as a lawyer and a professor. “It was really helpful to have a bit of performance background as a lawyer, at least in theory,” Korsmo admitted. As a professor, he takes the stage every day only now it’s improv on topics like corporate finance, corporate law and torts—and that’s perfectly fine with him.