“There were rumors that I got a face tattoo. That I got into a car accident. That I became a drug addict. All this stuff. If you don’t tell them anything, people will just make up crap, even if the film is 20 years old.” Winning over audiences as the young boy determined to free an orca whale named Willy, Jason J. Richter never found staying power in Hollywood after Free Willy but the actor doesn’t seem too worried about it now that he’s 37 years old and settled into his career as both an actor and musician. That’s right, the former Free Willy star has proven he still has what it takes to entertain audiences—only this time it’s a different crowd as he plays the bass with his band, Fermata. So, how exactly did the Oregon native end up in Hollywood in the first place?
The son of a United States Navy veteran and an actress, Jason James Richter came into this world as a Navy brat on January 29, 1980 in Medford, Oregon. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Hawaii where the young Richter fit right in with the crowd of surfers and beachgoers until a Japanese talent agent encouraged him to audition for commercials, promising he’d become their next big star. Luckily, Richter had both talent and charm as he snagged three television commercials, which inspired his family’s move to California where they settled down in San Diego and then in Los Angeles to give Richter the best shot at a career in show business. Little did they realize, however, that a string of disappointments was on the horizon before Richter would finally catch his first big break.
After auditioning hundreds of times for everything from starring roles to bit parts in television commercials, series and films, Richter was close to calling it quits when he finally caught a stroke of good luck in 1993. He auditioned for a starring role in a new family friendly film titled Free Willy and beat out over 4,000 young actors to win the part of a 12-year-old orphan named Jesse who befriends a three-ton orca whale named Willy while cleaning graffiti at a local theme park. Setting out to rescue Willy, Jesse’s friendship with the whale won over audiences as he heroically set out to free Willy and spawned sequels like Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and Free Willy 3: The Rescue in 1995 and 1997, respectively. “He’s a young Steve McQueen,” Free Willy producer Lauren Shuler-Donner said of casting Richter. “He was exactly what we were looking for, a kid with a troubled face and a heart of gold.”
Just as Jesse’s love for the whale came through on the silver screen, Richter’s own experience on set was unforgettable as he took home a Young Artist Award for his outstanding performance and, after two decades, still remembers the beauty of meeting Willy, an orca named Keiko in real life, for the first time. “I remember it being one of those moments of pure and utter fascination as a child,” Richter recalled. “You don’t see the danger. At 11 years old, you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, a whale! That’s amazing! This will be awesome!’ Had I been 17, I might have been like, ‘Hey, this thing is going to bite my hand off,’ but when you’re 11, you’re just like, ‘Oh, wow. Cool. Let me touch it.’”
Admitting that the experience of filming his first feature film was a whirlwind, Richter spent his days training Keiko in the pool and his afternoons with his tutor before wrapping up the film and setting out on an international press tour to promote Free Willy. With thousands of kids lined up to get his autograph, the young Richter was truly an overnight star and saw his original paycheck of $500,000 double to $1 million for the sequels. He was only 15 years old at the time.
After the hype of Free Willy, Richter made a cameo in Michael Jackson’s music video for “Childhood” and had small parts in flicks like Cops & Robbersons, The Adventure Home and The Never Ending Story Three while adding to his credits with guest spots on television series like Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. But, not even the ongoing work or his incredible fortune could persuade Richter to stay in the spotlight for much longer when the actor shocked his fans and decided to call it quits at 18 years old. “I had been on sets since I was 11 years old,” Richter said of his decision. “I just needed a break.”
Taking a much-needed break and finishing high school, Richter also pursued his passion for music and taught himself how to play the bass guitar. “It’s so typical, I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was 10 or 11 and was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ And my parents were like, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix,’” Richter recalled of his first brush with music. Eventually becoming obsessed with guitar, he started touring the country as a musician and joined Fermata as the group’s bassist. Going on three United States tours and releasing their biggest hit single, “Frustrated,” in 2006, Richter didn’t care that he was only making pennies compared to his paycheck as an actor. For him, it was entirely worth it if it meant living on the road. “The beauty of the experience for me was the autonomy,” he said. “No one gave a crap that I was the kid from Free Willy. You’re not in some wispy fantasyland where everyone’s telling you ‘yes’ all the time, which happens to a lot of actors. I was just one of the guys. It was all about whether your music was good.”
Richter’s time on the road left many to wonder if he’d gone off the deep end as rumors ran wild that Richter had tattooed his face and developed a drug addiction. Heck, there was even a brief rumor that he had died in a car crash. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all and Richter was more than thrilled to prove as much when he returned to acting in the mid-2000s with a guest spot on newer television series like Bones and Criminal Minds. Adding in film credits like Inhumane, Vicious and High and Outside, the 37-year-old Richter is definitely back in the game but promises that he hasn’t given up on his music, especially not after the enjoyment he got from going on tour! Rock on!