Growing into his own

CATCHING UP WITH ... KIRK CAMERON

Kirk Cameron has put his teen heartthrob days behind him

now he chooses roles he really can have faith in.

November 18, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

OCEAN CITY -- The first thing that strikes you about Kirk Cameron is how he looks as if he'd just stepped off the set of Growing Pains.

Curly, dark hair still frames his face. His blue-gray eyes still sparkle with laughter and mischief. And Mike Seaver's trademark impish smirk still suggests that plans for practical jokes lurk beneath the boyishly innocent facade.

But then he walks through a room in an Ocean City hotel and offers his hand to people around him.

"Hi," he says, giving a firm handshake, "I'm Kirk Cameron."

It's the first hint of the down-to- earth adult the former teen heartthrob has become. Another will come soon, when he stands before thousands of young people, not talking about his celebrity, but testifying passionately, sometimes tearfully, about his Christian faith.

As the star of one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1980s, Cameron's face graced covers and pull-out posters of teen magazines for years. Teen-age girls wallpapered their rooms with his image. A generation of young women grew up having crushes on him.

Then Growing Pains ended in 1992, and Cameron almost seemed to disappear.

Sure, he starred in a Warner Brothers sitcom, Kirk, from 1995 to 1997 and appeared in made-for-TV Disney movies The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and You Lucky Dog in the late 1990s. But apart from the occasional People magazine "Where are they now?" spread, Cameron had largely dropped from the celebrity radar screen.

Not that Cameron, who turned 31 last month, misses the celebrity -- a fact he can often be found sharing these days in the new life he's carved out for himself as a devoted husband, father of five and born-again Christian who makes regular appearances at religious youth conferences and concerts across the country. It's a life, Cameron says with no hint of regret, he values far more than his years at the top of the entertainment scene.

"Fame was really fun for a time," he gushes, chuckling at the memory in an interview before speaking to more than 2,400 middle-schoolers attending a Christian conference in Ocean City last weekend.

"When you're 14 years old and all of a sudden you're getting a paycheck and this means you can go out and buy a pretty hot car and go hang out with other movie stars and be driven around in a limousine and all these things you dream of and see on television, that was really fun and really exciting," said Cameron, looking as lanky and skinny as ever in a charcoal suit and a blue dress shirt.

"But there eventually came a time when I sort of realized that everything I'd been dreaming of, everything that most people are striving for in their lives, I had that by the time I was 17 years old. And I started to ask myself, 'Is this all there really is?' "

'Projects of integrity'

The feeling of emptiness led him to a friend who directed him to the Bible. Through studying the Bible, Cameron says, he realized that God could fill the void in his life.

At 17, he began attending a non-denominational church and became Christian. It was a change that would alter Cameron and inspire him to break out of the bratty child actor mold. He began lobbying Growing Pains producers to make his character a better role model.

In 1991, at the age of 21, he married fellow Christian and actress Chelsea Noble, who played Mike Seaver's girlfriend on the show. Today, his faith has become such a big part of his life it that he now keeps his five children -- three girls and two boys, aged 4 months to 5 years -- from watching much television. It's also a topic he loves to talk about.

"Sometimes you feel like, whether it's a Catholic church or any Protestant denomination, ... you just want to rip the roof off and say, 'Let God in here!' " Cameron says of traditional, ritual-heavy services. "You just want to say, 'Oh, let the fresh air of God come in here and soften people's hearts. Let's experience that!' "

His faith also governs the roles he chooses and the ones he turns down.

"I look for projects of integrity, projects that are inspirational, projects that really enrich the lives of the audience, and it's not just about exploitative, gratuitous garbage, you know?" he says. "And that's hard to find, so ... it gives you big blocks of time in between jobs, which is great, because it gives me a lot of time with my wife and kids.

"It's a choice that you have to make, ... but it's much more of a success for me to be able to do things that I'm really proud of, that I think are good."

The project he's been most proud of recently is Left Behind, a 2000 movie based on the series of Christian books about the Apocalypse that have sold more than 40 million copies. Cameron, whose wife also stars in the film, plays a journalist investigating the disappearance of millions of people, who have been taken to heaven by God. He's in discussion with producers about a second film.

He says he's been struck by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how the questions many people have been asking since then resonate with the themes explored in Left Behind.

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