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Fresh Waters

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After starring in the 1993 save-the-whale hit Free Willy, Jason James Richter found himself living in a fishbowl of his own. There was the time, for example, when a Greenpeace member yelled at him because she thought his costar, Keiko the killer whale, had been mistreated. But “the thing that really freaked me out,” says Richter, now 23, “was when there were people staring over my wall watching me play with my dog.”

Since then the San Fernando Valley resident has finished high school and appeared in seven other films (including Free Willy 2 and 3). Even with a lOth-anniversary Free Willy DVD in stores, Richter is mostly steering clear of the spotlight. Four years since his last film, he’s living off his savings and playing guitar in the L.A. rock band Blueroot, which is releasing an album this spring. “There’s not as much pressure as acting,” he says. “I’m just the guitar player. Nobody is really concerned about me. I like that.”

His six-ton costar, meanwhile, still shines: Keiko’s life is the subject of a book due next year by The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean. “People just seem to respond to Keiko,” she says. Indeed, after Free Willy, fans launched a campaign to free Keiko, who had been captured at about age 2 in 1979 and was an attraction at an amusement park in Mexico City. Then last summer, after seven years of training by marine biologists to fend for himself, he swam to join a pod of whales in the Atlantic. Possibly rejected by the other males, Keiko left the pod after a few weeks and was eventually moved to a remote fjord in Norway. But will he ever adjust to life in the wild? Says biologist Kristjansdottir Thorbjorg: “He’s used to people calling and cheering.”

Keiko’s former castmate is one of those cheering him on. “I want the best for Keiko,” says Richter. “Who knows, maybe someday if we’re touring in Norway, I’ll get to see him.”