At 17, actor Lance Kerwin’s 12-hour workdays preclude so much as a steady girlfriend, much less a grand passion. But as the adolescent protagonist of NBC’s appealingly authentic James at 15, he is at present enduring the most contentious deflowering in the history of prime time. The controversial episode—scheduled for February 9—has already triggered the resignation of creator novelist Dan (Going All the Way) Wakefield and proved that, in jaundiced Burbank of all places, loss of virginity can still make the earth move.
The tremors began when Wakefield submitted a script calling for James to yield his virtue to a Swedish exchange student on his 16th birthday. (The title will simultaneously age to James at 16.) But squeamish NBC censors balked at Wakefield’s treatment of sex and contraception and had the show rewritten to “punish” the young lovers with guilt. “The network didn’t mind that James was going to have sex,” claims Wakefield, who is working in television for the first time, “but they said even a vague mention of birth control [James’ euphemism: "Are you responsible?"] made the episode too controversial. I felt it would have been totally irresponsible not to include that reference.” NBC answers that the script’s problem was not birth control but the “dangerous ground” of “promiscuity.”
Actor Kerwin’s attitude is that James’ sexual initiation “is about time.” He further grumbles that “no one wants to listen to what I have to say about James. I’ve been told that I’m too far removed from the reality of teenage life now that I’m in a series. How can I be in a vacuum and the adults who write and produce the series in the thick of things? They’re not exactly teenagers themselves.” (Lance obviously feels strongly on the subject, but when the delicate subject of his own experience in country matters is posed, NBC answers for him: “No comment.”)
Still, hardly anyone can doubt the maturity of an actor who by his own 16th birthday was spending more time with The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman (in guest roles) than with girls his own age. “The kid is the best, really fantastic,” admires Wakefield. Although Kerwin’s role as a naive Holden Caulfield type who moves from Oregon to Boston requires him to be on camera almost continuously, Lance dismisses the burden as “not a bad thing for a young actor.”
He is the runt of a family of five sons from L.A. By the time Lance was 8, his parents were divorced and his mother had met his future stepfather, actor and jazz musician Ernie Phillips. Worried about Lance and brother Shane (now 20, and Lance’s James stand-in) growing up in status-conscious Laurel Canyon, the then struggling family moved to rural Lake Elsinore, 100 miles south of L.A., seven years ago. Lance chopped wood, gathered eggs and helped renovate a Spanish-style five-bedroom house that’s still their home. “This wasn’t busy work. It was survival,” says his mother, Lois, a former booking agent. “It was a real family effort and it drew us together.”
Lance turned on to acting before he could read properly—which proved symbiotic. Ernie, explaining that actors had to understand writing, organized a family kitchen-table reading of Macbeth. “Lance became so involved in the play that his reading problems vanished,” Lois explains. So did her initial hesitation about her son’s early ambition. “A lot of Hollywood child actors are so mixed up and bratty,” she says. “We agreed to let Lance act only if he behaved like a normal human being.” Lance began tagging along on his dad’s dramatic jobs, picked up an agent and landed a role at 12 in the made-for-TV Reflections of Murder opposite Joan Hackett.
His first series was 1975’s short-lived The Family Holvak, with Glenn Ford and Julie Harris. He broke through as star of Michael Landon’s autobiographical drama of a teenaged bedwetter, The Loneliest Runner. “I’d had some experience along those lines myself,” admits Lance candidly. “I got some teasing at school, but I also got the idea that the show hit home in a personal way for some of the kids.”
Since James started, Lance’s schooling consists of daily three-hour tutoring sessions on the set. His family is temporarily relocated on the seventh floor of a Marina del Rey apartment—”the cellblock,” as Lance calls it—where every night they read Stanislavski and go over his next day’s script. “We have a no-nonsense approach to his career,” Ernie says.
What spare time Lance has he spends skateboarding, swooshing around the marina on a 12-foot racing sailboat and playing his $1,600 Haynes flute in the family jazz band. (The five sons and stepfather Ernie are serious enough about their blues-based music to cut a demo tape.) Though Lance pals around with showbiz progeny like Rosanna Arquette, the late Cliff “Charlie Weaver” Arquette’s granddaughter, he’s not about to try the Shaun Cassidy teen-dream whirl. “Others go in for that sort of thing,” Kerwin says. “I don’t need it. It usually just stands for a short career.”
Instead, “I want to know every part of the business,” Lance explains. “I want to direct. I want to write. I drive people crazy on the set asking questions. That’s the nice part of being the star—they humor you.”
Though NBC has picked up nine additional James episodes, Kerwin is dubious in the face of limp ratings and repeated network preemptions. “But even if James at 15 never makes it to James at 16,” Lance says, “I will be okay. I’ll try for good parts in films and television. I wouldn’t mind having more time to myself. I’ll take whatever comes.”