July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

Sunglasses strapped to his temples, reggae blasting from the car stereo, Josh Charles is tearing through the streets of his native Baltimore in his dad’s Jeep convertible. Behind the wheel, the 17-year-old actor seems more like a standard-issue teenager than Knox Overstreet, the upper-crust student he plays in the new film Dead Poets Society. He gawks at pretty girls like a teenager. He speaks in superlatives like a teenager. He even drives like a teenager—trying to carry on a conversation, despite the roar of the wind, about his favorite movie, Diner, which was filmed in his beloved Baltimore.

“My father knew some of the guys who hung around that diner,” says Charles. “My godfather is the guy the Mickey Rourke character is based on in the movie. We call him Boogie. Remember the popcorn scene? That really happened.” Perhaps only a 17-year-old could look upon a 1982 film as a classic, but what really grabbed hold of Charles’s imagination was the Diner performance of Kevin Bacon. “When I saw him on the screen, I said, ‘Now, that guy is cool!’ ”

Kids may someday say the same of Charles. Although Robin Williams gets top billing in Dead Poets, playing an eccentric English teacher at fictional Welton Academy, it’s Josh and his fellow pupils who steal the movie with ingratiating performances. Charles won some of the critics’ highest praise. “Josh was the one to beat in auditions,” says the film’s director, Peter Weir. “No one came close to him in terms of charm and acting ability.”

In Dead Poets, Charles falls in love from afar with a perky blond cheerleader who’s dating the captain of the football team. Inspired by Williams’s love of poetry, Charles composes an ode to his first true love and tries to woo her away. Josh claims some experience in such affairs. “I fall in love with a girl right off the bat, then totally blow it off, saying, ‘Naah, she won’t go out with me.’ The film was fun because I really had the chance to get her.”

Josh is the youngest child of Allan, 42, a commercial director, and Laura, 37, a gossip columnist for the Baltimore Sun, who were divorced in 1982. A first baseman in Little League, he sometimes regrets not pursuing the sport. “There’s still a side of me that says, ‘You wimp!’ when I think about choosing acting over baseball.” Actually, he chose comedy first. Always the class clown—because, he admits, “I needed attention”—Josh visited a local comedy club at age 10 and began heckling one of the comedians. His insults got more laughs than the bombing comic. A copywriter friend of Josh’s father then wrote some jokes for the little Rodney Dangerfield, as in: “School is so tough these days they’re making Quaaludes out of Flintstones vitamins.” Not a major gut-buster, perhaps, but Charles did get a few yuks performing in local clubs for a few months.

Later that year, enjoying his taste of the ham’s life, he decided to attend Stagedoor Manor, a theater camp in the Catskills. He loved it so much he spent the next four summers at the camp, where such actors as Robert Downey Jr., Jon Cryer and Helen Slater learned their trade. In 1987, a year after leaving Stagedoor, he got his first professional acting role from another Baltimorean, John Waters, playing a dancer named Iggy—a “disgusting pig,” says Charles—in last year’s Hairspray. As he waits to hear about post-Dead Poets roles, Josh worries about his “longevity. I wonder if I’ll ever be as good as some of the older actors like De Niro,” he says.

But first he has got to finish high school, which he’s almost about to do. Although he often heads back to Baltimore, home base for the past year has been Manhattan, where Josh lives with his brother Jeff, 21, a commercial-jingle writer. Charles says he’s “madly in love” with an actress, and after one date he’s eager to know her better. He’s so smitten he might even screw up the courage to try his Dead Poets romantic ploy. “I’ve never written a poem to anybody,” he says, “but I might now.”

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