The Image of Erik
EVERYBODY PRESENTS DIFFERENT sides to different people,” says actor Travis Fine, “but with Erik there were very distinct personalities.” Fine is talking about Erik Menendez, whom he plays in the CBS miniseries Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills, airing May 22 and 24. “When he was with his brother [Lyle, played by Damian Chapa] he would emulate him—be very cool. When he was around his friends, he’d get wild and crazy. When he was with his parents, his manner would be very severely toned down.” Fine pauses. “His buddies told me what he was like on the tennis court—grunting, laughing, dropping his racket, clowning and arguing a call. But as soon as his parents would show up, he’d stop and his face would go…” Fine effects a frown, chillingly reminiscent of the one that riveted millions of TV viewers during the brothers’ six-month trial for the murder of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez.
Fine, 25, doesn’t have to work hard to remind the world of Erik Menendez. He has the same bony profile, steady gaze and spiky brown mane. But what made the role at once disturbing and challenging for Fine, he says, is that both he and his wife, Jessica, 22, went to Beverly Hills High School with Erik, in fact, Jessica and Erik were classmates who graduated together in 1989 and who even dated briefly after the murders.
Relaxing in the den of their new Westwood, Calif., home with her husband, Jessica, now visibly pregnant with her and Travis’s first child, says of Erik, “In high school, he was sarcastic and funny and very outgoing. All the girls thought he was very cute. When I saw him again after we graduated, I wanted desperately to go out with him. He was sweet and shy.
“Erik took me out to dinner,” she says. “We had a great lime. The second time he came over, he showed me this new camera he’d bought, an expensive camera. He also told me about this script he had written and about how he wanted to be a writer.
“I never asked about his parents. I mean, I knew they were dead, but nobody had a clue who’d killed them.”
For his part, Fine never met Erik, who was three years younger than he and who, like him, had come to Beverly Hills from a distant hometown. Fine was raised in Hickory Flat, Ga., the second of three children of golf pro Terry Fine and his wife, Maxine Makover. He began acting professionally at age 6 after seeing a stage production of Treasure Island. When his parents split up that same year, he moved to Atlanta with his mother, won a role in a local theater production after answering a radio ad and soon began appearing in local plays as well as TV movies, including A Time for Miracles with Lorne Greene.
At 15, Fine decided to follow his father to Beverly Hills. “I came out here to quit acting, if you can believe that,” he says. “I went to high school, played football, had a girlfriend, went to the prom.” He attended Pitzer College for one football season, blew out his knee, left school and began auditioning in Los Angeles, winning small parts in a spate of TV cop shows such as Cagney & Lacey. “My biggest break came when they gave ‘Guy No. 2’ to somebody else and cast me in the bigger role of ‘Strange-Looking Guy,’ ” he says. Fine then landed the role of mute Ike McSwain in the Emmy-winning ABC series The Young Riders.
In May 1990 he was reintroduced at the Hollywood Athletic Club to a Beverly Hills neighbor who once lived down the alley from him. She was Jessica Resnick, who was handling celebrity promotions at the time for Reebok. They married on Valentine’s Day 1993. “When we first went out,” says Jessica, laughing at the memory, “I told Travis, ‘You know, you look just like this guy I went out on a couple of dates with. His name was Erik Menendez, and if they ever make a movie about him, you are going to play that part, no question.’ ”
And now he is, after diligently campaigning for the part. Curiously, though he conducted extensive interviews with Erik’s former classmates and acquaintances in Beverly Hills and Princeton, N.J., where the Menendez brothers grew up, Fine deliberately chose not to seek Erik out—although he was intrigued when he received a message saying that Erik might try to call him from prison (he didn’t). “I didn’t want to,” Fine says. “He’s no longer the same person. He’s been in prison for four years. The guy I’m portraying is still in high school, free to drive around, free to go out on dates—but carrying all this dark stuff inside him that hasn’t emerged yet.
“The most surprising thing,” Fine adds, “is that, whoever you talk to—old friends, parents of friends, people in Princeton—there’s no mention of any sociopathic behavior, never anything crazy or mean. He was just somebody you’d see, another neighborhood kid.”
F.X. FEENEY in Beverly Hills