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James Van Der Beek
Most of James Van Der Beek's fans know him as the sensitive, small-town film buff of Capeside, Massachusetts. What many may not know is that James's real upbringing is quite similar to the image he portrays on TV. Dawson Leery's idyllic life on the small screen seems to mirror the young James's coming of age to a T. "Dawson reminds me of myself when I was fifteen," said James. "I grew up in a small New England town and vacationed on Cape Cod, where the show takes place, and we both come from loving, supportive homes."
Looking at his blond crop of hair and pretty-boy features, it's hard to believe that James was ever anything other than a star. Of course, there was a time when fame and fortune seemed light-years away, and his biggest concern wasn't his next feature film, but what Mom had packed in his lunch box. Consideringthat he's only twenty-two years of age, that time doesn't seem all that long ago.
BRINGING UP DAWSON
Born on March 8, 1977, to Jim and Melinda Van Der Beek, James had the run of the nursery. As the Van Der Beeks' first baby, he was named after his father and was the source of much consternation and sleepless nights for his first-time parents. Bringing up baby would not be an easy feat. Jim and Melinda worried incessantly about their newborn, struggling with everything from nightly feedings to early morning wake-up calls.
Despite the stress of parenthood, his family managed to create a homey and nurturing environment for James. It was in that modest "starter" home that James took his initial steps and uttered his very first syllables. By reading to him and stimulating his mind with books and toys, the Van Der Beeks provided their young son with an outlet for his vivid imagination. From an early age, Jim and Melinda taught their son to value his creativity and instilled in him the confidence to express his feelings and ideas.
Despite the fact that both his parents worked full-time jobs, James's early years saw him alwaysat the center of attention. Jim Van Der Beek was a busy account manager for Southern New England Telecommunications Corporation, while his mom had her hands full running her own gymnastics studio. Yet, even when his two younger siblings, Jared and Juliana, came into the picture, James never felt like a third wheel on the family wagon.
Lavishing him with all the extra affection they could muster, his parents helped him weather the transition from being an only child to an older brother with relative ease. Perhaps that's why James never fell prey to the resentful-older-child syndrome. Instead of feeling jealous and insecure upon the arrival of the newborns, he welcomed the camaraderie that came with having a large family. Nowhere is this absence of sibling rivalry more evident than in James's own descriptions of Jared and Juliana. "My brother is a phenomenal athlete so he's got his own thing that he excels at, completely independent of what I do," he told E! "And my sister as well. I mean really she's made a name for herself. She's a straight-A student, the smartest kid and really great."
With all the emphasis placed on education and learning in the Van Der Beek household, finding out that James had dyslexia came as a blow to his family. Yet, while many people suffer great hardships as a result of this learningdisability, James was lucky that the problem was discovered so quickly. Had it gone undetected and untreated, it could have gravely impaired James's reading comprehension and might very well have prevented him from living up to his full potential. Fortunately, his dyslexia was diagnosed and treated while he was still a small tyke. "They caught it while I was in kindergarten; [I learned to read] in a special experimental class," he explained to Teen People. "I didn't even know I was dyslexic until I was a junior in high school."
SMALL TOWN LIVING
Nestled snugly in the quiet, sleepy ville of Cheshire, Connecticut, the Van Der Beek home was a model of Norman Rockwell's America. With a population of 26;892 and more white picket fences than anyone would care to count, Cheshire is an ideal place to build a home and raise children. Jim and Melinda did well to choose this family-friendly locale as their nesting ground.
Originally, Cheshire was a manufacturing town, producing everything from ivory combs to buttons. As the town's population grew, small businesses began to boom, houses of worship were erected and family homes werebuilt on barren land. Industrialization would see Cheshire transform from a tiny village, complete with a trolley line, to a bustling town with its very own system of buses. Despite the advances, a bucolic atmosphere pervades the town to this day. Due in large part to the efforts of its historical society, Cheshire has lost none of its old-world charm. Many of the original estates have been preserved, and big business still runs a close second to the mom-and-pop operations lining the shopping district.
Developing in its diversity every day, the community has an open-door policy for all newcomers. This diversity was very important to the Van Der Beeks, as they loathed the idea of sheltering James from people of various cultures and backgrounds. Even though safety and education were important, making sure that their children were versed in the ways of the world was also high on their list of priorities. It was in the quaint town of Cheshire, then, that Jim and Melinda found the perfect combination.
The town fosters strong bonds between the residents, many of whom smile and greet one another in passing. Since manners are a matter of course in every small community, Cheshire kids learn to be polite from a young age. If they transgress the bounds of good behavior, chances are their mothers will be hearing aboutit the next day. This New England upbringing is often the first thing that strikes reporters upon meeting the disarmingly polite and charming young actor for the first time.
Growing up in Cheshire, James developed the confidence and sense of belonging that comes from knowing all your neighbors and seeing the same friendly faces every day. From riding his bike to the corner grocery store to doing back flips at the local pool, James remembers his younger days with the fondness of someone who's been away from home for a long time and is counting the days until his return.
THE ROOTS OF SUCCESS
While most thespians credit their first high school plays with sparking their love of applause, James caught the acting bug even earlier than that. His mother was actually the first to introduce him to the joys of taking center stage. A former Broadway dancer, Melinda always cited dancing as her first love. Although she enjoyed regaling her family with tales of her life in the limelight, marriage and kids had required that she put away her dreams of the Great White Way. Instead, she channeled her love of dance into opening a small gymnasticsstudio near the family home. "My mom staged gymnastic recitals, where a whole class of kids would come onstage and do a routine set to music," James recounted to Interview magazine. "I remember being onstage for a recital when I was six, so performing wasn't anything foreign to me once I started doing theater."
But even though Melinda would encourage James and Jared to perform, it was Juliana who she thought would be the one to carry on the dancing legacy. Unfortunately, Juliana didn't share her mother's interest, and Melinda had to accept that there was not going to be another dancer in the family. Little did she know that her passion for the arts was rubbing off on young James. And as he matured he showed a greater interest in showcasing his many talents. "I was doing a show, I needed to tap-dance," he explained to Totally Teen TV. "My mother bought me tap shoes and she's going, 'You know, I never thought I'd be buying tap shoes for any of my kids, least of all my firstborn son.' So it was really kind of funny the way it worked out."
LIFE IN THE MINORS
While Melinda Van Der Beek's interest in performing may appear to be the determiningfactor in James's choice of career, he was exposed to all manner of interests while growing up. With a former athlete for a father, sports played a huge role in James's formative years. Hoping that his firstborn would acquire a first-rate fastball not unlike his own, Jim Van Der Beek did what he could to help his son's game.
Back the early '70s, Jim was twenty-two years old and fresh out of college when he was signed to play with the L.A. Dodgers. After a few successful seasons, he decided to settle down, taking a job at a phone company to support his expanding clan. But even though he had to hang up his uniform, just like his wife had retired her dancing shoes, the joy he experienced while playing pro ball would stay with him for life.
When James professed a desire to play in Little League, Jim was ready and waiting to coach his son. To while away the hours before dinner, father and son would play catch in the backyard. Jim was delighted to learn that his son was a natural on the field. Besides earning respect for being a great player in his own right, James was the envy of every schoolboy for being the son of a former professional ballplayer. There's no overestimating the cool points James must have collected by simply being born into a professional ballplayer's family. As he told Totally Teen TV, "The coolestthing in the world, man, you play in Little League [and say] 'Dad was a pitcher for the Dodgers.'"
Of course, he didn't need his friends to tell him how lucky he was to have Jim for a father. His dad's athletic triumphs were a constant source of pride and admiration throughout James's childhood and well into his teens. Better still, unlike many fathers who had once set their sights on the world of athletics, Jim never pushed his son to perform. He believed that if James really wanted to pursue a life in professional sports, he would find his own way to achieve that goal. With James devoting more and more time to working on his game, it looked as though Jim's hopes of seeing his son follow in his footsteps just might pan out.
For a while there, Mr. Van Der Beek was right in so thinking. James enjoyed theater and films as much as the next kid, but acting as a career was the furthest thing from his mind. He never dreamed that a day would come when he'd be one of the brightest rising stars in show business. In fact, when James was asked to write about his future plans, his response didn't even hint at the possibility. "It was funny, in eighth grade we were asked to write a letter to ourselves about where we would be in five years," he revealed to Teen Machine. "I wrote that I either wanted to be a pro baseball playerlike my father or I wanted to be a physical therapist. Acting wasn't anywhere near my mind."
The thirteen-year-old was fairly certain that he had life all figured out. It was official: In one capacity or another, he would devote his life to sports. Or would he?
THE TURNING POINT
In eighth grade, James added football to his athletics' repertoire. In an effort to prepare the guys for high school, James's junior high encouraged its male athletes to try out for the football team. Ready and raring to play, James shelved his pursuit of excellence on the baseball diamond and lunged straight for the goal line. "Just like any other young boy, I dreamed of playing football," he told MTV.
His natural grace and the flexibility he developed while studying gymnastics paid off. A permanent fixture in the starting lineup, James's athletic prowess was not lost on his coach and fellow teammates. He was encouraged to train harder and was given special instructions by the coach. Loving the attention, the would-be star threw himself into the sport, striving for athletic excellence with the samedrive and vengeance he would later use to get his acting career off the ground.
It was during a routine practice session that James's life changed forever. While trying to catch a pass, he was knocked down and suffered a severe concussion. After being carried off the playing field, a visit to the doctor was in order. The physician's diagnosis confirmed the young sportsman's worst suspicion. He was instructed to quit the team and find another activity to pass his time. James, who had always been proud of his athletic abilities, was crushed by this unexpected setback. While he knew that he'd be able to return to football the next year, James was down in the dumps about having to sit out an entire season.
Most of all, he was upset about what he thought would be his parents' reaction. As a fairly protective mother, Melinda had been worried sick about her oldest son playing such a brutal sport. She became even more adamant about keeping James off the field when she learned of his accident. Ever the dutiful son, James agreed to her demands. Yet, in so doing, he worried about his father's response. Even though Jim had never pressed him to excel in sports, deep down, James felt that he was a failure in his father's eyes.
At length, after talking about the accidentand his future with his dad, James realized that his father just wanted him to be happy. Dad's main intent had always been to help James find his passion. Soon after realizing that he'd make his father just as proud if he found another activity that would motivate him the same way football had, a light went on in his head. It was an idea that would change the course of James's life forever.
GREASE IS THE WORD
In junior high school, James tried to avoid joining cliques so as not to limit his circle of friends. As a valued asset on the playing field; he had many comrades on the team, but he also maintained friendships with some of the more artistically inclined kids in his school. After receiving the blow to his head and ego on the football field, James was in dire need of some cheering up.
When a few friends told him about their plan to try out for the community theater production of Grease, James was quick to horn in on the action. Seeing his chums get ready for their big auditions reminded him of the days when he would perform in gymnastics recitals. Why not give it a go, he thought. Sure enough, with a little preparation and a lot of nerve, James wasall set to accompany his friends to his first audition.
Upon arriving at the theater, the actor-to-be was a little apprehensive about getting onstage. Not that he wasn't ready for his shot at the small time. As his mom had helped him rehearse his monologue, and was very encouraging about James's chances of landing a role, he was as ready as he was ever going to be. Still, the audition was truly a sink-or-swim moment for the young man. Pouring the nervous energy into his performance, James's voice was smooth and his presence powerful. The director must have known a good thing when he saw it, for he immediately signed James up to play the role of the too-cool-for-school Danny Zuko. James described this life-altering experience to WB 17 News. "I couldn't play football for a year, so I ended up doing community theater and musicals. I played Danny Zuko in a local production of Grease and never looked back."
When James came home to break the news, words could not express his mother's glee. To have landed the leading role with so little acting experience was truly an accomplishment, and one that signaled to Melinda that her son was an ace at whatever he tried. Her dream of seeing a Van Der Beek onstage was finallycoming true, and she vowed to help James any way she could.
Juggling schoolwork with nightly and weekend rehearsals, James gained some sense of what the next ten years of his life would be like. He worked overtime trying to perfect his performance and even changed his look to stay true to the part. "They dyed my hair black, and I was still a boy soprano," he told People magazine.
Aside from getting a free makeover, starring in a community theater production presented James with a host of other exciting opportunities. The chance to hone his vocal, dancing and acting skills was just the tip of the iceberg. Whereas James had never thought of himself as "all that" in junior high, he suddenly found himself the object of several cast members' affections. Playing cocky Danny Zuko and being one of the most admired and respected actors in the cast was, to say the very least, deeply self-affirming.
Socially, James was on top of his game for the first time in his life. He enjoyed the spirit of fellowship that came with performing in the theater and spent much of his free time hanging out with his cast mates. "And I loved it. I mean just absolutely loved it," he enthused to E! "I had my first girlfriend in that production, you know, I was getting my whole social lifegoing and it was justI just did community theater."
Well, even though it was as James had said "just community theater," everyone has to start somewhere, and the starring role in a local production is as good a place as any. The play gave James exactly what he'd neededhis great passion. He would never have predicted that tagging along for his friends' audition would change his whole perspective on the future. In effect, just as Grease had seen its female lead, Sandy, go from a nice girl to a rabble-rouser within a single school year, so did this play transform the young James Van Der Beek from a jock to a drama addict within a matter of months.
Copyright © 1999 by Leah Furman.