I Am Happy!

Chris O'Donnell in the pool

© Jeff Lipsky for Live Happy

Hit show. Five children. For Chris O'Donnell, life is fast, full and fun.

It’s 6:30 on a typical weekday morning in the Pacific Palisades home that Chris O’Donnell shares with Caroline, his wife of 17 years, their five children and Kimmy, their adored 13-year-old black lab. The custom-built house sits in a celebrity-dense Los Angeles neighborhood, where residents include A-listers like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn, on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

The views are stunning, but Chris and Caroline barely have time for a glance as they corral their brood. Fourteen-year-old Lily, the oldest, is out the door and heading to high school across town. Charlie, 10, “my focused little guy,” as Chris calls him, has already gotten dressed, eaten breakfast and is watching the Golf Channel. Chip, 13, is present but not fully accounted for; his eyes may be open but he’s half asleep. Finn, 8, is nowhere in sight. “You’ve called him 12 times but he’s still in bed and won’t come down,” Chris says. And 6-year-old Maeve, snuggled on a lap, is having her ponytails done.

Some mornings, between volleying questions—Did you brush your teeth? Make your bed? Pack your backpack?—Chris steals a moment, pulls out his camera and videotapes the (mostly) controlled bedlam. “You think of the great trips you’ve taken, but this everyday morning routine is the real fun and the kind of stuff you’ll want to remember,” he says. “This is your real life.”

The rush hour of life

At 43, Chris is in the throes of what he calls—borrowing a phrase from sociologists—“the rush hour of life.” It’s that period when both the demands of career and family peak. “Right now I’m in the vortex of everything,” he says. “It’s crazy for me.” Days on the set of his hit CBS series NCIS: Los Angeles can run 14 hours, and weekends are, if anything, even more jammed. “It’s literally divide and conquer,” he says; he and Caroline split duties of shuttling the kids to riding lessons, soccer, basketball, football and baseball games, with most Sunday mornings devoted to church.

As hectic as rush hour may be, Chris is more than content riding in the carpool lane. He has created the life he always wanted for himself: a large, happy family and the means to provide for them. That desire for blissful domesticity seems woven into his very DNA.

A couple of years after his beloved father, William, passed away, Chris looked into his roots on the TLC show Who Do You Think You Are? (This is a sharp contrast to his TV character, G. Callen, a military special agent who grew up in 20 foster homes and doesn’t even know what the “G” in his first name stands for.) What Chris discovered left his blue eyes watering several times during the episode: Generation after generation, the men of his family had answered a call to service—fighting in the War of 1812 and later in the Spanish-American War, helping bury bodies during the cholera epidemic that hit St. Louis in the 1840s—but always returned home to their families when they were needed.

“Family was the most important thing in life to them,” Chris says. “And maybe that’s part of why it feels so natural to me, so right, that it’s also my instinct to put family ahead of everything else. There are past generations that instill that in you without your even knowing.” 

A nice guy who's finishing first

Chris has a reputation in Hollywood for being a nice guy. Asked about this, he says, “Obviously, you’re talking to the right people. I’m sure there are people who don’t have that opinion of me.” Finding those people would likely be a fruitless quest. In person, Chris is unfailingly gracious. At a photo shoot in the Hollywood Hills on a rare morning off, he is asked to wade into a pool with his clothes on, a request that would leave many a more finicky actor aghast. But he’s all for it. “Just tell me what you want me to do,” Chris says. Stepping into the pool, he playfully brandishes an imaginary Robin cape, reprising his days as Batman’s trusty sidekick. Then, when a particularly exuberant kick leaves a photographer’s assistant soaked, he’s full of apologies.

He’s just as affable outside Hollywood. An avid and gifted golfer, he has played for the past 18 years in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament that raises money for the nonprofit Monterey Peninsula Foundation. It’s Doug Thompson’s sometimes-delicate job to get the tournament’s celebrity golfers to talk to the press. Many balk at the request; not Chris. “I have worked with dozens and dozens of celebrities over the past 13 years,” Doug says, “and Chris is the most open and friendly of any of them. He’s willing to do whatever I ask him.” This year Chris was on the driving range practicing with a swing coach when Doug approached him about doing a television interview. He said yes, even though he had a coveted tee time at Cypress Point [Club], widely considered one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world.

“You don’t ever want to miss a tee time at Cypress Point,” Doug says. “But Chris gave us 45 minutes. He even showed the host how to swing a golf club. That typifies him.” Doug runs out of adjectives as he describes Chris’ generosity. “He’s just a great guy,” Doug says, “really incredible,awesome.”

A boisterous boyhood

Early in his acting career, Chris sometimes felt like a fraud because he couldn’t call upon a harrowing childhood. “God forbid you came from a stable family,” Chris says. “That felt like such a cop-out. Sure, a lot of artists did, of course, come from tortured backgrounds, but I didn’t. When I was a young guy and I did interviews, I thought I had to produce some kind of edgy image. I don’t care about that anymore. I feel so blessed to have had a great upbringing with a lot of love from my parents, my brothers and my sisters.”

Chris grew up in Winnetka, an affluent suburb of Chicago, the youngest of seven children. His brothers and sisters complained that as the baby of the family, Chris was spoiled; it didn’t help that his mother’s nickname for him was “Precious Love.” In some ways, Chris says, he’s a composite of every one of his siblings. “I had this amazing experience being the youngest of seven,” he says, “because I was so influenced by each of my brothers and my sisters. I see this with my own kids, too. As the youngest, I wanted to be like everyone, so I play golf because my brother John played golf. I’ll never be as good as John—who’s one of the top amateur golfers in the country—but I’m pretty good. My brother Bill gardens and cooks, and he can build a house. I can do a lot of that, though I can’t do it as well as him. But Bill doesn’t golf and John can’t do any of the stuff that Bill does. I’m somewhere in-between.”

The way, way back

His dad set an example of relishing simple pleasures. “He would get as excited about a good homemade burger and a cold beer, sitting in his house with his feet up and watching the Bears game as if he was in the fanciest restaurant in Paris,” he says. The family ate dinner together every night, with Chris and his sister Angela sitting at the breakfast bar because there wasn’t room for all nine O’Donnells at the kitchen table.

There were occasional meals out to Hackney’s, a casual family restaurant. “That was a really big deal,” Chris says. “We’d all pile into our two cars—a Buick and a Caprice classic station wagon—and, inevitably, one car would be 30 minutes late because halfway there someone got in trouble, wasn’t allowed to go to dinner and had to be taken home.” There were rules, like each kid was allowed one soda for the night. “You could chug it if you wanted or you could take little sips and wait for everyone else to finish theirs,” Chris says. He’d chug his, then climb under the table and pour packets of sugar into a glass of water. “My parents would say, ‘Just leave him alone, he’s quiet,’ ” Chris says. “It was chaos, and they’d always say, ‘We’re never doing this again.’ But, of course, we did.” 

Best of all were the weeks spent at a summer cottage on Lake Michigan that had been in his mother’s family for generations. There was a small public golf course behind the house. “My favorite day as a kid was getting up early, going to play golf and then coming home, having lunch and being on those sandy beaches with my family,” Chris says. “We’d build bon fires and generations—my grandparents, parents and lots of cousins—would come together. It was just a simple, fun tradition.”

Getting to work

When he was in the eighth grade, inspired by a classmate who was appearing in local ads, Chris reached out to a local talent agent. Soon, he was appearing in local TV commercials and then national campaigns, like one for McDonald’s where he rang up an order for basketball player Michael Jordan. At 17, he landed his first movie role, opposite Jessica Lange, in Men Don’t Leave. It was his introduction to the perks of success, and it left him wide-eyed. “They flew me out to New York to audition,” Chris says. “I took my dad, and they put us up at The Regency Hotel. There were three TVs in our room; there was even one in the bathroom. I was blown away.”

When Chris started Boston College after deferring a year to do the movie, he didn’t tell anyone about his acting career. “I didn’t want to be known as the kid who was in the movies,” he says. But then ads started running for Men Don’t Leave and, he says, “the cat was out of the bag.” His anonymity completely evaporated over the next few years, as he starred opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and Gene Hackman and Faye Dunaway in The Chamber) and newcomers who would go on to become the next generation of superstars (Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Brendan Fraser in School Ties and Drew Barrymore in Mad Love).

The allure of stardom

When he was 23, Chris went on location to Vienna to star opposite Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland in The Three Musketeers. It was, he says, “the biggest eye-opening experience of all time.” If he liked to have a good time, he was a choirboy in comparison to Kiefer and, especially, Charlie. “I always say it was like taking your craziest buddy from college, giving him $20 million and just seeing what he does,” Chris says. “It was totally out-of-control. I loved it, but I had my limits. I’d knock back some cocktails with them, but at a certain point, I’d check out while they’d run all night. This was a big opportunity for me, and I was taking it seriously.”

While Chris enjoyed his stint as a Hollywood heartthrob, he recognized “there were different paths you could take.” He goes on. “I knew I could continue to date and never get married and enjoy Hollywood and all the benefits of it, but that really wasn’t who I was,” he says. “It’s tough to have it both ways. If you know you want to have a great family and a bunch of kids, it’s hard to run around in Hollywood.”

Finding his soulmate

He started dating Caroline Fentress, the sister of a college roommate (“As soon as I kissed her, I knew she was the one,” he likes to say), and, three years later, in April 1997, they married. “Being in this business can be an emotional roller coaster, and Caroline is an incredibly stable person and a great sounding board for me,” he says. She provided a ballast early on, in the heady aftermath of making Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

“The Batman movies changed everything,” he says. “It took me to a different level.” Chris was bombarded with film offers, and though he declined roles that turned out to be hits for other actors, including Men in Black, he has no regrets. “I love doing films,” Chris says, “but traveling all the time and being on location isn’t conducive to family life. When I started having kids, I realized TV was going to make more sense for me.”

Joining the NCIS family

After co-starring stints on Two and a Half Men, The Practice and Grey’s Anatomy and a starring role in the Cold War miniseries The Company, he moved on to NCIS: Los Angeles. It proved a hit out of the gate and still drew top ratings in its fifth season. This year, to keep things interesting, Chris directed an episode for the first time and hopes to do more directing next season. Still, he is far from restless. “I’m comfortable with the character I play, and I’m crazy about the people I work with,” he says. Chris shares a special chemistry and a kind of “bromance” with his co-star, rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J. “I love him,” Chris says. “He’s one-of-a-kind, an incredibly confident guy who’s really comfortable in his own body. He’s also somebody that I absolutely trust. I can tell that guy anything and he’s like a vault.”

For now, Chris is looking eastward to the coast of Maine, where he has a summer home. Hoping to re-create the kind of experiences that he enjoyed growing up, the family spends summers at their 100-year-old waterfront home. “I’ve got Maine fever,” he says. “It’s my favorite place to be and I can’t get there fast enough. I get eight weeks off from the show, and everyone always asks me if I’m going to do a lm on my hiatus. I say, ‘Are you crazy? This is the most precious time of the year with my kids.’ We just kind of shut things down and hang out. It’s when I really get to live my life.”

The days are sun-drenched and leisurely: They pack a picnic and explore different islands—there are over 4,600 islands off the coast of Maine—sail, swim and golf. And, unlike when they’re in LA, even his older kids don’t balk at spending family time together. “I’m still a big shot to my little guys,” he says, “but Chip and Lily are gone every weekend. I’ll say, ‘I thought we were going to do something together,’ and they’re like, ‘I don’t know I’ve got so-and-so coming over.’ I’m like, ‘All right, but what am I, chopped liver?’ ”

Finding the good life at home

Don’t feel too sorry for Chris. Along with taking romantic trips to places like Paris and the French Caribbean Island of St. Bart’s, he and Caroline have very active social lives themselves. “I’m not running around in Hollywood going to every event,” he says. “But we’re always going to dinners with friends and having parties.” Recently, Caroline organized a game of team charades, with 60 adults broken into eight teams. “People were racing through every room of the house,” he says. “It was the best night of the year.” And just recently they hosted a more elegant event—a catered wine pairing dinner for a dozen friends. Chris is a serious wine collector, and when he had his home built from the ground up, he included a wine cellar (as well as an outdoor pizza oven).

When the O’Donnells return home from Maine, Chris will begin making plans for the Oktoberfest he hosts every year, complete with fare like beef roulade, schnitzel and beer passed around in a giant stein. “It’s a family tradition,” Chris says. “I get really sentimental about things, and I’m really a creature of habit.” 

Right now, it’s time for Chris to move on to his next appointment. Before he heads out to his car—an Audi sedan that, he says, is the fanciest car he has ever bought and that leaves him feeling slightly abashed—he is certain to thank every crew member with a hearty, “Appreciate it, man. Have a good day.” And just as the door closes behind him, there’s a sound that follows Chris O’Donnell wherever he goes. People turn to each other, smile and exclaim, “What a nice guy!”

From the June 2014 issue of Live Happy magazine. 

 

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