It's hard to believe that Ferris Bueller's uptight best friend just turned 53.
Viewers have been fooled into thinking they've seen the actor who looks like a guy from their suburban neighborhood grow up onscreen, from the nervous teen to the annoying tourist in "Speed"; from Mr. Slick, Stuart Bondek, in "Spin City" to his newest guise as the gray-goateed, coolest dad in the world in "I Love You, Beth Cooper" -- but Alan Ruck was already 29 when he played Cameron Frye in 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
"I guess I'm guilty of that, although I didn't try to fool anybody. I would have been happier if I'd been cast as a young lawyer or something; I definitely didn't want to be in a teen comedy. It was the opportunity that presented itself," he says, every bit the working-man actor. "When I was 18, I didn't look like a fully formed human being. I was so skinny and so baby-faced. I was kind of a late bloomer, and that's how that happened."
Calling from Chicago's O'Hare airport on his way to workshopping a play at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Festival in Waterford, Conn., he adds, "When I was cast in 'Spin City,' I finally broke out of the mold of being the nervous guy or the nice guy or the sad best friend. Whenever you ever get a chance to play a scumbag, it's a license to steal. It really was. I made friends for life on that show."
That casting was no slam dunk, Ruck says. "ABC said, 'No, we know Alan, he doesn't play that kind of role.' Gary David Goldberg was a very strong producer and Michael J. Fox -- is who he is -- so they just said, 'No, we're doing it.'
"So I felt some turns along the way. ['Beth Cooper'] is different, this is fun; I'm glad people are going to get to see me in a different light."
None of those prominent roles could prepare viewers for his latest, radical turn: cool dad. In "I Love You, Beth Cooper," Ruck is the mellow, caring father of ultra-nerdy Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust). The young valedictorian causes a stir at graduation by using his speech to say things he'd never had the courage to voice before, such as the titular declaration, leading to a long, dark night of partying with Beth (Hayden Panettiere) and running from bullies.
"It wasn't that complicated for me; it was just like 'Stand up, show up and be a good dad,' " says Ruck of the lack of Method agony in his preparation. Although his real-life father was similarly supportive, the actor drew little from him for his portrayal of Mr. Cooverman.
"My dad would never have given me Champagne at my graduation; he waited until I was 21 to offer me a beer. We were a blue-collar family. My dad worked for years in a pharmaceutical house. He was the man who made everything from Flintstones vitamins to Quaaludes. But he and my mom always stood by me, backed me 100% when I was 16, 17 years old and I decided I wanted to be an actor. They never batted an eye. They were just like, 'OK, absolutely, you have to follow your bliss.' "
He reconsiders and adds, "He did have a goatee at one point. He was a pretty great dad."
Going from Cameron Frye, whose neglectful father was the emotional vacuum keeping his son adrift, to Mr. Cooverman, a front-running candidate for world's greatest dad, wasn't the only way "Beth Cooper" closed circles for Ruck.
"Paul Rust is a man after my own heart because he's in his 20s, playing a high-school senior, so there's some real nice symmetry here," he says of the movie's 28-year-old star, who doubtless still gets carded at bars. "And Hayden actually went to school with my daughter. So that was easy, working with her. It was like someone from the neighborhood."
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Where you've seen him
Alan Ruck says his street-recognition factor runs about 50-50 between his roles in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and TV's "Spin City." He also played the unlucky tourist in "Speed" and Capt. Harriman in "Star Trek: Generations." He has racked up about 50 other credits since 1983, but wishes more people had caught him in the little-seen WB series "Muscle," which he delightedly calls "twisted and dark." But it was an early stage production of "Ah, Wilderness!" that furnished his most transcendent moment: "I had an out-of-body experience during rehearsal. I was actually watching myself, from above, rehearsing the play. And for a long time, I thought that's what was supposed to happen while I was acting. I'd be like, 'Naah, man, I'm not in the zone.' It was a glimpse of expanded consciousness that I've never really had again. But it was profound. It has hung with me all these years."
-- Michael Ordona