Free Willy Cast: Then and Now

It’s now been over 20 years since ‘Free Willy’, the American family film with the giggle-inducing title, first splashed into UK cinemas.

It was 1994 and John Major was in 10 Downing Street, the Winter Olympics were kicking off in Lillehammer, and a boy named Jesse was forming an unlikely friendship with a captive Orca named Willy.

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It was a big hit back in the day, but what happened to the cast, and what became of its protagonist the mighty Keiko? Let’s find out.


Jason James Richter – Jesse


Jason made his movie debut in ‘Free Willy’, appearing twice more as Jesse in the subsequent sequels. He’s also known for playing Bastian in ’The Neverending Story III’, but he gave up acting in 1998 aged 18.

He then became bassist in a band called Fermata who enjoyed mild success, and is now back in the acting game with two film projects currently in development - a horror named ‘3 Solitude’ and a thriller entitled ‘Vicious’.

Keiko – Willy


Keiko was captured from the wild near Iceland in 1979 and lived in a number of aquatic parks before appearing in ‘Free Willy’. In 1996 he was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon with the hope of releasing him back into the wild like his film character.

He was eventually flown to a bay in Iceland in 1998 and released into the wild in 2002. However, he later turned up in a Norwegian fjord seeking human contact after failing to reintegrate to the wild.

He died in 2003 aged about 27 from pneumonia and is buried in Norway.

Michael Madsen – Glen Greenwood


The Chicago-born actor was at the height of his powers when he made ‘Free Willy’ playing Glen Greenwood the adoptive father to the unruly street kid Jesse, but things haven’t gone so well for the actor of late.

With calls for A-list roles drying up, he’s made appearances on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ and a Justin Bieber video, and was arrested twice in 2012, once on a misdemeanour charge, the other for getting into a fight with his own son.

It looks like Madsen could be on the comeback trail though after his ‘Reservoir Dogs’ director Quentin Tarantino threw him a lifeline. He’s appearing in QT’s much anticipated Western ‘The Hateful Eight’ due out late 2015.

Jayne Atkinson – Annie Greenwood


The British-born actress played Jesse’s adoptive mother in her first big Hollywood role, which she later reprised for the sequel ‘Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home’ alongside Madsen.

Post-‘Willy’, the actress has appeared in M Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’ and geo-political drama ‘Syriana’, but many will recognise her playing Karen Hynes in TV’s ’24’. She can now be seen playing ballsy politician Catherine Durant in Netflix’s political drama ‘House of Cards’.

Michael Ironside – Dial


The cult actor played the proprietor of the local amusement park which ‘owns’ Willy, who spots an opportunity in the relationship between Jesse and his Orca and decides to put on “The Willy Show” (stop tittering at the back) to recoup his whale-upkeep coasts.

Ironside is still one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood, often playing the gruff tough guys mainly in B-movies, but occasionally in big blockbusters like ’Terminator Salvation’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’.

August Schellenburg – Randolph Johnson


Schellenburg played Willy’s big-hearted native-American keeper Randolph who helps Jesse stage a rescue operation for the Orca.

The Canadian-born actor, who was of Mohawk and Swiss-German descent, also in appeared in two ‘Willy’ sequels, as well as numerous made-for-TV movies. He died in 2013 following a long battle with lung cancer.

Lori Petty – Rae Lindley


Petty was a big deal in the early 90s when she appeared as the free-spirited whale trainer Rae in ‘Free Willy’, having appeared in lead roles in ‘Point Break’, ‘A League of Their Own’. After the critically-maligned ‘Tank Girl’ tanked (pun intended) at the box office, the actress dropped off the radar.

She makes the occasional film and TV appearance, and made her directorial debut in 2008 with ‘The Poker House’, which features an early performance by Jennifer Lawrence. Wonder what happened to her?

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