30 years after 'If Looks Could Kill,' Richard Grieco reflects on young stardom — and the 1 blockbuster he regrets turning down

It was great to be Richard Grieco in 1991.

The Watertown, N.Y.-born actor and model had just been paired with Johnny Depp for a double dose of heart-throbbing on the TV favorite 21 Jump Street, which led to Grieco’s own (ultimately short-lived) spinoff Booker.

“I went from anonymity to everyone knowing me in about two weeks,” Grieco says about his sudden surge to stardom in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment (watch above). “So that was kind of a shock. It was a crazy time.”

Grieco had so much heat that he was the one and only choice to play the young hero of a movie called If Looks Could Kill, as complimentary a title to its lead actor as they come, a teen comedy spin on a James Bond spy caper about a high school slacker mistaken as a secret agent during a class trip to France. The movie, which turned 30 this month, marked Grieco’s feature film debut, and it would jumpstart a big year: Only a few months later he’d be seen alongside Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey and Costas Mandylor in the pin-up shoot-’em-up drama Mobsters.

Richard Grieco wearing black eyeliner, with a phone receiver to his ear in a scene from the film 'If Looks Could Kill', 1991. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Richard Grieco wearing black eyeliner, with a phone receiver to his ear in a scene from the film If Looks Could Kill, 1991. (Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

“I think because of the content of Booker and Jump Street, because they were such cool shows and the characters were different than other characters who’d been on TV, I think it was easier to jump to movies than if you were just on a sitcom,” Grieco says of taking on If Looks Could Kill. “Cause basically what we were doing every day on Jump Street and Booker, we were doing mini-movies.” But unlike Booker and Jump Street, he got to flex his comedic chops for the first time.

Neither If Looks Could Kill nor Mobsters shattered any box-office records, but Grieco remained a hot commodity in Hollywood. It’s just he didn’t accept any of the work.

“I’ll be honest with you, I turned down everything from probably ’92 to ’94,” he reveals. “I looked at how the old actors worked, and I was definitely wrong at that point, about my assumption that you take one movie a year. And if it’s not the right film, you just don’t take a film. I didn’t know you do film after film after film after film. And there are a lot of films that I turned down that went on to be big things, and other films that didn’t.”

Grieco does not hold many regrets today, save for The One That Got Away.

“One that was offered to me that I turned down was Speed,” he says of the 1994 thriller that instead starred Keanu Reeves as the police officer who, along with passenger Sandra Bullock, foils a madman's (Dennis Hopper) plot to blow up a city bus if it dips under 50 miles per hour. The Jan de Bont-directed action flick racked up over $350 million worldwide. “But Keanu did a great job.”

Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed. (Photo: Fox)

The role would have been Grieco’s if he wanted it: “You gotta think about it, known actors back then who were playing cops and being that age, I was basically the one person on their list. Coming from a place of playing Booker or playing a cop on Jump Street and then playing a detective-slash-cop-slash-whatever on Booker, if I was cast, that character would’ve been the perfect choice for that film.”

Grieco’s offers eventually suffered, and he later stepped away from acting to launch a painting career — one inspired, coincidentally, by Hopper, whom Grieco had worked with in the 2000 crime thriller The Apostate. Grieco sold his first piece, created in a style he has dubbed “abstract emotionalism,” in 2009. “It kind of took off and I just painted for four years straight,” he says.

Grieco, who’s also made memorable cameos over the years in projects like A Night at the Roxbury (1998), 22 Jump Street (2014) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2016), now has two feet firmly back in the filmmaking world — acting, producing and directing, even (cautiously) during the past year’s pandemic shut-down. His social media thriller Stay Off the App was released in the U.K. in November, and he recently filmed the horror Demons & Angels with Robert Davi, Randy Couture and Dean Cain.

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