What Happened To The Boy From Free Willy?

It was the 1993 family movie that slayed at the box office, as well as causing a sea change in how captive whales were treated.

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But what are Willy and little Jesse up to now?

Jason James Richter

Then: Richter beat out 4000 other actors for the role of Jesse, the young boy who befriends the titular whale with whom he swam with every day during filming in Mexico. The movie was his screen debut, having appeared in several commercials.

Now: Richter walked away from Hollywood when he was 18, having starred in movies like ‘The Neverending Story III’ (opposite a young Jack Black) and two ‘Free Willy’ sequels.

He joined a rock band and even released a single in 2006, before deciding to return to acting in 2009. Having appeared in videogame adaptation ‘Tekken’ (on which he was also an assistant director), 2016 sees him star in baseball drama ‘High and Outside’ with fourth Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson.


Then: Captured in Iceland, Keiko the whale made his way to showbiz via a water park in Canada and then Mexico City, where he had been performing for the public since 1985.

Now: Keiko’s bent fin – a sign of distress in a whale according to maritime conservationists (though argued by certain water-centric entertainment businesses) – led to calls to free the mammalian star from captivity following the movie’s release.

After a fundraising campaign, he was moved to Oregon to regain his health, before being released back into the wild in Iceland in 2002. He didn’t seem to fully re-integrate (always a fear) and finally died of pneumonia on 12 December 2003 in the Norwegian fjords.

To avoid pictures being taken of his dead body, he was buried during a blizzard at night and there’s now a memorial to him in the Halsa area of Norway.

Lori Petty

Then: Petty was already a star by the time she appeared as kindly trainer Rae, thanks to roles in ‘Point Break’ and 1992’s ‘A League of their Own’.

Now: The actress, 51, never became the star she could have been, maybe thanks to her lead role in spectacular comic book flop ‘Tank Girl’ in 1995, as well as being replaced by Sandra Bullock in ‘Demolition Man’.

But she’s made a resurgence in recent years on TV, with roles in ‘House’ and ‘Orange Is The New Black’. She also aired her personal demons – revealing her own childhood sexual abuse – in directorial debut  2008 drama ‘The Poker House’, which starred a pre-fame Jennifer Lawrence.

Michael Madsen

Then: Madsen had been a journeyman actor best known as the thug in ‘Thelma & Louise’ until hitting the big time with ‘Reservoir Dogs’, which came out the year before ‘Free Willy’. Playing Jesse’s kindly foster dad Glen remains one of the star’s few genuinely nice, paternal characters.

Now: The 56-year-old is one of the character actors who finds it very hard to say no to his agent. He remains a Tarantino favourite and will star as one of ‘The Hateful Eight’ later this year. Other cracking flicks include ‘Species’ and ‘Donnie Brasco’. His prolificacy has also resulted in movies like ‘Lady Pyscho Killer’ with pornster Ron Jeremy and the straightforwardly-titled ‘Kidnapped in Romania’.

August Schellenberg

Then: Born in Montreal to an English-Mohawk mother and Swiss father, Schellenberg, aka Willy’s keeper Randolph, had a successful stage and screen career and was a brilliant amateur chef as well as champion boxer and diver.

Now: After featuring in two ‘Free Willy’ sequels, Schellenberg acted in Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’, as well as being Emmy-nominated for playing Sitting Bull in 2007 TV movie, ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’. An active campaigner for Native American charities, he died of cancer in 2013 aged 77.

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Photos: Moviestore/Rex_Shutterstock/PA/Getty