The back-to-school days come with memories of school years past — yearbook photos, football games, and those cheesy TV masterpieces from the ’80s and ’90s known as after-school specials. Not all of them aired under that moniker or even in the afternoons, but they were all aimed at teaching younger viewers a very special lesson and proved to be an excellent training ground for some actors who went on to have impressive careers.
Long before he donned a superhero cape, Ben Affleck was in a couple of after-school specials. The first was Wanted: A Perfect Guy in 1986, featuring the story of a 13-year-old boy who places a personal ad for his lonely mother to help her find, um, the perfect guy.
The second was actually an installment of HBO’s after-school-special-like Lifestories: Families in Crisis series, called Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story. If you’ve ever wanted to see Affleck in a full-scale, roid-raging meltdown, this 1994 masterpiece is for you!
To watch former teen dream Rob Lowe in his 1980 after-school special, Schoolboy Father, is to witness the birth of overwrought greatness. Lowe plays a high school senior whose summer fling gives birth — and he decides to fight for custody when she puts the baby up for adoption. Not only are his lines undercut by melodramatic piano music, but the girlfriend in question is played by late Diff’rent Strokes actress Dana Plato. Nancy McKeon, of Facts of Life, is in it too. Lowe’s singing-in-the-shower scenes are absolute gold.
Michelle Pfeiffer and Val Kilmer
One Too Many takes on the devastating effects of drunk driving — and does so with some superior star power. Val Kilmer and Michelle Pfeiffer deliver all the dramatic frenzy you could ever want … and more. “It was only a few drinks, until one more turned into one too many,” says an ominous voice-over in the 1985 ABC special. But Kilmer wants to drink, dammit! Pfeiffer didn’t think it would all end so badly, dammit! The drama!
In his early 20s, Happy Days actor Scott Baio was a regular in shows aimed at teaching teens a lesson, but his most acclaimed performance came in the 1980 CBS Schoolbreak Special episode Stoned. He received a Daytime Emmy nomination and won a Young Artists Awards trophy for playing a character who transitions from an outcast into a full-blown stoner and watches his life fall apart in grand, dramatic fashion. Of course — spoiler alert! — he cleans himself up and gets the girl of his dreams in the end.
There is so much to love about Helen Hunt’s after-school special. First, there’s the Lifetime-ready name, Desperate Lives. Then, there’s the trailer, featuring stellar dialogue such as, “Adults do liquor, even toke — everybody does it!” Finally, there’s the scene that deserves to win all the awards (although, sadly, it won none), where Hunt does PCP for the first time, loses her mind, and throws herself through a plate-glass window. Just say no, kids.
River and Joaquin Phoenix
Brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix take on the heavy topic of dyslexia in their 1984 after-school special, Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. River plays the role of 13-year-old Brian, while Joaquin plays his younger brother, Robby, in the project considered to be both brothers’ first major roles. It’s hard to deny how adorable the two were as they played off each other, especially when Brian deflected Robby’s wish to read a book with him. It’s of note that River was dyslexic but didn’t know it at the time of filming — he was diagnosed two years after the movie aired.
Sean Astin and Patty Duke
With a title like Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom, it’s pretty clear what you’re going to get in this gem that actually aired as a primetime TV movie. Starring Sean Astin and his mom, Patty Duke, the movie tells the harrowing tale of a babysitter who realizes one of the kids she sits for — Astin — is being beaten by his mother. After-school special vet Nancy McKeon plays the babysitter in the movie that also marked Astin’s acting debut.
While one of the highlights of 1985’s High School Narc is obviously its name, one of the other highlights is seeing a young Viggo Mortensen playing a slacker, druggie, Bender-esque ne’er-do-well — we know he’s all those things because he wears sunglasses in class. But the very best (worst) part is how unteenage-like Mortensen is — that is, unless he’s the world’s oldest teenager. He should’ve been the narc.
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