Hollywood can be notoriously hard on child actors; one day they’re America’s pint-size sweetheart, and the next they’re heroin-addicted has-beens knocking on Dr. Drew’s office door. But the kids who play TV’s most recognizable geeks may have even more trouble finding their place in the industry as adults, because outside of a few sitcoms like Community and The Big Bang Theory, their archetype is far rarer in shows about adults — and unlike the jocks and cheerleaders who are their teenage cast mates, they don’t generally have the superhuman good looks that will translate to leading roles. So, as a recent article about Freaks and Geeks‘ head geek Stephen Lea Sheppard got us wondering, what has become of all those memorable ’90s TV brains that we grew up with? We check in on everyone who isn’t Alyson Hannigan (because we’re sure you know what she’s up to) after the jump.
Stephen Lea Sheppard: Freaks and Geeks’ Harris Trinksy
On a show that proudly states that it’s about freaks and geeks, you can bet there will be no shortage of the latter. But William McKinley High School’s geek to end all geeks was Stephen Lea Sheppard’s Harris Trinsky, a wise and noble guru figure to the school’s outcasts, not to mention their honored Dungeon Master.
It probably won’t surprise most Freaks and Geeks fans to learn that Sheppard, who turned up in the equally nerdy guise of Dudley Heinsbergen in The Royal Tenenbaums, was an intelligent loner in real life, too. The Canadian magazine Maclean’s recently checked in on him and found out that his early years weren’t easy — in addition to relentless bullying, he endured the cancer-related death of his father, a recovering alcoholic, and had to live with family friends while his mother went to school to become a midwife. After he impressed Paul Feig and Judd Apatow just by being himself, and they wrote the role of Harris just for him, Wes Anderson came calling. But while his Freaks and Geeks co-stars went on to A-list fame, Sheppard flubbed auditions and made just one commercial. These days, the 29-year-old moderates gaming forums and writes video game reviews for Vice.
Sarah Hagan: Freaks and Geeks’ Millie Kentner
Speaking of Freaks and Geeks actors who never went on to Franco- and Segel-level fame, what ever happened to Sarah Hagan, who was brilliant as Lindsay Weir’s milquetoast friend Millie? You might remember her popping up in the Jack Black movie Orange County, and appearing as Amanda, a Potential Slayer, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season. In the mid-2000s, she did some guest appearances on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Medium, before landing a nice role in 2009’s Spring Breakdown, the criminally underrated, puzzlingly straight-to-DVD comedy starring Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Parker Posey. But what you may not realize if you don’t follow The CW’s rebooted 90210 is that Hagan recently gave the Millie archetype another spin in a recurring role as the world’s nerdiest sorority girl.
Devon Gummersall: My So-Called Life’s Brian Krakow
Jared Leto’s Jordan Catalano may have been My So-Called Life’s resident heartthrob, but we won’t complain about how Brian Krakow, the needier third of Angela Chase’s love triangle, turned out. The man behind the curly, blond mop was Devon Gummersall, who appeared in Independence Day and went on to roles on Felicity and the short-lived Roswell and The Fugitive around the turn of the millennium, along with acting in a slew of movies whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize. In 2002, you could find him in the film adaptation of The Anarchist Cookbook, followed by a whole lot of TV guest spots and recurring roles on The L Word and Drop Dead Diva. More recently, he’s been known to show up on Man-Teen, a web series about “the misadventures of a thirty-five year old teenager as he battles the conventions of ‘modern’ society.”
In the years since My So-Called Life, 33-year-old Gummersall has also explored different aspects of the film and TV industries. Since 2002, he’s directed three films, and in 2007, he served as a staff writer on MSCL producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s web series, Quarterlife. If you’d like to keep up with his career and/or thoughts on sports, you can follow Gummersall on Twitter.
Danielle Fishel: Boy Meets World’s Topanga Lawrence
Although by high school she had evolved into Cory Matthews’ dream girl and one true love, if you caught any of the middle-school episodes of Boy Meets World, you’ll remember Topanga was once a geek of the New Age neo-hippie persuasion. When we checked in on Danielle Fishel two years ago, we remembered her from a pair of mid-’00s National Lampoon movies and a spokeswoman for NutriSystem. At the time, she was still hosting The Dish, an irreverent pop-culture news show on Style Network that wrapped in March of last year. Since then, she’s hosted Fuse’s The Fuse 20 and turned up on Chelsea Lately panels, and now helms MSN’s daily web series Last Night on TV. As with Gummersall, you can follow her on Twitter, where she recently retweeted her Boy Meets World co-star Rider Strong.
Josh Saviano: The Wonder Years’ Paul Pfeiffer
At the height of Marilyn Manson’s fame, in the late ’90s, a rumor circulated that he was really Josh Saviano, they guy who played Kevin Arnold’s dweeby best pal Paul Pfeiffer on The Wonder Years. Although there is certainly a resemblance between the two, that theory has long since been debunked. So, seeing as his IMDb bio ends in 1993, what has Saviano been up to in two decades of not being an actor or a goth-industrial superstar? When Buddy TV published an update in 2007, they learned that the Yale and Benjamin Cardozo School of Law graduate was an associate at the New York City law firm Morrison Cohen LLP. It seems that in the past few years, he’s moved up to Senior Counsel at the same firm, where he specializes in intellectual property. And according to his bio on Twitter, where he has plenty of witty things to say, Saviano is also married with a kid.
Gabrielle Carteris: Beverly Hills, 90210’s Andrea Zuckerman
Last year, when 90210’s nerdiest cast member turned 50, we had a bit of a personal crisis. Could we really be so old that one of our favorite teen TV actresses from when we were in junior high was eligible for AARP? Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded — Carteris was already 29, after all, when she was cast as 16-year-old Andrea Zuckerman. In the 12 years since the West Beverly gang went their separate ways, she’s done quite a few guest appearances, TV movies, and lots of voice acting, along with playing Principal Tuckerman in My Alibi, a 2008 web series about high schoolers caught pulling a prank. If you were watching VH1 a decade ago, you may have spotted her on the debut season of The Surreal Life, before that show devolved into a launching pad for endless Flavor Flav-related reality endeavors. Earlier this year, Carteris reunited with her 90210 co-stars Shannen Doherty and Ian Ziering for Fox’s 25th Anniversary Special. She, too, is apparently on Twitter, where she’s spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage and opined that The Hunger Games book is better than the movie.
Jaleel White: Family Matters’ Steve Urkel
Another ABC TGIF star we checked in a few years ago, Jaleel White spent the first year or so of his post-Family Matters career on UPN’s single-season sitcom Grown Ups and finishing his undergraduate work at the UCLA Film School. After that, he did the guest spot/voice acting thing, most notably providing the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonia, and Manic in 40 episodes of Sonic Underground, and, in 2006, showed up briefly in Dreamgirls. In recent years, he’s done a few web series, 2009’s Road to the Altar (about a black man marrying a white woman) and 2010’s Fake It Til You Make It, a show that follows White as a child star turned image consultant, which he also wrote and produced. These days, he’s hosting the Syfy game show Total Blackout, where contestants perform terrifying tasks in utter darkness, and just finished a run on Dancing with the Stars. He didn’t win, which is pretty shocking considering how wonderful he was in Cee-Lo’s “Cry-Baby” video last year.
Mayim Bialik: Blossom’s Blossom Russo
Now, don’t get defensive — we idolized Blossom in our youth, going so far as to buy multiple floppy, faux-suede hats in her honor. But while she might not have worn a pocket protector or spoken in a gratingly nasal voice, there’s no denying she was bookish. This qualifies her as one of TV’s frustratingly few literary geeks. But it turns out that the woman who portrayed her, Mayim Bialik, is more of a good, old-fashioned science nerd. As Flavorwire’s Caroline Stanley noted back in 2009, when Bialik got the makeover treatment on an episode of What Not to Wear, she did guest spot and voice acting for several years before landing a few hilarious appearances as Jodi Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Don’t fault her for slacking, though, because in 2008 the actress earned her PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Since then, she’s fully embraced her geek roots as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, in what began as a recurring role but eventually won her a place in the show’s main cast. Incredibly, acting and neuroscience aren’t the only things Bialik has been up to — the mother of two is also a writer (last year we enjoyed her sex tips) who published the book Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way in March. An observant Jew, her Twitter feed offers plentiful insights on religion and culture, in addition to the showbiz stuff.
Dustin Diamond: Saved by the Bell’s Samuel “Screech” Powers
Of all the ’90s TV geeks on this list, none has been in the news more than Dustin Diamond — although, unfortunately, not because his career is going great. Yes, the guy once known as Screech has kept up his acting career over the years, mainly in films we promise you haven’t heard of (Tetherball: The Movie, anyone?). But you’ve probably read more about his 2006 sex tape, Screeched: Saved by the Smell (excuse us while we go vomit up our childhood), and his tell-all 2009 memoir, Behind the Bell, in which he claims to have “banged two thousand chicks” and dished about promiscuous sex and drug use on the teen sitcom’s set. Diamond has also had the oddest TV career of any former child star we can think of, in which he regularly flipped the eff out on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club and then, in 2010, appeared on CMT as a contestant in Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling. Aside from those curiosities, he plays bass in a band called Salty the Pocketknife, which a fan site describes as “progressive math rock.” Last summer, he did the inevitable: appeared at the Gathering of the Juggalos (in a Beavis and Butt-Head T-shirt, no less) and demanded that Brooklyn’s Bell House take his photo off a flyer for their Saved by the Bell-themed party.