Checking in On the Sprawling Parenthood Cast 30 Years Later—Including the Stars You Had No Idea Were in It

Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen top-lined Ron Howard's classic family comedy, but you may have forgotten all the other famous faces—and soon-to-be movie stars—rounded out the ensemble

By Natalie Finn Aug 02, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Parenthood 30 yearsMoviestore Collection/Shutterstock

In 1989, family was everything.

"That whole idea was born on a plane flight," director Ron Howard told Off Camera host Sam Jones in 2017, reminiscing about his hit comedy Parenthood, which made $100 million at the box office, earned two Oscar nominations and cemented Steve Martin's status as the ultimate exasperated dad.

Howard, who was coming off a string of successes including Night ShiftSplash and Cocoon, was traveling to Buenos Aires to shoot Gung Ho (access to an auto factory was involved in that destination) with his family, including his then 4-year-old daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, and 7-month-old twins Jocelyn and Paige. It was a 17-hour flight.

"We needed the diapers and the formula, and all the stuff that we needed, with us," he recalled. "So we were only allowed two carry-on items. I had 24 carry-on items. So I got the crew to all carry on stuff for me and my job was to look after Bryce on the flight."  

Bryce was game enough to try some vegetarian sushi they were serving. "And within the first 40 minutes of the flight she projectile-vomited all over my shirt and I had no change...And the babies were crying, and I was helping Cheryl, and we were just walking them and driving the crew crazy." As Howard was pulling their pile of luggage from the baggage carousel upon arrival, sweating, feeling like an old man at 32, cursing the heavens...he realized he had a comedy on his hands.

We Ranked Parenthood's Most Tear-Jerking Moments of All Time

After Gung Ho was finished, Howard directed the fantasy epic Willow and then tackled Parenthood, which hit theaters on Aug. 2, 1989, the perfect summer release for kids of most ages, including the ones who are actually in their 40s and are sometimes startled to realize they're working full-time and married with three children.

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And while Parentood remains eminently watchable to this day, full of one-liners that have aged quite well, it also has more stars packed into two hours than you could possibly remember—including some who you may not have ever realized were there.

So here's a look at the already famous faces, the newcomers, the uncredited, and the actors whose careers would take some very unexpected turns:

Steve Martin

As father of three Gil Buckman, Martin's face was a constant study in hope, defeat, excitement, confusion and exasperation—all looks he'd use again in Father of the Bride a couple years later.

Martin—comic legend, author, playwright and banjo player—needs no introduction, but more of his post-Parenthood highlights include L.A. StoryGrand CanyonHouseSitterThe Spanish PrisonerBowfingerCheaper by the Dozen, playing a guy who pretends to be suffering from agoraphobia on 30 Rock, for which he was nominated for an Emmy; and It's Complicated.

He was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2005 and an honorary Oscar in 2014.

And while he has had two dozen children in movies, Martin himself didn't become a dad until 2012, when he was 67. He has a daughter, whose name he has never divulged.

Mary Steenburgen

Frazzled but stoically upbeat Karen Bukhman deals with her husband's grievances, three kids and, ultimately, an unexpected pregnancy with aplomb.

But that's Mary Steenburgen for you. 

The veteran actress, an Oscar winner in 1981 for her supporting role in Melvin and Howard, has been working nonstop since 1989 in films such as Back to the Future Part III, Pontiac Moon, Elf, Step BrothersThe ProposalThe Help and Book Club. She's been even more prolific on TV, stealing scenes in everything from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death alongside real-life second husband Ted Danson to 30 RockJustifiedWilfredThe Last Man on Earth and Orange Is the New Black

Next up she co-stars in the Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida with Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård.

Steenburgen has two grown kids—actress Lily McDowell and director Charlie McDowell—with ex-husband Malcolm McDowell.

Jasen Fisher

Gil and Karen's sweet but anxious son Kevin is on a real emotional roller-coaster in the movie, catching a pop fly and winning the game one minute and getting hysterical over his lost retainer the next—but Fisher enjoyed the ride.

"That was the one thing, the crying scenes I actually thought were kinda cool, because I thought that was, like, real acting as a kid," Fisher told Snakkle in 2012 when the site got him and a few of his fellow young Buckmans together for the first time in 23 years.

Fisher scored roles in the subsequent kid-friendly but kinda scary movies The Witches and Hook before leaving the acting world. He played poker professionally in the '00s and, more recently, was working as a golf caddy in Florida.

Alisan Porter

Before starring in Curly Sue, Porter played Gil and Karen's daughter Taylor Buckman, who brought Ron Howard's vision to life in the projectile-vomiting scene—a "calculated, very strategic vomit," she described it to Snakkle.

Porter's family moved to Connecticut when she was 13. "It wasn't fun for me anymore," she said in 2015 on Oprah: Where Are They Now?, explaining why she quit Hollywood. "There was no joy in it for me...I just wanted to be doing 'normal' kid things. I went to high school, I had a boyfriend who was on the soccer team, I went to parties."

After graduating she moved to New York, landing roles in Footloose and A Chorus Line on Broadway. She released a self-titled album in 2009 and another in 2014 called Who We Are. Also in 2014, she opened up in a blog post on The Lil Mamas about addiction, revealing she had been sober since Oct. 28, 2007.

"When I decided to leave the business and become normal, you expect life to continue to be like that," she said on HuffPost Live. "Unfortunately, that's not how it works. You either learn how to cope with it, or you cope by using, and that's my story...But at the end of the day, all of us that struggle with addiction have a place to go, and I was lucky enough to find an amazing way out."

By then mom to daughter Aria and son Mason, Porter really re-burst onto the scene when she won The Voice in 2016. Christina Aguilera called her "an inspiration for everybody and anybody that literally has a dream and just wants a second chance."

Porter released an EP, I Come in Pieces, in 2018 and has been touring and working on a new album, Pink Cloud.

Asked about life as a working mom, Porter acknowledged to Worcester Magazine in July 2019, "It's hard. It's definitely a balancing act. It's putting all my eggs in one basket. If I'm mom I'm mom at home. If I'm recording, it's putting everything into that. But it can be crazy. Thank God for grandparents."

Zachary La Voy

At barely 3-years-old, Zachary played Justin Buckman, the youngest of all the fourth-generation Buckmans (until the eventual baby boom), famous for flaunting his bare backside, butting things with his head and storming the stage during the school play to defend his sister.

"I have never really been recognized because I'm not that cute little cherub anymore," La Voy told Snakkle in 2012. "I'm sort of this big man with burly facial hair."

The 6'2" Illinois native, picked out of several thousand cherubs at a national casting call, went on to have a normal life and now co-hosts the podcast Ranger Command Power Hour celebrating all things Power Rangers.

Dianne Wiest

One of Parenthood's two Oscar nominations (the other being for Randy Newman's original song "I Love to See You Smile") was for Wiest's supporting turn as Helen Buckman, the put-upon divorced mother of two whose son, Gary, keeps sneaking into his room with a mysterious paper bag while older daughter Julie refuses to break up with "that Tod."

Already a supporting actress Oscar winner for Hannah and Her Sisters, she picked up another in 1995 for Bullets Over Broadway, and then an Emmy for guest actress in a drama series for Road to Avonlea in 1997. Her resume, interspersed with theater work, also includes Edward ScissorhandsThe Birdcage and Practical Magic; she played the DA on Law & Order and a psychiatrist on In Treatment (winning another guest actress Emmy); and she just co-starred on CBS's Life in Pieces for four seasons.

Wiest noted to the New York Times in 2015 that all the movie roles she had been offered since the '90s were "a nice mom and that's it. That's all that ever came, except in theater."

Most recently she was earning her usual top-notch reviews starring in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

Wiest is also mom to two adopted daughters, Emily and Lily. Their godfather and her partner for three years in the 1980s, talent agent Sam Cohn, died in 2009. In 1987, after their breakup, she called him "one of the dearest men I'll ever know."

Martha Plimpton

The daughter of Keith Carradine (who she didn't meet until she was 6) and Shelley Plimpton played a defiant, vulnerable tomboy in her first film, 1984's The River Rat; notched up the attitude in The Goonies; and perfected all of it in Parenthood, playing Helen's daughter, Julie Buckman, who runs off and marries her bad-boy boyfriend, Tod, but inevitably returns home (with Tod) because she may be in love, but she's still in high school.

Her date to the Oscars in 1989 was then-boyfriend River Phoenix, her costar in The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty, both dramas about unraveling families. Phoenix died in 1993.

Asked about her indie-film-heavy career after the blockbuster that was Parenthood, Plimpton told The Believer in 2013, "That wasn't entirely my choice. By nature, I have been given an odd face. My face moves and does odd things when I express myself. That's not a great quality if you want to be an ingenue. An ingenue is a pretty girl who it's easy to project your emotions and fantasies onto. I come with baggage. I come with muscles in my face that move when I talk in ways that I'm not conscious of. I'm not a typical romantic lead. At that age, in movies, I was always going to be a character actress, because of biology and my face.

"This turned out to be a really good thing. At the time, I was frustrated by it because I wanted to play lead roles and do more complicated work, and at that time, in the 1980s and partially in the '90s, character work for women my age was nonexistent. I was always going to be the best friend—every line was a question. I was bored. My ego wouldn't allow it. I thought, F--k them. If they don't have the interest, then I don't want to be in their f--king movie."

Nevertheless, Plimpton has been ubiquitous on stage and screen for three decades. She was nominated for guest actress in a drama for Law & Order: SVU in 2002 and won in the category for The Good Wife in 2012. She was also nominated for a lead actress Emmy for the Fox sitcom Raising Hope, which ran for four seasons, on which she played the titular baby's grandmother, having had Hope's father at 16.

In June 2019, Plimpton headed to London's West End starring in Lynn Nottage's drama Sweat. The longtime activist is also a co-founder of the reproductive rights group A Is For.

Joaquin Phoenix

Fifteen-year-old Leaf Phoenix, who played Helen's porn-sneaking, troubled son Gary Buckman, who's craving a father figure since his own dad seems to have moved on? That's Joaquin Phoenix.

Though he was born Joaquin Rafael Bottom, he christened himself Leaf Phoenix as a child actor in the vein of older siblings Rain and River Phoenix. Sister Liberty was born Libertad, but otherwise all the other siblings' first names, including Summer, are their birth names.

Phoenix has enjoyed a prolific career since, his acting chops solid enough for him to survive his bizarre sojourn into living, breathing satire for his 2010 cinematic experiment I'm Still Here. Before that he was nominated for an Oscar for playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, for which he did his own singing and guitar playing, and since then he's been in one thought-provoking movie after another, including The Master (earning another Oscar nomination), HerInherent ViceIrrational ManYou Were Never Really HereThe Sisters Brothers and Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Next up, he's the latest to give maniacally grinning evil a whirl as the title villain in Joker, and in real life he's been living with Rooney Mara.

Keanu Reeves

The actor who played "that Tod," Julie Buckman's unpromising but at times surprisingly deep boyfriend, turned into one of the biggest movie stars in the world and one of pop culture's favorite puzzles.

And Tod, who turns out to be the perfect big-brother-type pal for Gary, still has one of the best lines in the whole movie: "You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming a--hole be a father."

Harley Jane Kozak

One of eight siblings and a mother of three in real life, Kozak plays Susan Merrick, sister of Gil, Helen and Larry and increasingly frustrated wife of Rick Moranis' Nathan, whom she famously leaves via flash card, a decade before Love Actually used the method a little differently.

Before Parenthood she was best known for the soap opera Santa Barbara, and also in 1989 she played Billy Crystal's more talked-about than seen ex-wife Helen in When Harry Met Sally. Kozak went on to act regularly throughout the '90s, most notably in ArachnophobiaNecessary RoughnessAll I Want for Christmas and numerous TV series.

She still acts occasionally but in the '00s she turned her attention to writing and is the author of the Wollie Shelley Mysteries series of novels, as well as 2013's Keeper of the Moon.

"I was always writing compulsively, but I never thought I'd do it professionally as I was in love with my acting career," Kozak told Mostly Fiction in 2009. "But somewhere in my mid-30's it began to change and the process of writing became more and more fun and also creatively fulfilling. At some point, writing my first novel overtook acting as my pastime of choice. I started by taking extension classes at a local college, and ended up at UCLA."

Rick Moranis

"Nathan and I... we were hot," Susan says of her pedantic professor husband as she laments how very not-hot they've become. 

After driving her away by being too much of a helicopter parent before there was such a thing, Nathan wins her back by singing "(They Long to Be) Close to You" in front of the summer school class she's teaching, showing the kids that the brainy guys with glasses get the girls too.

The multifaceted Canadian actor, an alum of SCTV and a musical theater star, had Parenthood; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Ghostbusters III; all come out in 1989. He reunited with Steve Martin for L.A. Story and My Blue Heaven; did Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (and the direct-to-video Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves); played Barney in The Flintstones and was a sensitive, peewee football-coaching single dad in Little Giants.

And then... Moranis largely retired from acting except for voice work, a lamentable fact that was revisited almost 20 years later when every other surviving star from the original Ghostbusters popped up in a cameo in the 2016 remake and he proved ungettable.

As it turned out, he had simply wanted to devote himself to raising his two kids. His wife, Ann Belsky, died of breast cancer in 1991 and, by 1997, after Big Bully with Tom Arnold came and went, he felt he could use a break anyway. He hadn't meant for his break to be permanent, but he didn't miss Hollywood.

"But I'm interested in anything that I would find interesting," Moranis told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "I still get the occasional query about a film or television role and as soon as one comes along that piques my interest, I'll probably do it. [The Ghostbusters remake] didn't appeal to me." (So far, he remains unattached to Ghostbusters 2020.)

IvyAnn Schwan

"I have a family, so I can relate to a lot of what's going on," Schwan told Snakkle about rewatching Parenthood as a parent herself. 

Also chosen out of thousands of kids from a casting call, she played precocious 5-year-old Patty, whose dad, Nathan, is trying his darndest to turn into a prodigy, causing a rift between him and wife Susan. Luckily Nathan agrees to ease up, because while Patty may know the whole periodic table, she cannot handle the disappearing-thumb trick.

Patty and Zach Le Voy were the only kids from the film who reprised their roles in the first attempt to turn Parenthood into a TV show, starring Ed Begley Jr. as the overwhelmed Gil Buckman and someone named Leonardo DiCaprio as the moody teen Gary.

Next up for the ice-skater and singer from Seattle, IvyAnn played Junior's match in Problem Child 2 and then she was a regular on Bill Nye the Science Guy. Returning to her first passion, she released her debut album, Daisies, at 14 years old in 1998—and turned down a tryout for the role that went to Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire because it offended her and her manager-mom Donna's religious values.

"I felt the story was sacrilegious and demonic," Donna told the Kitsap Sun in 1998.

These days, going by Instagram, Schwan is loving life as a mom in her native Pacific Northwest and she remains an avid horseback rider, another pastime she's enjoyed since she was a kid.

"Be prepared to give a lot of sacrifices and to work hard. Also be prepared for disappointment," IvyAnn told the Sun when she was 14. "If it's something you really want, you'll feel like you really need it."

Tom Hulce

Prodigal son Larry Buckman shows up at his parents' house out of the blue with no money and a surprise 6-year-old son named Cool in tow. When his local get-rich-quick schemes don't pan out, he takes off for Colombia.

Hulce, who also played a Larry in Animal House and was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the titular composer in the 1985 Best Picture winner Amadeus, is a much more upstanding guy. He was nominated for a Tony for his starring (Tom Cruise) role in the original Broadway production of A Few Good Men, voiced Quasimodo in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and won an Emmy for best supporting actor in a TV movie or miniseries for The Heidi Chronicles. After the '90s he mainly turned to producing for stage and screen, and accepted the 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical for Spring Awakening.

He also co-produced the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot, a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and the currently running Ain't Too Proud, which was nominated for 11 Tonys in 2019 and won Best Choreography.

"Living a fiction became less compelling, I guess," Hulce told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 about his initial transition from in front of to behind the camera. "I definitely became more intrigued with all the parts of storytelling and not just playing a part inside the story. I thought maybe directing might be the next thing." He called directing theater an "amazing experience," but "I found sitting in the rehearsal room, being so close to the work I had just stepped away from…I wanted to be completely out of the room. To do a play that had nine hours of material and 27 people and 125 scenes and so on, that was the beginning of my getting intrigued with the process of producing."

Alex Burrall

Cool arrives with his deadbeat dad Larry—the ne'er-do-well baby brother of the third generation—and ends up staying with his grandparents.

Burrall stopped acting in the 1990s, but not before he played 6-to-8-year-old Michael Jackson in the miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. He and Jason Weaver (the voice of young Simba in the animated The Lion King), who played a slightly older Jackson, won awards for Outstanding Young Performers Starring in a Mini-Series from the Young Artist Association. 

Jason Robards

Debating whether to bail his youngest son out again or not, gruff family patriarch Frank Buckman informs his eldest son, Gil, that parenting is "like your Aunt Edna's ass. It goes on forever and it's just as frightening."

After Parenthood, Robards, a two-time Oscar winner for Julia and All the President's Men, had memorable turns in PhiladelphiaThe PaperLittle Big LeagueBeloved and Magnolia before he died at the age of 78 in 2000. He was a father of six over the course of four marriages.

Eileen Ryan

A mother of four grown kids and married to Jason Robard's grumpy patriarch Frank, Marilyn Buckman doesn't have a lot of lines but if she looks familiar, that's because Ryan's a veteran stage and screen actress whose other movies since Parenthood include Benny & JoonMagnolia and 2016's Rules Don't Apply. You've also probably seen her on TV in the likes of Ally McBealERNYPD Blue, CSIGrey's Anatomy and HBO's Getting On.

Ryan is the widow of director Leo Penn, whose acting career was cut short when he was blacklisted for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the mother of Sean Penn and musician Michael Penn. Son Chris Penn died in 2006.

Helen Shaw

The actress who played Gil, Helen, Susan and Larry's wise elderly grandma enjoyed a short acting career as the requisite old lady in the likes of Twilight Zone: The MovieDiff'rent Strokes and Highway to Heaven. She lived till 100, passing away in 1997.

Howie Dorough

The future Backstreet Boy made his uncredited movie debut as a stunned summer school student who has a front-row seat to Nathan trying to win Susan back by serenading her with "Close to You" in front of the whole class.

These days Howie's a married father of two as well as a member of a platinum-selling boy band that in April 2019 was awarded the key to the city of Las Vegas upon the end of their two-year residency at Planet Hollywood.

Bryce Dallas Howard

Dad didn't forget to give credit where it was due. 

The star of Jurassic WorldThe HelpBlack Mirror and much more made the first of several appearances in her dad's films as an unnamed redhead who fully approves of the shenanigans ensuing at the school play.

Ron Howard

Not everything Howard has touched has turned to gold, but the odds are ever in his favor.

The onetime child star who successfully made it into adulthood starring on Happy Days and movies like American Graffiti before becoming one of the most prolific film and TV makers in the business is now a grandfather, but the youthful vigor remains.

A sampling of his films since Parenthood include Backdraft, Far and AwayApollo 13The PaperA Beautiful Mind (Oscar winner for Best Picture and Director), Cinderella ManThe Da Vinci Code and Rush. He's made documentaries about the Beatles and Pavarotti, executive-produced and narrated Arrested Development, and stepped in to finish Solo: A Star Wars Story. Next up, he's directing an adaptation of another bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, and turning the 1988 fantasy Willow into a series for Disney+.

Talking to the New York Times in May 2019, Howard summed up his storied career: "I'm getting paid to have an adventure."

"Parenthood is a project that I really cherish," Howard told Collider in 2010. "It's a great memory. It was a great creative experience. To this day, it's probably the most personal film or story that I've ever really been involved with. And so, it's something that I hold near and dear."

Asked why he didn't think it worked as a TV sitcom in 1990, he acknowledged it was a "misguided" project at the time. "It didn't work and, in my mind, it didn't live up to the potential of all the stories and characters, as they existed in the movie," Howard said.

He gave his blessing to the 2010 NBC drama, which went on to last for six seasons and emotionally destroy everyone who invested in the Bravermans, because he felt his baby was in good hands with Friday Night Lights executive producer Jason Katims.

"It's about the unbelievable ups and downs of parenting, the absurdity of it, the pain of it and also, significantly to me, the nobility of it. But, it's also just about being responsible and being in a family," Howard observed. "That always creates great suspense and great drama, and that was the thing that Jason started talking about."

Just like Grandma, we like the roller coaster.

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