In January, Eli Baker was a sixth-grader in Glastonbury, playing on soccer and lacrosse teams and auditioning for stage, film and television roles.
Two months later, the 11-year-old was filming a NBC television pilot, "Growing Up Fisher," that will be a midseason series to be launched after the Winter Olympics in February.
This week he meets the press to promote the show, then return for a relative period of calm while adjusting to seventh grade, before heading to Los Angeles Dec. 2 where he will spend four months filming the first season's episodes.
The series has a solid showbiz pedigree: Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development") as executive producer and narrator; David Schwimmer ("Friends") as director and DJ Nash ("Up All Night," "Guys with Kids") as writer of the show, which is based on his youth when he acted as a loving guide for his strong-willed and independent blind father. Eli plays that lead character in the series opposite J.K. Simmons ("The Closer," "Law & Order," "Oz") as his father and Jenna Elfman ("Dharma and Greg") as his mother.
The speediness of events during the past year-and-a-half — and especially the last few months — has stunned his family but they're not surprised that Eli has found himself in the spotlight.
"Since I as 2, I always wanted to sing and dance," says Eli from his family's home where lives with his parents, Jessie and David Baker, and two older sisters Eden, 13 and Bailey, 18, and their labradoodle Hazel. "It was always a big part of my life ."
Now it's a big part of his family's life, too.
"It's almost an out-of-body experience," says mother Jessie Baker of the events of the past few months. "Just earlier this year Eli was singing the national anthem at the XL Center in Hartford and we were thinking, 'This is the biggest deal ever to sing before a hockey game.' Then two months later he is filming a television pilot. It's weird, crazy, surreal."
Agent For Hanukkah
But for Eli, it's part of his own private Hollywood.
"Since I was four on every Hanukkah I asked my parents for an agent," says Eli, a young, thoroughly at-ease charmer looking J. Press-neat in a crisp jean shirt, bright orange belt and khakis.
Eli's first foray in the arts was when he started taking dance lessons at age 3 1/2.
"It was not the cool thing for a little boy to be dancing," says Jessie Baker, "but he told his friends on his soccer and hockey teams that he didn't care, that this is what he liked to do."
When he was 5 years old, Eli became the youngest member to join BackBeat City in Glastonbury, a music and arts training academy for youngsters where he further developed his performing chops. But he got a taste of the larger entertainment world when he spent two summers at Camp Broadway in New York that offers classes and workshiops for kids interested in musical theater.
"From my first day there, I knew this was what I wanted to do when I grow up."
It was there that his mother was urged to audition Eli for Broadway's "Mary Poppins", which was holding casting calls in the same building where Camp Broadway was located.
"But it was Eli," says his mother, "Who said, 'I'm not ready yet. I still want to be a normal kid.' "
His mother also knew Eli needed further professional guidance and through a friend he connected with Michael Lamb of South Windsor, a noted theatrical coach for children. Over the next year Lamb helped train Eli on the art of performing — and auditioning. He also suggested Eli get stage experience and at the end of 2011, Eli joined the cast of Hartford Stage's "A Christmas Carol."
Hartford Stage director Max Williams and Hartt School professor Robert Davis, who was also in the cast, encouraged Eli's mother "to do something with this kid." When she learned of local auditions for Goodspeed's "Mame," the entire family piled in the car and went to East Haddam.
"We told him even if you get cast as a tree," says his mother, "that's a big deal because this is Goodspeed."
Eli went into the rehearsal room, sang "Electricity" from the musical "Billy Elliot" — with an English accent — and "Gary, Indiana" from "The Music Man."
"Before he even started to sing, he had this great big smile," says Goodspeed music director Michael O'Flaherty in a phone interview recalling the audition. "Then he showed the goods and that's when you just go, 'Wow,' and you just know. Eli was also so comfortable and looked like he knew exactly what he's doing and that's so rare in a child."
"He comes out of the building," says his mother, " and he has this pile of pages — I didn't even know they were called 'sides' — and he says, 'Mom, I have to learn these lines and go back in 10 minutes.' So he sits down and memorizes them and then in 10 minutes he goes back in. A little later they call me in — it felt just like 'American Idol' and Michael O'Flaherty asks me, 'Are you ready for this?' I said, 'Ready for what?' "
The next step was for Eli to go to New York where Goodspeed was auditioning children — many of them already seasoned performers from the casts of shows such as "Billy Elliot" and "Mary Poppins" — for the key role of young Patrick in the musical. Eli was cast in a smaller role but also as understudy for the role of Patrick. "This was so much better than a tree," says his mother.
But when the young actor playing Patrick became sick one day midway through the rehearsal period Eli filled in and so impresed the creative team they decided Eli should have the role.
"He felt terrible for this little boy," says his mother. "I asked them couldn't they split the role? And they said — and I'll never forget this as long as I live — Jessie, it's show biz. Get over it.'
For the first two weeks of performances, Eli felt exhausted and sick but persevered. "He was non-Equity so he was working 16-hour days doing eight shows a week but he loved every single minute of it or else I would have pulled him off the stage."
"It was a dream come true to me," says Eli. "It was better than I thought it would be, having the audience clap specifically for you. As soon as one show was over I couldn't wait for the next."
During the run of "Mame," Baker also started auditioning for other shows in New York, was a finalist for the role of Randy in Broadway's "A Christmas Story," and was sought but deemed too short for a role in "Matilda." After the run in "Mame" he got a role in a stage reading and a short film.
In January, the Bakers heard that NBC was auditioning for the TV pilot but the role was for a 14-year-old. But his agent — Eli finally got his wish — convinced the Bakers to submit a videotape on a Thursday in January.
On Friday, the family went on a skiing trip when Eli's agent called to say the TV producers loved the tape. That night there was another call — they wanted Eli to fly Sunday to Los Angeles to audition in person.
"When he found out he started crying because his emotions overwhelmed him. He was happy. He was scared. He said, 'What does that mean? What am I supposed to do now?"
"But I was also psyched," adds Eli.
On Saturday, he finished up the short movie he was filming and the next day they were off to L.A.
"We had Saturday morning to Sunday to review an 18-page, seven-year contract that we had to sign and the clock is ticking," says Eli's mother. "And we're both lawyers." (Jesse Baker was a trial attorney and now does pro bono work. David Baker is chief compliance officer and group general counsel for The Travelers Companies, Inc.
Also on deck for the role were three other young actors "with way more experience and one had a starring role in major film."
But unknown to the Bakers was a startling fact: The creator of the show had originally named the leading young character "Eli Baker." (Network execs asked for a change because the dog in the series was named Elvis and the names "Eli" and "Elvis" were seen as too similar." Eli's character is now Henry Fisher.)
After Eli and his mother returned to Connecticut on that Thursday, Eli got the call.
"I was kind of suspicious when everyone in the family took out their iPhones to videotape the call. The call went, 'Hey, Eli, this is David and DJ,' I said 'Hey' back and I asked what was going on. They said they were looking for a 14-year-old kid but…I got the part instead."
"He fell on the floor he was in shock,' says his mother.
Then they learned they had to be back in California on Monday for a month to start filming the pilot.
"We had one day to arrange his schooling and I didn't know how [the school administration] was going to take it. But they were jumping for joy and the kids in school gave him a huge send-off in the hallways. It was unbelievable."
Eli spent March filming the pilot script, which his character is featured in 28 of the 30 pages.
By the end of the month Eli was back in Connecticut and life continued as before with school, sports, family activities — and auditions because to make a pilot is one thing; to sell it to the network is quite something else. And if the network does pick it up as a series, there's no guarantee that Eli would still be in the cast. (Parker Posey was replaced by Elfman.)
In May, the producers called to say the show got the go from the network.
"It's such a huge deal and a once in a lifetime experience," says Eli. "It's such an unlikely experience for anybody that I didn't know how to react to it. I am excited and happy this happened to me and I hope it happens again."
Says David Baker: "I think it's great. Eli works very hard, he's a great kid and if he's happy, we're happy. Just as we have the expectation for him to stay normal, we have to remain the same people too."
Jessie Baker says she was worried about her daughters. "But our kids were so awesome all through this. And they're so good with their brother and they're so proud of him, too. They're very close. They were the ones who calmed me down."
Shooting begins in December and for four months Eli will be going back and forth between coasts. He will be tutored in California by the teacher who instructed Fred Savage on "The Wonder Years."
"I knew when this happened it would be setting my life in acting," he says. "This will help be the bridge to really be an actor when I grow up."
The Bakers got a taste of what was to come when they attended a recent Red Carpet event to promote the series.
"There were people in the crowd yelling his name and I'm thinking how do they even know his name yet?," says Eli's father.
"That event was overwhelming," says Eli's mother "and for the first time Eli has 'handlers' so it wasn't his mom handling him anymore. I started crying and Eli saw this and leaves an interview with a reporter from E! and walks over to me, grabs my hand and says, 'I'm OK., Mom. It's going to be OK. I love you and I promise you I won't change.' And then he went back."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun