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O's a great escape for 'Houdini' actor Movies: Johnathon Schaech is hot in Hollywood. But local product is always listening for the buzz on Baltimore.


Johnathon Schaech has it all: A starring role in TNT's new film "Houdini," a beautiful actress girlfriend, and all the buzz in Hollywood as the next "it" actor.

But what the Maryland native wants may be more difficult than any of the death-defying stunts he recently performed as the famed magician: for the Orioles to regain some of their lost powerhouse players.

"We lost Palmeiro," groaned the 29-year-old actor during a telephone interview from the New York set of his new independent film, "Who's On First." "I'm literally all over the world, in Italy, Japan and everywhere else on the globe, but I always know what's going on with the Orioles."

Not an easy feat for a man who has been in 14 feature films in the past five years and who has very little time free time. With his sultry good looks and roles in 1995's "How to Make an American Quilt" opposite Winona Ryder and the Tom Hanks-directed drama "That Thing You Do!" in 1996, Schaech has been labeled a hot, young heartthrob to watch.

With a shy chuckle, Schaech deflects talk about himself as a sex symbol. After all, he was a bit on the small side as a teen-ager, though he was an enthusiastic athlete at Edgewood High School, wrestling and playing lacrosse.

"I was a 98-pound wrestler," said Schaech laughing. "My senior year, I shot up and gained weight, and I remember my coach looking up in the sky like, 'Thank God.' "

His now-toned 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame can be seen in the just-released Australian film "Welcome to Woop Woop," as well as on Sunday on TNT in "Houdini." Playing master illusionist Harry Houdini proved to be physically challenging for Schaech, who performed his own stunts.

At one point, Schaech said, he had to be pulled from a tank of water when he lost air after spitting out a mouth full of fake blood. "The thing is that Houdini only had to get it right once," Schaech said. "I had to do it over and over again until we got the take right."

If there were frightening moments for Schaech, there were even more for his parents, who sometimes visited the set. Joanne Schaech said she and her husband, Joseph, a retired Baltimore City police officer, were on the edge of their seats during filming.

"Watching him hang upside down in a straitjacket three stories up, that was hard," said Mrs. Schaech, who works as a director for Comsort, a health-education firm in Baltimore. "Seeing your child like that was very frightening."

She said she is very proud of her son, who left the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1990, just three months shy of obtaining his degree in economics to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting. It was at UMBC where he first took a theater class and was bitten by the acting bug.

Ever since Schaech climbed out of the pool to woo Winona Ryder in "How to Make an American Quilt," his family has had a crash course in "Having a Famous Relative 101." Mrs. Schaech said people often make the connection between her and her sexy son when she least expects it.

"I was at Hecht's once, and the young woman ringing me up looked at my charge card and said, 'Would you happen to know Johnathon Schaech?' " his mother recalled. "I said 'Uh-huh,' and she said, 'Well, how do you know him?' I said 'I'm his mother,' and she said, 'Oh, I think I'm going to faint.'

"I said, 'Please don't, just ring me up and let me go,' " Mrs. Schaech said, laughing.

Schaech will next be seen in the upcoming "Finding Graceland," in which he starred opposite Harvey Keitel. Schaech said he feels fortunate to have worked with such actors as Jessica Lange, who played his mother in this year's "Hush," and Tom Hanks, who directed him in "That Thing You Do!"

"I've worked very hard to get where I am, and people have treated me well," Schaech said. "Tom Hanks is a great guy, even though he's an [Cleveland] Indians fan."

Schaech said that as much as he enjoys working, his dream is to be able to settle down in Baltimore and give his parents a few more grandchildren (his 31-year-old sister Renee has two kids). For the past year, he has been dating actress Christina Applegate, of "Married With Children" and the new sitcom "Jesse."

His family is very close-knit, Schaech said, and his sister works as his personal assistant. Returning to Maryland would enable ,, him to be closer to his friends and family. It would also allow him to keep closer tabs on his favorite Oriole, Cal Ripken Jr., who shares Schaech's birthplace of Harford County.

"Coming back home is a really big dream of mine," said Schaech, who visits as often as his schedule allows.

"It would be great if I could have work and be close to home."

Are there any "Homicide" casting directors out there listening?


When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.; repeats midnight to 2 a.m.

Where: TNT

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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