PCA Spotlight: Donnie Wahlberg

Donnie Wahlberg is kinda like Reese Peanut Butter Cups.  Why?  Well let me explain.

Donnie Wahlberg circa 1990 - tough guy or poser? Who would have guessed behind the rat tail and ear ring would be a hell of an actor?

Sometimes the world of pop culture has its ironies.  I think back to 1989, as a ninth grader just surviving my first year of high school, looking at the music scene and feeling nothing but a surefire hatred for one band – The New Kids on the Block.  The five boys from Boston had the right stuff to make the girls scream, and make the boys puke.  It’s a musical rivalry between boys and teen idols that has existed through the generations – from Elvis Presely to Justin Beiber.  Amongst these pretty boys of questionable musical talent was Donnie Wahlberg in the roll of “the bad boy”.  Donnie was like a rebel without a clue with his wanna-be gangster clothes and his hard assed antics; ranging from trashing hotel rooms to falling off the stage.   Donnie wanted to be a tough guy in a cream puff pop world, but how could anybody really be hanging tough when they were in a boy band?  I mean really?

Well the joke’s on me.  You win, Donnie Wahlberg.  You win.

Donnie Wahlberg as Danny Regan on "Blue Bloods." Within the last twenty years Donnie has successfully transformed himself into a TV tough guy. Who would have thought it?

Having just completed watching the first season of Donnie Wahlberg’s new TV series Blue Bloods, I gotta say that Donnie Wahlberg has turned into one tough bastard.  Who would have guessed that this former New Kid would turn into one of TV’s coolest tough guys?  As Danny Reagan, oldest son of a clan of generational New York City police officers, Donnie busts heads and crosses lines with his own hard edged brand of justice.  Long gone is the rat tail and single earring from his New Kids days.  Now Donnie Wahlberg is a “guy’s guy”.  Remember when you claimed with unrealistic confidence that you could kick the New Kids on the Block’s asses?  Think again, pal.  You don’t want to see Donnie Wahlberg’s fist coming at you.

So when did Donnie Wahlberg become such a talented actor?  Truth is, even before the music thing that made him a star in the late 1980s, Donnie was involved in all aspects of theatre, from acting to directing, during his Boston days.  The eighth of nine children from an Irish-American Catholic family, Donnie was prone to getting into trouble, but theater was an outlet which kept him off the streets and, eventually, lead him to early success with the New Kids on the Block.  However, it wasn’t until the New Kids fell apart in the 1990′s that Donnie decided to change gears and take acting seriously.  Obviously inspired by his brother Mark Wahlberg’s successful career as an actor, Donnie made his first film appearance in Mickey Rourke’s 1996 low budget vehicle Bullet playing a thug with the moniker Big Balls.  Donnie upped his presence as an actor later that year by playing kidnapper Cubby Barnes in Mel Gibson’s Ransom.  Immediately typecast as thugs and hoodlums, Donnie Wahlberg was gaining a reputation as being a surefire actor, but was unable to escape both the huge shadow of his brother, and the unappealing stigma of being a former New Kid on the Block.

Donnie shocked audiences in the role of Vincent Grey in 1999's Academy Award winning film "The Sixth Sense"

It was in 1999 that Donnie finally took the risk that made the world stand up and take notice of his ability as an actor when he made an unexpected and powerful appearance in M Night Shyamalan’s Academy Award winning film The Sixth Sense, in the role of Vincent Grey.  Originally intended to be played by a thirteen year old, Shyamalan met with Wahlberg when he was seeking theatrical rights to one of the director’s scripts.  Impressed with Donnie, Shyamalan cast him in the small but key role.  Stripped down to his underwear and totally vulnerable, Donnie’s performance of Vincent was a side of the actor that audiences had never seen before.  The shock of his terror and paranoia resonated as they said “Was that Donnie Wahlberg?  Holy crap!”  It was the first time that the mass public had taken notice of Donnie as an actor, and he left a powerful impression.

Donnie Wahlberg as C. Carwood Lipton in HBO's Emmy Award Winning mini-series "Band of Brothers"

A year later Donnie was cast in his first TV series, Big Apple.  A CBS cop series, the show didn’t even last a dozen episodes, despite heavy hitters Ed O’Neil and Michael Madsen as the stars of the series.  However, the cancellation of Big Apple opened the doors for Donnie to appear in the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series Band of Brothers.  With Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks amongst the men who developed the historically accurate WWII drama, Band of Brothers was nominated for nineteen Emmy Awards, and won six.   Furthermore, the cast of primarily unknown actors produced what would become the most sought out commodities in Hollywood.  Naturally Donnie Wahlberg, as C. Carwood Lipton, would be amongst them.

Donnie was quickly picked up again for another crime series, NBC’s Boomtown.  With revolving storylines around all aspects of a single crime, Donnie starred as Detective Joel Stevens who, in many ways, was a prototype of sorts for Danny Reagan.  Unfortunately, NBC gave up on the series too soon and Boomtown was cancelled after a season and a half.  But by this time Donnie Wahlberg had successfully reinvented himself from boy band singer to leading man and tough guy.  Much like Frank Sinatra had transformed his teen idol image to a symbol of masculinity and machoism when he took the role of Maggio in From here to Eternity, Donnie Wahlberg was now a guy who would bust your chops as quickly as he’d bust your head.

Donnie Wahlberg hunts the psychotic Jigsaw as Detective Eric Matthews in "Saw II." Also appearing in the following two sequels of the hit horror franchise, Wahlberg proved himself to a new fanbase of horror buffs

Donnie would go on to play another police detective in the sequels to the blockbuster horror film Saw.  As Detective Eric Matthews, Donnie Wahlberg gives a tense performance as a detective trying to hunt down the disturbed killer Jigsaw who holds his son captive.  The most successful horror franchise of the current century, Donnie’s appearance in Saw II, III and IV introduced and endeared him to a new type of audience, helping him maintain his credibility as an actor.  However, it was painfully clear that Donnie was now typecast in the role of a tough city cop.  But when something works, then sometimes you just have to run with it, and Donnie has been smart enough to do just  that.

Despite the talented ensemble cast of "Blue Bloods," including (left to right) Will Estes, Len Cariou, Tom Selleck and Bridget Moynahan, there is little doubt that Donnie Wahlbrg is the true star of the show

A number of forgettable films, as well as two more failed TV series (Kill Point and Runaway) followed Donnie’s appearances in the Saw films.  Finally, in the fall of 2010, Donnie took the role of Police Detective Danny Reagan in Blue Bloods.  With Tom Selleck as the star power to the series, Donnie plays his oldest son who has an incredibly “liberal” view of the way justice should be handed out.  Yet, even with Selleck’s larger than life presence looming over the series, it is no question just who Blue Bloods belongs to.  Although Blue Bloods consists of an excellent ensemble cast, the episodic crime plots revolve around Donnie Wahlberg and his partner, Detective Jackie Curatola, played by Jennifer Esposito.  Receiving most of the lines and screen time, Donnie Wahlberg has become the breakout star of Blue Bloods, which became a critical success, naturally moving into an upcoming second season for the fall of 2011.

How is Donnie Wahlberg like a Reese Peanut Butter Cup? Because women find him yummy and guys want to bring him to a bar fight? No...thats not right....

But despite his new career as one of TV’s tough guy heroes, Donnie Wahlberg has not turned his back on where he came from.  With the pop culture of the 1990’s having a resurgence of interest, it was inevitable that The New Kids on the Block would reunite again.  In 2008 Donnie rejoined Joey, Jordan, Danny and Jon for a successful reunion tour and has been touring every summer since.  In fact, this summer NKOTB is touring with their second wave counterparts The Backstreet Boys.  Donnie has not allowed his tough guy image to completely go to his head and can still be seen in concert halls across North America singing such pop hits as The Right Stuff and Step by Step.  But are you going to make fun of him for it?  God knows I’m not; because I know the truth.  Donnie Wahlberg can kick my ass, and probably the asses of most of the people I know.  He’s a boy band singer and a TV tough guy.  Donnie Wahlberg is a true contradiction and has an audience appeal unlike most pop culture icons.  That’s why he’s like a Reese Peanut Butter Cup.  Like chocolate and peanut butter, you wouldn’t think the two things go together, but apparently they do.

  1. Lisa’s avatar

    Great article! I’ve been a fan of Donnie’s from the start.

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