THE NEW YORK-BORN EMMY WINNER WAS A MERE 11 YEARS OLD WHEN HE MADE HIS TV DEBUT, KICKING OFF A WILD, FOUR-DECADE CAREER OF HIGHS, LOWS, AND COUNTLESS LAUGHS. THIS YEAR, HE JOINS A ROCKSTAR CAST IN THE HOTLY ANTICIPATED MICHAEL JORDAN BIODRAMA AIR
BY WILL HARRIS
Some actors find so much success during the periods of their career when they’re in the spotlight that it’s easy to forget that they’ve endured some less-than-spectacular times as well. That might be an imprecise way of summing up Jason Bateman’s years as a twentysomething, but when you take a look back at his life during that era, it also isn’t an entirely inaccurate assessment of what he was going through back then. In Bateman’s case, however, he went through his rough patches in a way that precious few former child stars manage to pull off: not only did he never fully go off the rails, but he never really went away, either. Truly, it was a Hollywood tightrope walk for the ages.
Born in Rye, New York, on January 14, 1969, Jason Kent Bateman was four years old when his family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, after which they made their way to California. Within a year of stepping in front of the camera for the first time in 1980 for a Golden Grahams commercial, Bateman secured a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie as James, an orphan boy who was adopted by the Ingalls family.
But it was his next role – the smarmy, smart-alecky Derek on Silver Spoons – that first gave him the opportunity to showcase the comedic chops that would serve him so well in the future. This led Bateman to his first starring role in the short-lived (but fondly remembered) sitcom It’s Your Move, and while it only lasted for one season, it helped him secure his long-running role in Valerie, which – after contract disputes with star Valerie Harper – eventually evolved into The Hogan Family. In addition to providing Bateman with gainful prime-time employment from 1986 to 1991, it also served as the first opportunity for him to step behind the camera and direct. As it happens, it also made him the youngest person ever to direct for TV at that time. “I don’t know if that record still stands,” Bateman admitted in a March 2014 interview with KQED Pop. “When I directed The Hogan Family, the Guild called and said I beat Malcolm Jamal Warner by a few months and Spielberg by a couple more months.” [Ironically, the record was broken only a few months after that conversation, when 16-year-old Leo Howard directed an episode of the Disney XD series Kickin’ It.]
After The Hogan Family went off the air, Bateman continued to secure regular work on the small screen, but when he wasn’t working, he was very much taking advantage of whatever opportunities he had to play. “It was like Risky Business for ten years: my parents were out of town, they left me a bunch of money, the car, and the house, and I didn’t know when they were coming home,” Bateman told Details in 2009. “I’d worked so hard that by the time I was 20, I wanted to play hard. And I did that really well.” The problem, of course, was that his vices led to a change in his priorities, which in turn resulted in less focus on his career. “Having thought, ‘This is really fun,’ and staying at the party a little bit too long, I’d lost my place in line in the business,” Bateman told The Guardian in 2022. “It was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the ‘90s, and not getting a lot of great responses.” Mind you, it probably didn’t help that, through no fault of his own, his TV gigs during this window – Simon (1995-1996, The WB); Chicago Sons (1997, NBC); George and Leo (1997-1998, CBS); and Some of My Best Friends (2001, CBS) – consistently lasted only a single season before being kicked to the curb. Worst of all, however, was the fate of his 2002 NBC series The Jake Effect, which was pulled by the network before even airing a single episode.
Thankfully, Arrested Development arrived in 2003, which began the process of turning Bateman’s fortunes around in a big way. Indeed, when describing the Fox sitcom at the 2013 Television Critics Association press tour, Bateman said, “This is obviously the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done in my career, for my career, the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything in my career, the people I love the most in my career.”
Arrested Development certainly served to raise his profile in a major way, finally putting him back into the mix for movie roles and resulting in his inclusion in a wide variety of projects over the course of the next couple of years, including romantic comedies (The Break-Up, The Ex), action films (The Kingdom, Hancock), and the award-winning Juno. By 2009, Bateman was starting to score leading roles in films like Extract, The Switch, and The Change-Up, and in 2013 he secured the gig he’d been after for several years: directing his first feature film, Bad Words, in which he also starred. For the past decade, Bateman has been spending almost as much time behind the camera as he has in front of it, earning considerable accolades for his work in both capacities on the Netflix series Ozark. In fact, although his new film Air is one where he’s solely serving as an actor, it’s evident that he’s going to be bouncing back and forth between acting and directing for the long haul. “I still love acting, but I think I may love directing even more,” he told Variety in 2022. “A lot of that has to do with everything that I’ve been able to absorb as an actor over 40-some years. You watch what everybody is doing on the set to create what the audience is enjoying, and the actor is just a part of that, but a director gets to play with every department including the acting side. I’m just enjoying a more 360-degree view. Acting is still enjoyable, but I’m a bit of a hedonist and right now directing is where I’m getting the most pleasure. But nothing is more exciting than directing and acting.”