Brendan Fraser Credits Matt Damon With Landing Him His First Leading Role

Over the years, there have been several launching-pad movies, where the casting edict is to find as many fresh young faces as possible rather than lean on established star power. In 1955, "Rebel Without a Cause" assembled a number of exciting performers in James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. Nearly 30 years later, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders" served up a smorgasbord of rising stars in C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise. And in 1993, director Robert Mandel brought together a company of future stars via the crackling drama "School Ties."

Though many of the actors in "School Ties" had popped up here and there in smaller roles, Mandel's drama about a Jewish student contending with antisemitism at a Massachusetts boarding school in 1959 was the movie where they got to show off their considerable chops. Ben Affleck, Cole Hauser and Chris O'Donnell (who should've broken out in Paul Brickman's depressingly underseen "Men Don't Leave") all make a significant impression, but the stand-out performances are given by Brendan Fraser (as the persecuted David Greene) and Matt Damon (as the viciously hateful Charlie Dillon). Though their characters are bitterly at odds by the end of the movie, Fraser found working with Damon to be a wonderful experience. In fact, he might not have landed the role had he auditioned with someone else.

Fraser followed Damon's lead

In a 25th anniversary oral history for Entertainment Weekly, Mandel recalls being impressed by Fraser's physicality. According to the director, "We liked him because he felt other than everybody else. He was a little taller, a little bigger. He was not Jewish, but he felt 'other than.'" The lead role was obviously coveted by most of the young actors who read for the film, but Mandel believed that, on appearance alone, Fraser would have a more difficult time fitting in than the others.

Still, Fraser had to nail the audition before the filmmakers felt comfortable moving forward with him as David. Per Fraser, this is where his soon-to-be-co-star imbued him with the confidence to play the part.

"I was wearing an awful shirt by today's standards. I read with Matt Damon. I got the job because of Matt. I believed everything that came out of his mouth. I remember having this moment of thinking, 'Just match [his] pitch. Don't put curlicues on this. Don't swing for the fences.' I felt great after that. I had so much admiration for him."

A box office bomb that launched the stars of tomorrow

"School Ties" received a mixed reception from critics when it hit theaters on September 11, 1992. Though Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert turned their thumbs upward for the film, The New York Times' Janet Maslin and The Los Angeles Times' Peter Rainer found it too tidy and predictable. Audiences gave the movie an "A-" Cinemascore, but Paramount doomed it with a hesitant 500-screen opening. If the plan was to generate positive word-of-mouth, it failed miserably. "School Ties" tanked and was quickly squeezed out of theaters.

The movie finally found its audience on cable, where it became a reliable programmer. Finally, the performances of Fraser, Damon and the rest of the cast were able to shine. "School Ties" may lack for nuance, but its blunt portrayal of antisemitism in the rarefied air of a top prep school proves incredibly effective. And why should a film like this paint in shades of gray when the societal sickness at its core is still rampant today? It's a fine work powered by genuine performances from a bunch of nobodies who became big-time somebodies in very short order.