Free Willy is a significant cultural landmark for children who grew up in the 1990s. The environmentally aware, family-friendly movie about a troubled orphan child who bonds with and eventually frees a caged whale named Willy Keiko, its cast became stars, and two sequels (a direct-to-DVD episode that’s better left forgotten) were released. They captivated the hearts of children everywhere.
Free Willy continues to motivate young audiences almost 25 years later, but what happened to the cast? Here’s what they’ve been up to since filming Willy.
Lori Petty – Rae
In Free Willy, Lori Petty had already received many credits when she began working with aquatic species as marine biologist Rae. After two career-defining performances in Point Break and A League of Their Own, Petty was on a roll. Free Willy gave her career another boost, and a few years later, the main part in Tank Girl transformed her into a cult figure.
Except when opportunities dwindled, Petty had little choice except to work on small, low-budget independent films and TV guest appearances on series like Star Trek Voyager and NYPD Blue. After studying Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow because she was interested in directing, Petty developed and directed The Poker House in 2008, starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence.
The movie premised at the Los Angeles Film Festival, got various reviews, some praising its intensely intimate and challenging subject matter.
On the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, Petty is presently playing Lolly Whitehill, a paranoid, schizophrenic prisoner who is a fan favorite.
Jayne Atkinson – Annie Greenwood
When Jayne Atkinson played foster mother Annie Greenwood in the film Free Willy, she already had experience playing sympathetic mothers. Atkinson is an English-born, Connecticut-raised actor.
She acted as the matriarch Karen Buckman in the 1990 TV series Parenthood, which aired for just one season, and as a new mother named Lindley Eisenberg in the drama series A Year in the Life on NBC before appearing in the family film.
She then played another mother in Blank Check after the success of Free Willy, and then she returned to Free Willy 2.
Atkinson began her career in theater and continues to perform frequently on and off Broadway and in significant regional shows. She and her husband met in 1989 while costarring in The Heiress at the Long Wharf Theatre. She has received two nominations for the Tony Award for Best Actress.
Despite appearing in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and the Oscar-winning drama Syriana, the majority of her screen time since Free Willy 2 has been spent on television, where she has had prominent roles on 24 and Criminal Minds in addition to her current starring role as Secretary of State Cathy Durant in Netflix’s critically acclaimed political drama House of Cards.
Michael Madsen – Glen Greenwood
It’s easy to assume that Michael Madsen was the Free Willy cast member with the most recognition, aside from co-star Lori Petty. By the time he played mechanic foster parent Glen Greenwood in Free Willy, the astoundingly busy actor had already made a splash as Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and romanced Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise.
He returned for Free Willy 2 but declined to do Free Willy 3 in favor of other projects, even though he was glad to have the Free Willy movies to “balance out” his evil people.
The older sibling of actor Virginia Madsen and a native of Chicago, Madsen has over 35 years of regularly producing films and TV guest appearances and currently has about 300 credits.
Madsen worked with Tarantino again on Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 and The Hateful Eight. He also featured in the stylish Sin City, played a mafioso opposite Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco, and briefly participated in the Bond movie Die Another Day with his neighbor and friend Pierce Brosnan. Even though many of his movies are undoubtedly of B-movie caliber, the actor continues working and sells his hot sauces.
Michael Ironside – Dial
Michael Ironside conforms to the “working actor” stereotype like his Free Willy co-star Michael Madsen. The seasoned character actor has built a successful career playing antagonists like Free Willy’s Dial in films like David Cronenberg’s Scanners, Top Gun, Extreme Prejudice, and sci-fi classic Total Recall.
Despite frequently portraying fatally injured characters, Ironside’s phone keeps ringing with job opportunities. Since Free Willy, he has continued to work steadily, appearing on ER, Desperate Housewives, Starship Troopers, Smallville, and X-Men: First Class. According to his IMDb biography, he currently has nine projects in various production stages.
Richard Riehle – Wade
Even if you don’t know Richard Riehle’s name, you probably know who he is. Free Willy is just one of many supporting parts played by the character actor throughout his over 40-year career and more than 350 film and television appearances.
To complete the credits he required to graduate from college, he stumbled into performing his senior year, and as a result, he ended up attending graduate school for theater.
His career has been built on playing the hulking, mustachioed supporting character in a long list of shows and movies, including The West Wing, Ally McBeal, The Fugitive, Martin Scorsese’s mob drama Casino, Lethal Weapon 4, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, and even as Ed Rooney in a TV series adaptation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His big break came as the Quartermaster in Glory opposite Matthew Broderick.
He played the charming IT guy Tom Smykowski in the cult comedy Office Space and romanced Jill Clayburgh as the mechanic Bill Cozbi in Kristen Wiig’s 2011 blockbuster comedy Bridesmaids.
Riehle has a busy schedule in front of the camera and on stage, where he has performed both off and on Broadway. With more than a dozen projects in the works, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. He stated in his alumni magazine that “When I work, I feel great, and that doesn’t even have to stop.”
Mykelti Williamson – Dwight
The character of Dwight in Free Willy wasn’t the first cop that Mykelti Williamson played. He had previously starred in a significant supporting role on Hill Street Blues. He had small roles as a police officer in the horror film The First Power and the television film Police Story: Monster Manor. His performance in Free Willy was followed by his career-defining performance as the endearing shrimp boat captain Bubba in Forrest Gump.
Williamson went on a tear, appearing in ’90s classics Heat, Waiting to Exhale, Con-Air, and Primary Colors after returning as Dwight in Free Willy 2. He has continued to keep himself active in television series like 24 and CSI: NY.
Williamson has been an actor for over 50 years, but before appearing in Forrest Gump, he worked as a contractor on the side for ten years, rebuilding kitchens and bathrooms.
He enjoys working a second job because he founded and markets his brand of cooking spices called BubbaStyle. Williamson most recently worked again with his Broadway co-stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis for the Oscar-winning Fences movie in 2016.
August Schellenberg – Randolph Johnson
Aside from Richter, August Schellenberg, a Canadian-born actor, was the only other actor to appear in all three Free Willy films. Before his breakthrough role in Free Willy, Schellenberg had been a consistent worker for decades in film and television in both the United States and Canada.
He had voiced characters in The Adventures of Tintin and The Equalizer and appeared in episodes of The Equalizer and Counterstrike. Before their roles in Free Willy, Schellenberg, and Michael Ironside collaborated in the 1983 thriller Cross Country.
Son of a Mohawk mother and a Swiss father, Schellenberg primarily portrayed characters of Native American ancestry, including Sitting Bull in Terrence Malick’s Crazy Horse and Powhatan with Colin Farrell and Christian Bale in Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World.
In the acclaimed HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee from 2007, Schellenberg reprised his role as Sitting Bull, for which he received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Schellenberg received classical training at the National Theatre School of Canada and has worked extensively in theater. She has also instructed workshops for Indigenous actors across Canada. He was an inspirational speaker around the United States and Canada and had a passion for boxing. 2013 saw the death of Schellenberg due to lung cancer.
Jason James Richter – Jesse
Jason James Richter, who made his acting debut as the troubled orphan kid Jesse in the 1993 family movie, beat out 4,000 other applicants when he was just 13 years old.
Richter, a complete unknown at the time, impressed the casting directors, who dubbed him a “Young Steve McQueen” after he arrived at the audition in a frown, ragged trousers, and unkempt hair. The movie made $153M at the box office worldwide, rapidly turning Richter into a teen heartthrob and rising young star.
After the release of the first movie, 500 fan letters on average per week were being sent to Richter, he revealed to People.
He eventually appeared in two sequels, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and Free Willy 3: The Rescue, but none was as well received or as financially successful as the first.
After that, he participated in The Neverending Story III and made several guest appearances on TV shows, including Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Client, before quitting acting at 18 to join the band Fermata and play bass guitar.
After years of extensive national touring, Richter has resumed working, primarily in independent films, plays in the Los Angeles area, and TV guest spots on Criminal Minds and Bones.