Liz Carlin ’07 was flipping through infomercials and sitcom reruns on cable at 3 a.m. one morning until she finally landed on “Lorenzo’s Oil,” a 1993 movie about a young boy plagued with a terminal illness. Intrigued, she sat down to watch most of the film. But as the movie neared its finale and the young protagonist grew sicker, she could not help but hit the “Off” button on her remote control.
“I was afraid he would bite it at the end,” she said. “So I couldn’t watch.”
Her emotional investment in the film stemmed from the fact that her close friend Zack O’Malley Greenburg ’07 played Lorenzo. Yale, famous for producing actors like Meryl Streep DRA ’75 and Edward Norton ’91, is actually the home to several students — like O’Malley Greenburg — who perfected their acting craft early.
O’Malley Greenburg is one of a handful of people on campus who can boast of being a child actor (one that did not surrender to the rise-and-fall tendencies of Macaulay Culkin, Haley Joel Osment, and that curly-haired Pepsi girl who has disappeared into oblivion as of late) — Other child actors include Eliza Clark ’07 who played Celeste in “Les Miserables” on Broadway. But unlike Jodie Foster ’85 — another Yalie whose acting career took off at the age of 14 with “Taxi Driver” and eventually led to Oscar success after graduation — O’Malley Greenburg has left behind his Hollywood lifestyle for a dorm-going existence, singing soft rock for Out of the Blue and pursing a degree in American Studies.
O’Malley Greenburg hardly wears his “star status” on his sleeve, friends said. But suitemate David Sadighian ’07 recalled one instance in which O’Malley Greenburg walked into the suite in Hollywood style.
“He has worn sunglasses indoors once,” Sadighian said.
O’Malley Greenburg is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.
Close friends at Yale said they were surprised to learn about their friend’s acting experience, and several admitted it still feels surreal knowing someone who has been on the big screen.
“I thought it was so crazy that he had hugged Susan Sarandon,” Carlin said.
O’Malley Greenburg said he tries to approach the topic with modesty whenever it is brought up. In fact, he rarely goes back to watch “Lorenzo’s Oil,” at least voluntarily.
“Inevitably, every year of high school, I took some sort of bio-related class. In my freshman year, one of my friends knew and told the teacher, and so the teacher was like, ‘We have to watch it,'” O’Malley Greenburg said. “And every year after that, someone suggested it and we ended up watching it every year in school with my class. So I don’t really need to watch it again.”
The trend has continued into college, and O’Malley Greenburg recently introduced the film at a screening of “Lorenzo’s Oil” for Brain and Thought, a class in the Cognitive Science Department.
O’Malley Greenburg remembered how he first entered showbiz. A five-year-old preschooler, he had been inspired in a classic story of child envy.
“One of my friends was in commercials as a kid, and he was on TV a couple times,” O’Malley Greenburg said. “And I kind of got jealous and I told my parents that I wanted to be on television, too.”
He first auditioned for roles on four television commercials unsuccessfully. It was only when he decided to audition for a movie that he got his big break. He was called back twice and then flown to Los Angeles to meet the cast, which originally included Michelle Pfeiffer and Andy Garcia.
“Lorenzo’s Oil” depicts the true story of a young boy named Lorenzo Odone who was diagnosed at a young age with a rare disorder called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). At the time of his diagnosis, no treatment had been discovered, and patients would suffer from gradual neurological degradation until death. Distraught by his suffering, Odone’s parents, played by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, gave up their jobs to research the disease independently in the hope of finding a cure for their ill son.
The movie was filmed over the course of four months in a town outside of Pittsburgh. O’Malley Greenburg’s mother moved to Pennsylvania with him for the shoot, and his father visited every weekend. O’Malley Greenburg said the film shoot had little impact on the lifestyle of his parents, who work as freelance writers. In fact, his mother was able to enjoy some of showbiz’s perks, including an all-expenses-paid trip to Kenya, where several of the opening scenes were shot.
“[The trip] was an awesome experience,” he said. “Except for the fact that my mom got malaria and I got amoebic dysentery towards the end of the shoot.”
Despite the exotic diseases picked up in Africa and the morbid episodes his character faced in the movie, O’Malley Greenburg said playing Lorenzo did not traumatize him by prematurely exposing him to themes of sickness and death. Still, O’Malley Greenburg does remember the trauma of long hours attaching a bald cap to portray the ailing Lorenzo.
“I had this makeup artist named Fabricio, and he didn’t speak English,” O’Malley Greenburg said. “I would go in for two hours in the morning to get it put on and stitch on the bald cap, and he would yell at me in Italian.”
O’Malley Greenburg admitted participating in the movie was not the most enjoyable experience for a six-year-old.
“It wasn’t all of the Hollywood glamour,” he said. “It was a lot of waiting around, and really long work days — it was like 12 hours a day.”
Despite the workload filming demanded, O’Malley Greenburg said he does not regret participating in the movie at all.
“The actual experience itself wasn’t really that enjoyable,” he said. “But the end product — having been in a movie — it’s a really nice thing to look back on, saying, ‘I did that.'”
After “Lorenzo’s Oil,” O’Malley Greenburg starred in an independent film titled “Man in the Moon, Warm in the Bottle” during the fifth grade. He also auditioned for “Star Wars: Episode I,” of course to no avail. The disappointment of not being cast as Luke Skywalker marked the end of his acting career.
“After that I decided that I had enough, I just wanted to be a normal kid,” he said. “And so I retired.”