Culture

Frankie Muniz doesn’t remember the show that made him famous

The ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ star has had a bizarre post-stardom trajectory, filled with odd jobs and plagued with memory loss.
Culture

Frankie Muniz doesn’t remember the show that made him famous

The ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ star has had a bizarre post-stardom trajectory, filled with odd jobs and plagued with memory loss.

Very Intriguing Person

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Dancing with the Stars: Juniors is not for the faint of heart. The new ABC show, which premiered last month, is an addictive menagerie of small horrors, not limited to Sarah Palin’s grandson flossing into a commercial break, or Scottie Pippen’s daughter foxtrotting to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” a song released the year she was born. Many of the contestants are this sort of legacy child star, famous at least partly by birthright, with some exceptions — an astonishingly grown-up Honey Boo Boo sleep walked through etiquette lessons in one episode.

There is no one more uniquely qualified to preside over this than Frankie Muniz. As a former DWTS contestant and child star survivor, Muniz likely understands the demands of both roles better than most as he gamely co-hosts the dance competition spin-off with Jordan Fisher, who won the season Muniz competed on. Muniz is certainly cut from a different era of show business than these participants, but there’s enough overlap in how all of this goes — here are the stars, and here are you to gaze upon and gently mock them. The uncouth shame that comes with, say, reading and eventually understanding a thorough explainer about three feuding YouTube stars, ages 9-18, is something new, but recognizing the hazards of early overexposure is not.

Muniz more or less came out of young stardom in one piece, following a successful run on Malcolm in the Middle and the big screen with jittery career zigzags. The strangest part is that he doesn’t remember most of it.

That part may make your head turn, but first, the basics. Muniz, born in small-town Jersey to a restaurateur and nurse, wasn’t quite predestined for stardom, but he eked out some theater roles and commercial parts as an even more childish actor. After a few years of small parts on sitcoms and made-for-TV movies, he broke through in the early part of 2000. There was My Dog Skip, a milquetoast family drama about a boy and his Jack Russell terrier set in 1940s America, but Muniz’s legacy will always be defined by Malcolm in the Middle, which premiered in January of that year to more than 20 million viewers.

Malcolm in the Middle was a relative novelty: a sharp-tongued, unsentimental sitcom centered on the banal humiliations of being house poor, like Roseanne without the laugh track and the absurdity dialed up. The adults (tough love Jane Kaczmarek, blissfully over-it Bryan Cranston) were well cast, but Muniz was its incredulous lifeblood, expertly portraying how unfair life feels when you’re stuck in the middle — of your family, and of an adolescence that’s taking way too long to get to the good stuff. He took a fair amount of shit, but he wasn’t a pushover. He was just toughing it out until the next, better phase.

Like most post-pubescent twentysomethings regularly cast as high schoolers, Muniz wasn’t a perfect age fit for the role, but not in a way that felt inauthentic. A 15-year-old late bloomer when the show debuted, Muniz was even older than the actor playing his older brother, Reese, on the show. When its second season premiered, he changed from an indignant pipsqueak to a ganglier and deeper-voiced pipsqueak almost overnight. But there was a strong logic to creator Linwood Boomer’s casting: Muniz brought a deep relatability to the role, with keen emotional intelligence and a timeless sheepishness. Malcolm in the Middle, which remains somewhat underrated despite its long run, is often used as a companion to Breaking Bad thanks to Cranston’s transformation into Serious Prestige Actor. Still, the series found a sweet spot between quirk and sitcom convention, and you don’t last seven seasons on air without tapping into something that a lot of people like.

Throughout Malcolm’s run, Muniz amassed a series of successful onscreen starring roles in movies like Big Fat Liar, Agent Cody Banks and its sequel, and voicing a talking zebra in Racing Stripes — the sort of entertainment that many young millennials remember fondly simply by being the right age when they were released. He had a kind of fluid youthfulness, ranging from gifted tweenager to ordinary superspy with ease, and only sometimes looking as old as the characters he portrayed. Muniz probably wouldn’t have been cut out for leading man roles as an adult — maybe could have thrived as a twitchy character actor — but he decided to mostly walk away from acting as the hit series wound down in 2006. (Many of his roles since then are simply as “Himself.”)

Since semi-retiring to first become a racecar driver (!?), Muniz has cycled through what might look like quarter-life crises faster than most, eventually joining two rock bands based in York, Pennsylvania. He currently owns and operates a store called Outrageous Olive Oils and Vinegars with his girlfriend in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he isn't on primetime TV or managing another York-based band. None of this is particularly novel on its own for a child star, reacting to the ways in which fame at a young age can permanently alter your mind. But when you lay them all out in a row like that, and consider the earnestness with which he plunges head-first into each career, it’s a little strange.

Strangest yet, is the way Muniz’s body has betrayed his childhood over the years. He’s been hospitalized on multiple occasions for transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes. Paired with at least nine concussions, Muniz claims these various health issues have wiped out almost everything he remembers about working on Malcolm in the Middle. The first instinct would be to view this through a semi-tragic lens, as the Dancing with the Stars producers seemed to when Muniz detailed his medical history during their “most memorable year” episode. In a pre-recorded clip, you could see Muniz’s girlfriend keeping a journal of their activities every day, since there’s no certainty he’ll remember them years down the road. He danced to Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” — which was released in 2015 — because any year earlier than that is foggy.

Losing most of your formative memories seems kind of sad, but Muniz is at least outwardly zen about it all. “It’s a weird thing for me because I’m not sick...I’m not looking for sympathy or anyone to care about it,” he told Entertainment Weekly after the episode aired. “This is my life and I’ve moved forward. It doesn’t stop me from being anywhere I want to be.”

Early in the pilot of Malcolm, tiny Muniz unintentionally laid out the problem for most young stars: “You wanna know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point it stops.” Some of his generational contemporaries — Lindsay Lohan, Shia LaBeouf, Britney Spears — might argue that was exactly the worst part about childhood, unraveling in separate but similar ways after striking gold early, and eventually striving toward something close to normalcy.

Muniz has avoided some of the pitfalls that are supposed to come after child stardom thus far — tragedy, repeatedly showing your ass, or straining to remain relevant — but he’s not exactly famous, and not exactly not famous. He’s somewhere in the middle, closer to a normal life than if he had more doggedly pursued acting to no avail, but with his past life coloring each new career pivot as bizarre and noteworthy. Freak disaster strikes Muniz, too, but in a way that feels more relatable in its devastation than we typically see from celebrities. Somewhat rarely for his profession, he maintains that he’s never had a sip of alcohol, touched a drug or cigarette, with the number zero tattooed on his arm as a glaring reminder, and doesn’t seem to have any other vices unless you count eating an entire cake as the sun rises. His dreams about getting shot seem incredibly strange in the sense of Holy shit, Frankie Muniz has some screwed up dreams, but perhaps less so when you think about how many young celebrities never escape their metaphorical deaths, and how he’s made it this far.

Although Malcolm was never appointment viewing in my house, it was omnipresent — a seven or eight-year-old me was once tasked with pet-sitting a friend’s chinchilla named Dewey, who somehow escaped from his cage and perished. Muniz was of an age where you felt like you could simultaneously grow up with and look up to him, even if he topped out at 5’5”. There was always an odd impulse to keep tabs on the weird twists, that never really went away when he took interest in the same part of Pennsylvania where I grew up — a kind of place people usually run away from when they enter their twenties. It became even easier to root for the guy when I heard he was cool about autographing Agent Cody Banks DVDs at a Kingsfoil show. He could be around for as long as I am, never embarrassing himself but never distinguishing himself either, a living “only ‘90s kids will remember this” prompt who’s at least able to speak for himself.

What this makes him is something closer to a meme than meaningful cultural figure in 2018. High-profile diversions like DWTS: Juniors aside, he’s most likely to enter your consciousness by way of a Malcolm in the Middle marathon on television or weird Twitter excursion. It’s a rarely seen trajectory for surviving the spotlight — make large amounts of money, and then pursue a series of dream jobs with the same youthful intensity that got you there in the first place — but it’s one that seems to work, even if bottling Ultra Premium Olive Oils or drumming in central Pennsylvania rock outfits might not offer the rush of remembering when you were nominated for an Emmy at age 16. Life may be unfair, but then you make the most of it.

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Shawn Cooke is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He previously wrote about Taylor Swift’s relationship with her critics for The Outline.