Local boys making `Good', staying grounded

from the Boston Herald, 22 February 1998. (It's where a lot of the early

Long before they were Hollywood's latest hot item, before their grinning faces were staring out at you from every magazine stand, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were the inseparable duo Aaron Stockard grew up with in Cambridge. They were the ones he played pickup basketball with in Dana Park, and with whom he sneaked into movies in Harvard Square.
They also were in the same tight group of guys who often made a beeline after school for Affleck's house on Cottage Street for endless hours of video baseball.
Now, Stockard confessed, he's making a beeline of a different sort. He has been scarfing up tabloids to see what they're saying about his boyhood buddies, Damon, 27, and Affleck, 25.
The movie they scripted and starred in, "Good Will Hunting," is up for nine Academy Awards next month.
"I know it sounds kinda cheesy," said a sheepish Stockard, 25, and a film student at Emerson College. "I'm their biggest fan. I don't want them to know I'm buying the tabloids to see what they're saying about my best friends."
Audiences have swarmed to the movie, which stars Damon as a South Boston juvenile delinquent who works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and happens to be a mathematics genius. Affleck and his younger brother, Casey, play two of his Southie pals.
By the time the movie opened in December, stories about the Cambridge cohorts already had become the stuff of local legend.
The early Cambridge chronicles tell of Affleck and Damon, fast friends by elementary school, growing up two blocks from each other in Central Square.
It was during this time that Affleck became the first of the two to get an acting job. In the fourth grade, he landed a role in a PBSfilm, "Voyage of the Mimi," which is still shown in classrooms today.
The next chapters are of their high school days at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where the two already were honing their acting skills in off-the-wall plays with teachers who have remained their mentors and friends.
And then there is the much-hyped Cinderella section, the five years the duo struggled to get a short story Damon wrote while at Harvard made into their now-blockbuster film.
Media hounding of family members has gotten so intense that the actors' moms recently did a very un-Cambridgelike thing and got their numbers unlisted, said Larry Aaronson, a Rindge and Latin history teacher and longtime friend of both families.
"It was at the request of their sons," he added, apologetically.
Affleck's mother, Chris, teaches at the Tobin Elementary School in Cambridge. Damon's mom, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a professor of childhood education at Cambridge's Lesley College.
Yet other family members and friends, who also have been tapped umpteen times for stories about the actors' local roots, are still answering their phones and clinging to their senses of humor.
"Hasn't everything already been told?" sighed Jay Jones, a professor at Lesley College who became a second father for Damon after Damon's folks split up when he was 2.
"I guess there's the pacifier story," Jones said, after thinking for a few minutes.
Unlike most of the Affleck-Damon tales, this one is from the pre-Cambridge days, when the Damon family lived on Bennington Street in Newton and Damon was about 3.
"It came to the day when Matt was deciding whether he was going to keep his pacifier. He talked about it with his mom. Bennington Street is narrow, and the house was at the end of the dead end. The garbage truck would back in," said Jones. "Matt went out this fateful day, proudly walked to the end of the driveway and threw his pacifier in the back of the truck."
The story, Jones said, is a good illustration of the supportive, creative environment in which Damon was raised.
Jones was the one who organized Damon's mom, and five other free-spirited teachers, in their 1981 move to Auburn Street in Cambridge. There the communal group bought a garish, pink aluminum-sided house and turned it into a six-family co-op. Jones still lives there. Damon's mom recently remarried and moved to Somerville.
By all accounts, both Damon and Affleck grew up in unabashedly liberal Cambridge households, and though their respective parents divorced when the kids were young, all parties are still on good terms.
Damon's dad, Kent, is a retired investment banker who lives in Boston. Affleck's dad lives on the West Coast, working as a drug and alcohol rehab counselor.
"Can you call me back in 20 minutes?" asked Kyle Damon, 30, a Cambridge sculptor. "I'm on the other line with my brother now."
When he gets off the phone, Damon says he has been trying to talk his kid brother into running a marathon together. No, not Boston. His actor brother is too busy right now filming yet another sure-to-be-a-hit movie. Maybe they'll do the New York Marathon in the fall.
He's on his way out the door, so he passes the phone to his wife, Lori Nollet Damon, who is holding a crying 9-month-old.
It was a former roommate of Lori Damon's who helped spark a key part of the plot of "Good Will Hunting."
Years earlier, when she was dating Kyle Damon, Lori lived in Cambridgeport with several roommates, including a nuclear physicist at MIT. Kyle Damon went to visit him at work one day and noticed a math problem on a blackboard. Passers-by were invited to try to solve it.
Kyle scrawled out some numbers as a joke on the board. He didn't solve the problem, but caused quite a stir at MIT, where students and teachers were baffled by his numbers. The story was told to Matt at dinner one night and the rest, is well, history.
Lori's favorite Matt Damon story?
This one is from last summer, when their son, Jackson, was 2 months old and Kyle and Lori were still nervous new parents.
"He'd cry, and we couldn't figure out why," she said. "Matt lay down on the bed with him and he'd sing to him. He sang `Afternoon Delight,' and other hokey songs from the '70s and early '80s. He was better than Kyle and I at entertaining him. Jackson was mesmerized."
In their circle of boyhood friends, Damon was the athlete, and a phenomenal break dancer who used to perform in Harvard Square for spare change.
Affleck, a little sensitive about his lack of athletic prowess, was the brainy, charismatic ringleader, according to Stockard, their chum who now attends Emerson College.
"It felt like Ben never went through that nerdy stage we did," said Stockard. "We were all stressing about whether the girl in music class liked us. Ben never worried about that stuff."
But Affleck did have some downers.
There was the time, Stockard said, when the teenaged Affleck was fired from his ticket-taking job at the Janus movie theater in Harvard Square.
"He got fired for being late all the time," said Stockard. "In a show of support, Matt stormed in and quit as well. Manual labor wasn't their thing. I think they figured that out early."
Both graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin - Damon in 1988, Affleck in 1990.
From there, Damon went to Harvard, which he attended on and off while landing bit parts in movies such as "Mystic Pizza" and "School Ties."
It was at Harvard where he dated Skylar Satenstein, the woman "Hunting's" Skylar was modeled after. The real-life Skylar is now an emergency-room doctor in California and married to the drummer in the band Metallica, Lori Damon said.
Affleck, too, landed bit parts after graduation, including a role in "School Ties." He attended the University of Vermont and Occidental College in Los Angeles. Damon would sometimes stay at the apartment Affleck and Stockard shared in Los Angeles between gigs.
"We were living in a tiny shack, a miserable house," Stockard recalled.
But, shortly after 1992, the young actors would start to see success.
Affleck would land roles in "Dazed and Confused," "Chasing Amy," "Mallrats" and "Going All the Way."
Damon would appear in "Courage Under Fire" - a role for which he lost 40 pounds to play a junkie soldier - "Geronimo: An American Legend" and most recently "The Rainmaker."
These days, when they're not making movies, both men are courting two of Hollywood's leading ladies. Affleck is dating Gwyneth Paltrow. Damon, who had been seeing "Hunting" co-star Minnie Driver, is now dating Winona Ryder.
With their Hollywood acting careers now in overdrive, Affleck and Damon, both busy shooting separate movies, have made it a point to stay close to their families and boyhood friends.
Those bonds, said one of their former Rindge and Latin High School teachers, keep the cohorts from Cambridge from slipping into Hollywood idol isolation.
"Fame has happened so fast, you hope they can stay grounded," Aaronson said.