The 1980s was the decade of raunchy teen comedies. Film franchises such as Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds ruled supreme, alongside standalone efforts such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Private School. Unusual among the deluge of films in that vein was 1985’s Secret Admirer, starring C. Thomas Howell, Kelly Preston and Lori Loughlin.
The movie’s basic plot was simple enough: Loughlin’s Toni is the bookish friend to Howell’s Michael, and she sends him an unsigned love note. He convinces himself the letter is from Preston’s Debbie, who everyone in school goes gaga for – but she only dates college students, so he tries to win her over using love letters of his own, which the faithful Toni rewrites as she realizes they’re terrible.
Howell, and to a lesser extent Preston, were huge stars throughout the decade, but their careers somehow fizzled out as they grew up and were no longer teenagers. Loughlin, meanwhile, found greater success on television the following decade.
Revisiting Secret Admirer and its production is fascinating today, as we examine a film that was unavoidably a product of the time in which it was made. Sure, it seems dated now, with its ridiculous eighties vernacular, but it has tons of heart and its characters – even the villains – are never one-note caricatures.
Read on to discover how the stars have fared once the eighties were over, and how this unassuming teen comedy got someone into some very hot water in their home country.
C. Thomas Howell – then
As the male lead, Michael first pines for his high school’s belle Debbie without seeing the treasure right in front of his eyes – his best friend Toni – until it’s almost too late. When he gets that first anonymous love letter, he believes – or hopes – it’s from Debbie and writes her back, only he’s not great at the whole writing thing. The role was perfectly cast with C. Thomas Howell bringing into the fold the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and boyish good looks. A champion rodeo rider at 12, Howell brought kinetic energy to his roles, as seen in his breakout turn on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders alongside Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze.
C. Thomas Howell – today
A huge teen idol in the 1980s, Howell appeared in some of the films that defined the decade, such as Red Dawn. As time passed, naturally, he grew out of those roles, transitioned to television and tackled some more serious work, appearing, for instance, as deranged serial killer George Foyet, also known as the Reaper, on CBS’s Criminal Minds. He also played Liev Schreiber’s anger management therapist on Ray Donovan. More recently, he appeared as Paul Belmont on the Animal Kingdom TV show, portraying the father of the protagonist’s girlfriend – and a Navy lieutenant commander – who tries in vain to reconnect with her. He recently divorced his second wife, with whom he has three children.
Lori Loughlin – then
The role of Toni was probably the most important in Secret Admirer, as it’s the pivot that moves the whole plot forward. Toni sends the first anonymous love letter to Michael, which leads to everything else – she’s the secret admirer! The casting had to be right – it would need to be someone with a girl-next-door look who can still dazzle, and Loughlin was exactly it. Starting out as a model when she was 11, she got into acting soon thereafter and had a recurring role on the soap The Edge of Night before being cast as Toni.
Lori Loughlin – today
Loughlin has been an incredibly busy actress since Secret Admirer, but if there’s one role she’ll be remembered for, it’s that of Rebecca Donaldson-Katsopolis in Full House, which originally ran from 1987 to 1995. She reprised the role in Fuller House, the Netflix sequel that has a fourth season in the works. Rebecca, or Becky, is the girlfriend and later wife of John Stamos’ Uncle Jesse. In the series, the two have twins and later adopt another girl. In real life, Loughlin is married to fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, and has two daughters.
Secret Admirer: the unauthorized version
Vasos De Papel, a 2016 Puerto Rican film by writer/director Eduardo Ortíz, got into some seriously hot water when it was discovered… it was an absolute rip off of Secret Admirer! Unbeknownst to anyone involved with the production, Ortíz lifted scenes and dialogue wholesale from the American movie and transplanted them into his, going so far as to even steal the original’s shots. He claimed the film was an original work, but days after it began to be screened in local cinemas allegations of plagiarism arose. Initially denying any wrongdoing, Ortíz later backpedaled and apologized.
Leigh Taylor-Young – then
Debbie’s mother Elizabeth was played by Leigh Taylor-Young, an actress who had already racked up numerous film and television credits dating back to the mid-sixties. First appearing in the soap opera Peyton Place, she made her big screen debut opposite Peter Sellers in the counterculture comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. She spontaneously married her Peyton Place co-star Ryan O’Neal in Hawaii in 1967. In Secret Admirer, Elizabeth accidentally finds the original letter Michael sent her daughter – which Toni rewrote – and thinks it’s from Michael’s dad. A comedy of errors expectedly ensues.
Leigh Taylor-Young – today
After Secret Admirer, Taylor-Young did some television work, guest starring in shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island before landing a recurring role on Dallas – her first return to soaps since Peyton Place. Perhaps most notably, however, was her work was on CBS drama Picket Fences, in which she played the temperamental mayor of a small Wisconsin town – a role for which she won an Emmy Award in 1994. She returned to her career origins with the soap opera Passions, on which she appeared from 2004 to 2007, but now seems to be retired.
Dee Wallace – then
Wallace plays Michael’s mother Connie, who becomes convinced her husband is cheating on her after finding her son’s letter and believing it was written by her husband to Debbie’s mom. She then suffers a very public breakdown when the two couples confront each other. Before appearing in Secret Admirer, she did some less hilarious work, and was actually a scream queen, appearing in numerous horror and science fiction movies such as The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling and Cujo. Her most notable role was probably playing Elliot’s mother Mary on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Dee Wallace – today
Despite her advancing years, Wallace is still busy working in movies and television, and has numerous project in pre- or post-production at the moment. After one-off guest appearances in L.A. Law, JAG, and – like her Secret Admirer on-screen son – Criminal Minds, she appeared in a regular role on the sequel series to the original Lassie, which ran for two seasons. She currently appears on the Amazon Studios’ streaming show Just Add Magic, in which she plays one of the young heroines’ grandmother.
A Full House homage
Perhaps acting as something of a precursor to the controversial Puerto Rican rip off of Secret Admirer, Lori Loughlin’s main claim to fame – Full House – cribbed not only the film’s plot line but also its very name. In a 1990 episode titled Secret Admirer, a love letter originally intended for D.J. ends up in the hands of each member of the Tanner household, with every one of them thinking it was sent by someone else. Ironically enough, the letter’s intended recipient, D.J., never reads it.
A Summerland reunion
In 2004, Loughlin co-created and starred in the WB series Summerland, in which she portrayed a big-time clothing designer from California whose life spirals into chaos when her niece and nephew from Kansas show up at her door after their parents die. The show offered some early screen time for teen heartthrobs Zac Efron and Jesse McCartney, but more importantly, reunited the Secret Admirer star with her onscreen love – C. Thomas Howell played the alcoholic father of Efron’s character. The show was sadly returned to sender and canceled after just two seasons.
Cliff DeYoung – then
Playing another one of the parents, DeYoung appeared as George, Michael’s father. He goes to night school where Debbie’s mom teaches, and the first letter somehow ends up in his textbook. He reads it, and naturally surmises Elizabeth wants to have an affair with him. Hijinks ensue, as does a scuffle over a not-so-friendly game of bridge. DeYoung was actually a musician before he became an actor, fronting the 1960s rock band Clear Light. He then transitioned into acting, memorably appearing in The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s sequel Shock Treatment, where he sang a duet… with himself!
Cliff DeYoung – today
After Secret Admirer, DeYoung went on to appear in the somewhat forgotten Disney sci-fi classic Flight of the Navigator. On television, he appeared in the 1993 pilot episode for The X-Files and – like his on-screen wife in Secret Admirer – in four episodes of JAG, where he played a reporter. More recently, he appeared in a handful of episodes of The Young and the Restless and Grey’s Anatomy, but seems to be retired now. He has been married to Gypsi DeYoung – who also had a small part in Secret Admirer – since 1970.
A sophomore effort in a sophomoric film
Secret Admirer marked the second feature film role for an actor whose career would come to define the precipitous rise and fall of so many child stars – Corey Haim. Haim, who was 13 at the time, played Michael’s precocious little brother Jeff. His breakout role came a year later in the romantic comedy Lucas, where he played the titular character. As he got older, roles seemed to peter out, and he found it hard to cope with the new situation. Tragically, he passed away in 2010, at only 38 years of age.
Fred Ward – then
Rounding out the cast of parents is Fred Ward, who appears as Debbie’s jealous and overprotective police detective dad Lou. He also naturally gets a glimpse at the letter and assumes it was sent by Michael’s father and addressed to his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity. To investigate, he enlists Michael’s mom to participate in a lovers’ lane sting operation, but find his own daughter there instead. It all comes to a head at a bridge game, where Lou loses it and attacks George.
Fred Ward – today
Ward usually plays tough-guy roles, and Secret Admirer was no different. It’s no surprise, as he had some serious tough guy credentials – serving three years in the U.S. Air Force and also boxing, which led to his nose being broken three times. He also worked as a lumberjack! The same year Secret Admirer came out, he starred in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, an attempt to get a new action movie franchise started. Sadly, the film flopped. Notably, Ward later appeared in the horror film Tremors with Kevin Bacon, and its sequel – without Kevin Bacon.
Picking up on the theme
It was sort of excusable when Full House used Secret Admirer’s storyline – and title – since Lori Loughlin was on both, but did you know two other television shows ran with the exact same premise? In a 1988 episode called Love Letters, sitcom Good Morning, Miss Bliss – the precursor to the massively popular Saved by the Bell – used a love letter ending up in the wrong hands multiple times. Almost a decade later, in 1996, sitcom Step by Step once again used the plot line and title with a fake love letter leading to confusion and hilarity.
Back to the… Secret Admirer?
Secret Admirer was a modest box office success, raking in just over $8.5 million – making it the 95th highest grossing movie of 1985. King of the hill for that year, with $210 million, was a little sci-fi flick called Back to the Future. If not box office receipts, what do the two films have in common? Three actors, apparently. Casey Siemaszko, J.J. Cohen and Courtney Gains appeared in both Secret Admirer and Back to the Future, where they all played bullies: Siemaszko and Cohen were 3-D and Skinhead respectively, while Gains played Dixon, who pushes around George McFly.
Kelly Preston – then
Secret Admirer needed someone to play Debbie that the protagonist Michael could fall head over heels for easily. It looked no further than Kelly Preston, who starred in a similar role as the unattainable object of the protagonist’s affections in the movie Mischief the very same year Secret Admirer was released. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Preston later moved with her family to Adelaide, Australia, where she was discovered at 16 by a fashion photographer who helped her get booked for commercials and other small roles. That photographer also got her her first audition – the female lead in the movie The Blue Lagoon, which she ended up losing to Brooke Shields because she was deemed “too sultry” for the role.
Kelly Preston – today
Preston went on to appear in several film roles, most notably as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s girlfriend on Twins, Tom Cruise’s girlfriend on Jerry Maguire, and John Travolta’s girlfriend on Battlefield Earth… Noticing a trend yet? Speaking of Travolta, the two first met on the set of another movie – 1987’s The Experts – where she was… his love interest! They were married four years later, and had three children. Their eldest, Jett, tragically died in 2009 after suffering a seizure. Before marrying Travolta, Preston dated George Clooney – whom she gifted with a pig he raised for 18 years – and was even engaged to Charlie Sheen, but broke up the engagement after he accidentally shot her in the arm.