Recalling the former Disney star before his life went off the rails
There’s not much point or upside or logic to defending Shia LaBeouf’s recent actions. There’s the alleged bar fights, the “I am not famous” paper bag episode and now the arrest for criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and harassment outside a Broadway show and possibly an altercation with a homeless man. But here’s the thing: there was a time, not so very long ago, when I really liked the Shia experience. I even had friends who enjoyed the Shia experience. I’m pretty sure we went to see Disturbia in theaters twice, which is twice more than almost everybody else. There was a time before all the off-screen nonsense when, in spite of the fact that he was never a great actor, Shia made whatever he was in more fun, better than it should have been.
Even Stevens, his first TV series, on the Disney Channel, was an easy 30 minutes to watch every week, but it never belonged in the same category as Boy Meets World or other staples of the genre. On a show that would have otherwise been lost to the annals of Disney sitcoms, Shia made Even Stevens something worth remembering. He had barely turned 14 when it debuted in 2000 (just one month after BMW ended its run), but his Louis Stevens immediately became the natural successor to Ben Savage’s Cory Matthews — a precocious teenager living in the shadow of his big brother (and, in Louis’ case, big sister as well). Shia took that template and cranked it all the way to 11, sputtering and scheming like someone seven times his age, but with the energy of a pre-teen who had raided a candy shop and left nothing behind. The character could have been a nightmare. Shia made him bizarrely enjoyable and, most importantly, surprisingly watchable.
Countless Disney stars never made the leap beyond the network’s friendly confines, but Shia managed to score the lead in the film adaptation of Louis Sachar’s wildly popular children’s novel Holes just as Even Stevens was ending its run. Alongside veterans Jon Voigt and Sigourney Weaver, Shia managed to tone down his Even Stevens character just enough to make for a fitting big-screen protagonist. After that, he landed big roles in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, I, Robot and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Even though the quality of the movies varied, Shia’s likability never did.
Then came Disturbia, a faux-remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller Rear Window starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. By all rights, it should have been entirely forgettable — and to many people it probably was. But for me it remains one of those movies that proved to be far more enjoyable than it had any right being (also on that list: Blue Streak, The New Guy and The Girl Next Door). Shia was the reason why. Even though he seemed to play more or less the same version of himself in nearly every movie — smart, precocious, just bordering on nerdy but above all a good guy stuck in a bad situation — and would do so again in Transformers three months later, his schtick remained appealing. I remember walking out of the theater with one of my friends, sniffing around and saying, “I smell Oscar.” I was joking, but we had this sense that we were on Team Shia before everyone else inevitably joined in.
It never quite worked out that way. Transformers was a massive hit when it was released in the summer of 2007, but off the screen, things went downhill fast. Shia was arrested in November 2007 for refusing to leave a Walgreens, then again in July 2008 for D.U.I. After that it became a little tougher to see him as a lovable misfit on-screen when he behaved like such an irresponsible brat off it. Even before this latest incident, I was pretty far beyond caring about what he was up to. All it does now is remind me of a time when I used to smile when I heard his name, rather than cringe. At least we’ll always have Disturbia.