Lance Kerwin, ‘James at 15’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’ Star, Dies at 62
Lance Kerwin, a former child actor who played the title role in the 1970s coming-of-age drama “James at 15” and a vampire hunter in a mini-series based on the Stephen King novel “Salem’s Lot,” died on Tuesday at his home in San Clemente, Calif. He was 62.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Savanah Kerwin, who said that a cause had not been determined and that the family was awaiting the results of an autopsy.
In 1977, when Mr. Kerwin was 16, he was cast in a television movie, “James at 15,” that served as the pilot episode for the NBC series of the same name. The show, which ran for 21 episodes, followed the adolescent adventures of a sandy-haired budding photographer, James Hunter, who has moved with his family to Boston from Oregon.
The show tackled serious themes like sex, alcoholism and pregnancy. It also made Mr. Kerwin a teenage idol.
Writing in The Washington Post a few weeks into the show’s run, the critic Tom Shales said that while “James at 15” was “not perfect, not revolutionary, not always deliriously urgent,” it was “still the most respectable new entertainment series of the season.”
“And if it romanticizes adolescence through the weekly trials and triumphs of its teenage hero,” he continued, “at least it does so in more ambitious, inquisitive and authentic ways than the average TV teeny-bop.”
The show ran into trouble with NBC’s censors over a script that called for James to lose his virginity, to a Swedish exchange student, on his 16th birthday (when the program would be retitled “James at 16”). The network objected to the script’s use of the word “responsible” as a euphemism for birth control, and agreed to air the episode only “if the boy suffers for it and is somehow punished,” the novelist Dan Wakefield, the show’s creator, told The New York Times in 1978.
The disagreement led to Mr. Wakefield’s resignation before the episode was broadcast, on Feb. 9, 1978. “James at 16” was canceled in May of that year.
Lance Michael Kerwin was born on Nov. 6, 1960, in Newport Beach, Calif., to Don and Lois Kerwin. When he was growing up, he told The Times in 1982, he was so addicted to television that he could not read when he reached the fourth grade.
After his parents divorced, his mother and stepfather “unplugged the television,” he said.
“Every day after school I would come home and read out loud with my mother and stepfather — stories, plays and scripts that they would bring home from work,” he said.
In addition to his daughter Savanah, Mr. Kerwin’s survivors include his wife, Yvonne Kerwin, and four other children: Fox, Terah, Kailani and Justus. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Kerwin’s acting career began in the early 1970s with small roles on popular TV shows like “Little House on the Prairie,” “Gunsmoke” and “Wonder Woman.” From 1974 to 1976, he appeared in five installments of “ABC Afterschool Special,” the daytime educational anthology series aimed at young people.
In 1979, he starred in the mini-series adaptation of “Salem’s Lot.” The series followed a novelist who returns to his New England hometown to write a book and encounters vampires who have invaded the town. Mr. Kerwin played Mark Petrie, a teenager who helps the author stop the vampires.
Mr. Kerwin continued acting through the 1980s and into 1990s. He appeared in the 1985 science fiction movie “Enemy Mine” and the 1995 thriller “Outbreak,” about a deadly plague.
By the time he was making “Outbreak,” Mr. Kerwin “was actively struggling with sobriety,” Savanah Kerwin said, which may have played a role in his decision to walk away from acting.
In 2010, Mr. Kerwin pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree theft for falsifying documents to obtain state medical assistance and food stamps in Hawaii, The Associated Press reported. He was sentenced to five years of probation and was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.
“I’ve been struggling with the sin of drug use for a long time,” Mr. Kerwin told The Los Angeles Daily News in 1999, in an interview conducted while he was in a rehabilitation center in Perris, Calif. “I’ve gotten in years of abstinence. The last time I found myself turning to drugs again, I came here to restore my walk with the Lord.”
Later, his daughter said, he helped run the rehabilitation program U-Turn for Christ and was a youth pastor there for several years.
“He was constantly trying to help people who were struggling to find God or become sober,” she said. “That was his focus for the rest of his life.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.