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Before 'I See Dead People,' Haley Joel Osment Saw Casting Agents At Ikea

Michael K. Williams stars as Rock Banyon in the TV miniseries, <em>The Spoils Before Dying</em>. His eccentric band manager, Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones, is played by Haley Joel Osment.
Katrina Marcinowski
Michael K. Williams stars as Rock Banyon in the TV miniseries, The Spoils Before Dying. His eccentric band manager, Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones, is played by Haley Joel Osment.

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

The setting is a gritty 1950s underground jazz scene; the story, a bizarre murder mystery: A jazz pianist-turned-detective named Rock Banyon is wanted for a murder he can't remember committing. And Banyon's band manager, one Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones, has a knack for showing up at exactly the wrong time.

It's a new miniseries on IFC, The Spoils Before Dying, and the man behind Barnaby-Bixby-Jones is an actor with a familiar name: Haley Joel Osment. His path back to the small screen has been winding, but according to Osment, it began more than two decades ago — at an Ikea in Burbank, Calif.

"There was a casting table where these two young women were taking Polaroids of all the kids that came through this Ikea store," Osment says. "And through that, I got called in for a casting cattle call and it ended up being for a Pizza Hut commercial for this product ... which I remember not being very good."

He appeared in the ad for just a second and said one simple line — but it was enough to get him noticed.

Shortly afterward, the casting director for Forrest Gump reached out to Osment about auditioning for the role of Forrest Jr. In the screen test, Osment, who was 5 at the time, sits alongside Tom Hanks in a studio. There's instant chemistry between the two; it's a veteran actor guiding the little newcomer. Whenever Osment stumbles or forgets his words, Hanks whispers the lines to him.

"I guess I sort of knew who Tom Hanks was," Osment says. "But me and my family were going fishing with another family ... right after this screen test, and I remember that being on my mind. Like, 'All right, do this, and then let's go to the cabin.' And then later going, 'Oh, wow, that was a pretty important day.' "

Osment got the part, but that's not where the story ends. In the final scene of the film, in which Forrest and Forrest Jr. wait for the school bus, Osment says the script was changed moments before filming. So Hanks helped Osment with his new lines.

"Tom had this yellow legal pad and he wrote out the scene for me with my lines circled ... and I still have it today," Osment says. "That's how I learned my lines at the last minute when we did the scene by the bus stop."

After Forrest Gump, Osment continued acting in network TV. But, he says, his big break didn't come until his agent mailed him the script to a film called The Sixth Sense.

"I went in for [M. Night Shyamalan], who by that time had been auditioning the role for a long time all over the country," Osment says. "And we did the same three scenes every time, and it just ended up working out. I guess you could call that my big break."

He was 10 years old when he played the part of Cole Sear, who utters the iconic words: "I see dead people."

"When we did that scene, nobody was going, 'That's the line,' " Osment says. "It was just something that served a very important function in the story."

Osment's performance earned him an Oscar nomination in 2000. All these years later, he says it's a little strange looking back on his career. He's only 27 years old, but he's already been in the business for over two decades.

"But because of how young I was when I started, I also have enjoyed the fact that I know I always have more to learn," he says. "Every character I approach, from Forrest Gump all the way up to The Spoils Before Dying, has a different set of requirements and always fascinates me."

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Daniel Hajek