What the cast of Free Willy looks like now

For kids who grew up in the '90s, Free Willy is a major cultural touchstone. The family-friendly, environmentally-conscious flick about a troubled orphan boy who connects with and ultimately frees a captive whale named Willy touched the hearts of kids everywhere, made stars of Keiko the whale and its human cast, and sent two sequels to theaters (as well as a direct-to-DVD installment that's best left forgotten). Almost 25 years later, Free Willy is still inspiring young audiences, but what happened to its cast? Here's what they've been up to since helping Willy jump to freedom.

Jason James Richter - Jesse

Jason James Richter was just 13 when he beat out 4,000 other hopefuls for his screen debut as troubled orphan teen Jesse who bonds with an orca whale in the 1993 family film. A total unknown at the time, Richter impressed producers, who labeled him a "Young Steve McQueen" after he showed up to the audition with ripped jeans, a scowl, and unwashed hair. The film took in $153M in global box office grosses, instantly making Richter a teen heartthrob and burgeoning young star. Richter told People that after the first film, he was receiving an average of 500 fan letters a week.

He wound up starring in two sequels, Free Willy 2: the Adventure Home and Free Willy 3: the Rescue, though neither matched the critical or box office success of the first film. He followed up with a role in The Neverending Story III and several guest-starring appearances on TV shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Client before walking away from acting at age 18 to play bass guitar in a band called Fermata. After touring the country for years, Richter has started acting again, mostly appearing in TV guest-starring roles on Criminal Minds and Bones, independent films, and plays around Los Angeles.

Lori Petty - Rae

By the time Lori Petty started training sea animals as marine biologist Rae in Free Willy, she'd already racked up an impressive number of credits. Petty was on a career hot streak coming off two breakthrough roles in Point Break and A League of Their Own, and Free Willy gave her career another boost; the title role in Tank Girl a few years later turned her into a cult icon. 

But offers started drying up, leaving Petty stuck doing mostly small, low-budget independent films and TV guest spots on shows like Star Trek Voyager and NYPD Blue. Interested in directing after shadowing Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, Petty wrote and directed her first feature film, 2008's The Poker House, casting Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in her film debut. The film, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, received mixed reviews, with some critics applauding its deeply personal and difficult subject matter. 

Petty is currently starring as fan favorite paranoid schizophrenic inmate Lolly Whitehill on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

Jayne Atkinson - Annie Greenwood

English-born, Connecticut-raised actress Jayne Atkinson already had experience playing empathetic moms when she starred as foster parent Annie Greenwood in Free Willy. Prior to appearing in the family flick, she starred as matriarch Karen Buckman in the 1990 TV series adaptation of the hit movie Parenthood (which only aired for a single season) and as new mom Lindley Eisenberg on NBC's drama series A Year in the Life. After the success of Free Willy, She followed up with another mom role in Blank Check before returning for Free Willy 2

Atkinson got her start in theater and still frequently appears on and off Broadway and in major regional productions. She's been nominated for the Best Actress Tony Award twice and met her husband in 1989 when they starred together at the Long Wharf Theatre in The Heiress. Though she appeared in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and the Oscar-winning drama Syriana, her work on camera since Free Willy 2 has mostly been on television, where she's had plum parts on 24, Criminal Minds, and her current starring role on Netflix's critically-acclaimed political drama House of Cards, as Secretary of State Cathy Durant.

Michael Madsen - Glen Greenwood

Other than co-star Lori Petty, it's safe to say Michael Madsen was the most recognizable face and name in the Free Willy cast. The staggeringly prolific actor had already made a bang as Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and romanced Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise by the time he played mechanic foster dad Glen Greenwood in Free Willy. He returned for Free Willy 2, but took other projects in lieu of Free Willy 3—though he was happy to have the Free Willy films to "balance out" his bad guys. 

With nearly 300 credits, Chicago-native Madsen, the older sibling of actor Virginia Madsen, has been steadily churning out films and TV guest spots for over 35 years. Madsen re-teamed with Tarantino for both Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 and The Hateful Eight, played a mafioso alongside Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, appeared in the stylish Sin City, and even had a small role in Bond flick Die Another Day with friend and neighbor Pierce Brosnan. Though many of his films are admittedly B-movie quality, the actor has yet to stop working, including hawking his own line of hot sauces.

Michael Ironside - Dial

Like his Free Willy co-star Michael Madsen, Michael Ironside fits the "working actor" stereotype. The veteran character actor has made a career of playing villains like Free Willy's Dial in everything from David Cronenberg's Scanners and Top Gun to Extreme Prejudice and sci-fi classic Total Recall

He often plays characters who meet a nasty end, but Ironside's phone has yet to stop ringing with offers. He's worked consistently in the years since Free Willy, appearing in the likes of ER, Desperate Housewives, Starship Troopers, Smallville, and X-Men: First Class. According to his IMDb page, he has nine projects in various stages of production.

Richard Riehle - Wade

You probably know who Richard Riehle is even if you don't know his name. The character actor has appeared in more than 350 projects, and has been working for over 40 years; Free Willy is just one in a very long list of supporting roles. 

He stumbled into acting his senior year of college as a way to finish out the credits he needed to graduate and wound up going to grad school for drama. His big break came as the Quartermaster in Glory opposite Matthew Broderick, and from there, he's made a career out of being the burly, mustached supporting character in a long list of shows and films that includes The West Wing, Ally McBeal, The Fugitive, Martin Scorsese's mob drama Casino, Lethal Weapon 4, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, and even as Ed Rooney in a TV series adaptation of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He also romanced Jill Clayburgh as car mechanic Bill Cozbi in Kristen Wiig's hit 2011 comedy Bridesmaids and had a memorable turn in the cult comedy Office Space as lovable IT guy Tom Smykowski. 

Riehle continues to keep busy both on camera and onstage, where he's appeared both off and on Broadway. It doesn't look like he's slowing down anytime soon, with more than a dozen projects in development. "When I work, I feel great," he told his alumni magazine, "that doesn't ever have to stop."

Mykelti Williamson - Dwight

Free Willy's Dwight wasn't the first cop that actor Mykelti Williamson had played. He'd already had a lengthy supporting arc on Hill Street Blues and supporting turns as policemen in horror movie The First Power and TV movie Police Story: Monster Manor. He followed up his work in Free Willy with his career-defining role as lovable shrimp boat captain Bubba in Forrest Gump.

After returning as Dwight in Free Willy 2, Williamson went on a hot streak, appearing in '90s favorites Heat, Waiting to Exhale, Con-Air, and Primary Colors. He's also stayed busy on television in shows like 24 and CSI: NY. Though Williamson has been acting for over 50 years, he was a contractor on the side for a decade, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms up until a little after he appeared in Forrest Gump. He definitely loves a side hustle—he created and sells his own line of cooking spices called BubbaStyle. Most recently, Williamson re-teamed with his Broadway co-stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis for the Oscar-winning 2016 film adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences.

August Schellenberg - Randolph Johnson

Aside from Richter, Canadian-born August Schellenberg was the only actor to appear in all three Free Willy movies. Schellenberg, who played kindly whale trainer Randolph, had worked steadily for decades in film and TV in both the U.S. and Canada prior to his breakthrough in Free Willy, appearing in episodes of The Equalizer and Counterstrike as well as voicing characters in the animated series The Adventures of Tintin. Schellenberg even worked with co-star Michael Ironside in the 1983 thriller Cross Country before appearing together in Free Willy.

The son of a Mohawk mother and Swiss father, Schellenberg mainly played roles of Native American descent such as Sitting Bull in Crazy Horse and Powhatan in Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World, alongside Colin Farrell and Christian Bale. Schellenberg played Sitting Bull again in the acclaimed 2007 HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, earning an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Classically-trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, Schellenberg worked extensively in the theatre and taught workshops across Canada specifically for Indigenous actors. He also had a passion for boxing and was a motivational speaker across the U.S. and Canada. Schellenberg passed away in 2013 from lung cancer.