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Matt Dillon Young: A Look Back at the Handsome Actor’s Days as the Ultimate ’80s Teen Idol

Plus, learn the wild story of how he was discovered!


In the early ’80s, there were few young actors dreamier than Matt Dillon. With his distinctive combination of a distincitve bone structure, a perfect pout and strong brows, the rising star won over the hearts of a generation of young women while turning in powerhouse performances in films like My Bodyguard, The Outsiders and The Flamingo Kid.

Unlike many teen stars, Dillon’s career didn’t slow down as he reached adulthood, and in the ’90s and ’00s he showed his range in everything from broad comedies like There’s Something About Mary to acclaimed dramas like Crash.

Dillon recently turned 60 and remains charming as ever. Most recently, he costarred in the short-lived Apple TV+ comedy High Dessert and appeared in the ensemble cast of the stylized ’50s period piece Asteroid City. We’re always happy to see the teen-star-turned-serious-actor on our screens. Here’s a look back at the early roles that made young Matt Dillon famous and paved the way for an eclectic filmography.

From cutting class to being cast

Born in 1964 as the second-oldest of six siblings, Dillon didn’t originally have plans to be an actor, and the story of how he was discovered is the stuff of film industry legend. In the late ’70s, director Jonathan Kaplan and talent scout Jane Bernstein were looking for real-life teens to star in an upcoming gritty low-budget teen drama, Over the Edge.

As Bernstein recalled in an oral history of the cult film for Vice, “We were told to look for the new James Dean… on our last day in Westchester, we were walking through the crowded halls of this one school, and the bell rang and everyone ran back to class. But there was this one kid — and he really was a kid, like 12 or 13 — who was soft and young but who had a toughness about him. He was skipping class, just wandering the hallways.” That kid was none other than a young Matt Dillon, and in 1979, Over the Edge gave him his screen debut.

Matt Dillion in 'Over the Edge' 1979
Matt Dillon, age 15, in his debut film, Over the Edge (1979)Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Dillon played Richie, an ill-fated teen bad boy, but as Bernstein described, he didn’t have as much in common with his character as he initially led the filmmakers to believe. As she told Vice, “he was presenting himself as a tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Which was ridiculous. As we later learned, he was from a lovely family in a beautiful section of the suburbs of New York. He was as middle-class as they came.”

Portrait of Matt Dillon in 1980
Matt Dillon, age 16, strikes a tough-guy pose in a 1980 photo shootBrad Elterman/FilmMagic/Getty

Young Matt Dillon becoming an early ’80s teen star

While Over the Edge didn’t receive a wide release or box office success, Dillon won praise for his performance, and as the ’80s came around he was cast in a slew of teen-dream roles. In 1980, he played the boy Kristy McNichol hopes to lose her virginity to in the summer camp-set sex comedy Little Darlings.

Matt Dillon in 'Little Darlings' 1980
Matt Dillon, age 16, in Little Darlings (1980)Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

That same year, Dillon played a high school bully in My Bodyguard. Both Little Darlings and My Bodyguard were hits, and Dillon became a fixture of the era’s teen magazines. Dillon didn’t take his teen idol status too seriously, saying, “I can’t understand it. Looks aren’t a big thing to me. I keep reading these articles in fan magazines about me, and I don’t even know who they’re talking about. It’s boring,” in a 1983 interview.

Related: From ‘The Outsiders’ to ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’ See The Amazing Career of Diane Lane

Matt Dillon wears a tank top promoting 'My Bodyguard' in 1980
Matt Dillon wears a tank top promoting My Bodyguard in 1980Brad Elterman/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic/Getty

Starting in 1982, Dillon appeared in a trio of adaptations of young-adult novels by S.E. Hinton, Tex, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. The Outsiders was by far the most successful of the three, thanks in large part to its charismatic cast, which also included rising stars like Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez and Patrick Swayze.

Related: The Cast of ‘The Outsiders’ Then and Now: See Where the Stars of the ’80s Classic Are Today

Matt Dillon in 'The Outsiders' 1983
Matt Dillon, age 19, in The Outsiders (1983)Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

As the decade continued, Dillon starred in the 1984 crowdpleaser The Flamingo Kid, playing a working-class teen who takes a job at a beach resort. He then acted in a string of more serious but not particularly popular films, including Target (1985), Native Son (1986), The Big Town (1987) and Kansas (1988).

Matt Dillon, age 20, in 1984Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

More mature roles

In 1989, Dillon fully shed his pretty-boy teen star image with his role as a drug addict in the indie drama Drugstore Cowboy. He won rave reviews for his performance, with many critics calling it the finest work of his career to date.

As the film’s director, Gus Van Sant, described in a contemporary interview, “Matt definitely came to the part with a lot of baggage. He was unfairly typed as a teen idol. I remember when he and [director Francis Ford] Coppola really got slammed by the critics after making Rumble Fish. But I was very impressed by Matt. So I guess it became a special project with me, to change the critics’ minds.”

Kelly Lynch and kissing in a scene from the film 'Drugstore Cowboy', 1989
Kelly Lynch and Matt Dillon, age 25, in Drugstore Cowboy (1989)Avenue Pictures Productions/Getty

Established as a mature actor, Dillon appeared in rom-coms like Singles (1992) and Beautiful Girls (1996) as well as stylish indie films like To Die For (1995) and erotic thrillers like Wild Things (1998). In 1998, he showed his silly side as a sleazy private investigator in the hit comedy There’s Something About Mary.

Related: Young Robert Downey Jr.: A Look at His Dramatic Hollywood Journey From Bad Boy to Three-Time Oscar Nominee

Matt Dillon, age 31, in 1995Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

In 2002, Dillon made his debut as a director with the crime film City of Ghosts, which he also co-wrote and starred in. Nearly 20 years later, he directed his second film, El Gran Fellove, a documentary about a Cuban musician, in 2020.

The early ’00s brought Dillon yet another achievement, as he received an Oscar nomination for his performance as a racist cop in the 2004 film Crash. More recently, he shocked viewers with his harrowing portrayal of a serial killer in the controversial 2018 film The House That Jack Built.

Dillon in 2023
Matt Dillon, age 59, in 2023Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty

Today, Dillon is still working steadily, and when he’s not onscreen, he’s painting (he often shares his work on his Instagram account) and listening to Cuban music (he’s known for having an impressive collection of Cuban records). It’s safe to say Dillon has come a long way from his teen star origins, and over the years he’s taken on a number of surprising roles and established himself as a renaissance man who’s more than just a pretty face.

Read on for more about your favorite actors of the ’80s!

See the ‘Brat Pack’ Then and Now: The 8 Iconic Actors Who Dominated the ’80s

‘Blacklist’ Star James Spader Then & Now: How He Became The Guy We Love to Hate

‘Miami Vice’ Star Don Johnson Through the Years — From 80s Sex Symbol to Silver Fox

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