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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Dude! It's Alex Winter!

By Chris Lee
PEOPLE

Winter
Winter at the Toronto Film Festival in 1999

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(PEOPLE) -- Alex Winter can't turn his back on the past.

It's been over a decade since he and Keanu Reeves braved the time-space continuum as half-baked slackers in the cult comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989) and its sequel, "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" (1991).

In that time, their characters' mantra -- "party on, dude!" -- has become enshrined in the pop culture lexicon. And Winter, now 37, has never stopped being recognized by rabid fans as his movie alter ego, Bill. "To this day, no matter where I am in the world, it happens every day," he says.

Well, except once, on an autumn evening a few years ago, when he and Reeves met for a quiet dinner in New York City. Neither had paid much attention to the date, so when they walked out of the restaurant into a crowd of costumed people thronging the streets of lower Manhattan, they were thunderstruck. "We were like, 'Oh, s--t! It's Bill and Ted in the middle of the Halloween parade,'" remembers Winter, with a grin.

He and Reeves -- whom Winter still calls one of his closest friends -- waited for their cover to be blown. But then: "Nobody batted an eyelash. We just looked like two fat, older guys who were trying to be Bill and Ted," laughs Winter.

Now an accomplished director

Seated at a massive conference table in the New York office of Creative Film Management, Winter is dressed simply in jeans and a green sweater and -- despite his self-derogatory comments -- appears slimmer than he was in his acting days.

Off to Australia the following day to shoot a commercial, he also appears more self-possessed. Since retreating behind the camera eight years ago, he has become an accomplished TV commercial and video director, and his solo feature debut, "Fever," opened in March 2001.

The paranoid thriller starred Henry Thomas and Teri Hatcher, and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Critics applauded Winter's sure-handed direction and the film's tautly efficient script, which he also wrote.

Winter has been directing professionally since 1985, when he graduated from New York University's film school and moved to Los Angeles. Today he calls his acting career "kind of a fluke." A professional multitasker from a young age, he auditioned for roles throughout his early twenties but always considered acting just a pleasurable way to generate money for his writing and directing projects. "I was as poor as anybody at film school," he recalls. Becoming a cultural icon wasn't exactly in the plan.

"Looking for legitimacy as an actor, I wasn't," Winter says. "I'm not your average movie star type." In fact, he says, he enjoys acting, but he enjoys writing and directing more. "You don't really have time to do both with any degree of efficiency," he observes.

200 auditions for dude status

But in the mid-'80s he was still looking for acting work to pay the bills, and that's when he got "Bill and Ted" -- "after 200 auditions!" he says, laughing.

"Freaked," a well-received 1993 comedy that he also co-wrote and co-directed, was Winter's last acting job. Over the last five years he has shot music videos for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice Cube, and has directed television commercials for Peugeot and Ford in far-flung locales including the Sahara desert and the rain forests of Puerto Rico. "We recreated Tony the Tiger using CGI (computer-generated images)," he says. "We did, like, a James Bond adventure. Very psychedelic and fun."

Born in the U.K., Winter moved from London to St. Louis when he was 5. There his father, Ross, ran the Mid-American Dance Company, the Midwest's largest modern dance troupe, and his mother, Gregg Mayer, taught dance at Washington University. As a child, Winter dabbled in acting. The family moved to New York when Alex was 13 and once there he performed in Broadway productions including "The King & I" and "Peter Pan." These days, he divides time between Los Angeles and his home in upstate New York where he lives with his wife of 10 years, Sonya, and their 2-year-old son, Leroy.

"(Directing is) the continuation of everything he's done so far," says Connie Tavel, who has been Winter's personal manager for 18 years. "He has a wiseness and focus that belie his years -- he's known what he was going to do all along."

But he isn't exactly sure what the future holds. In the short run, he is writing another script and has talked with Reeves about collaborating again. "I'm happy to just shoot ads and not make another movie for another four years," Winter says. "Ideally I'd like to do choice things ... but I'd like to do a lot of them."


For more Where Are They Now? stories, visit PEOPLE.COM


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