Robin Williams was onboard, Drugstore Cowboy's Gus Van Sant was to direct. Best of all, Damon could now star as Will Hunting, the intellectual superstar trapped in a South Boston body, with Affleck as his best buddy - first holding him back, then finally pushing him out into a better world.
When he later appeared as an extra in Field Of Dreams, Matt would pluck some blades of grass from Boston Red Sox' legendary Fenway Park and present them to his delighted father. Matt, of course, played Little League as soon as he could and, along with all fans of the Red Sox, has spent most of his Autumns weeping with rage and humiliation as the play-offs turn bad yet again and those damn Yankees win through. But, beyond his parents, there was another major influence on Matt's early life. At 10, he met a guy, two years his junior, from two blocks down the road Ben Affleck">- Ben Affleck.
Name: Matt Damon
8 October 1970 (Age: 43)
Where: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Height: 5' 10"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 1 Golden Globe
It could be said that Matt Damon, along with his longtime buddy Ben Affleck, was the surprise cinematic hit of the 1990s. After all, their feel-good smash, Good Will Hunting, seemed to come out of nowhere to win them both Oscars and set them up with starlet girlfriends like Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder, and regular multi-million-dollar paydays. It's a nice story, rags to riches, the little guys made good, with Affleck and Damon's lives mirroring that of their movie's hero.
Damon himself, though, might view his own career path a little differently. Whereas Affleck's parents had connections in the Biz, setting him up with onscreen work before he was 10, Damon had to work that little bit harder. Whereas, before Good Will Hunting, Affleck had appeared only in minor roles and dodgy TV movies, Damon had delivered several excellent performances in several excellent films - each of which had gone painfully unnoticed. Unlike Affleck, Damon had come within inches of fame and fortune. Indeed, he may well have made it even without Good Will Hunting - after all, he had just won the lead in a Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of a John Grisham novel. So Damon's success should, perhaps, not be considered such a shock. Furthermore, he'd also go on to prove himself in such dramas as Syriana and The Departed, action hits like the Bourne trilogy, plus the Ocean movies, and receive a further Oscar nomination for his work as a South African rugby star in Invictus. He clearly wasn't just some cinematic interloper who'd lucked out. He was talented, dedicated and immensely hard-working.
He was born Matthew Paige Damon on October 8th, 1970, in the Cambridge area of Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Kent, was an investment banker and tax preparer, while his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige (hence the middle name) was Professor of Education at Lesley College, specialising in early education. Matt has one brother, Kyle, three years his senior and now a sculptor.
For the first two years of his life, Matt lived in the seriously expensive Newton district of Boston. When he was 2, though, his parents divorced and he moved, with Nancy, to nearby Cambridge. This area, where Harvard is situated, was also well-to-do, but not QUITE as rich as Newton. Nancy's plan was for Matt and Kyle to be well-provided-for, but not shut away from the real world. Thus one neighbour was Howard Zinn, author of A People's History Of The United States, while opposite Chez Matt was a halfway house.
Matt was a happy, if shy child. With his studies overseen by his mother (later described by Affleck as "an activist lefty"), he was a Straight-A man throughout his education. His father was heavily involved too, particularly in steeping the boy in baseball history.
The pair did EVERYTHING together. They played baseball, for real and on video, and Dungeons And Dragons. They attended trashy movie double-features, and they both attended the pricey Rindge And Latin prep school. And it was here that Matt really took to acting.
He'd always enjoyed performing. Indeed, he remembers as a child trying to organise plays with his brother and the local kids. "There are all these pictures of me and my neighbour dressed as firemen," he later told Premiere "and he's always standing there next to me, not really knowing why we're doing it". Yet Damon didn't simply have an early understanding of the satisfaction to be gleaned from putting on a good show. To him, an actor's life, even Hollywood stardom, was a very real proposition. After all, Affleck's father had partied with Dustin Hoffman and Ben himself was in adverts at age 8, TV movies before his teens and had appeared with Madeline Kahn and Armand Assante while still at school. So Damon WORKED at acting, just as he worked at all his lessons. Gerry Specca, his drama coach at Rindge And Latin, remarked upon his "great potential and wonderful talent".
Along with Affleck, Damon took work as an extra in any locally-shot movie that would have him. Then, at 16, he decided to go for it, take off for New York and the bright lights. His parents, deeply disapproving of his career choice, would not fund the trip. But Damon had just scored an advert and placed the money in the joint account he and Affleck used for audition-expenses. He could afford it.
It began fantastically well. In New York, Affleck introduced him to his agent and he was instantly cast in Mystic Pizza, with an about-to-explode Julia Roberts. There was also The Good Mother, directed by Leonard "Spock" Nimoy and starring Diane Keaton as a mum who must prove herself in court. And . . . that was it. Damon's bright beginning led to absolutely nothing - a pattern he would repeat for the best part of a decade.
Matt returned home to carry out Plan B (unlike Affleck - Damon would always have a Plan B). Those Straight-As had won him a place at prestigious Harvard. Once he graduated from there, he reckoned, he could move on to the Yale School Of Drama, Alma Mater of the grand likes of Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. Once more, he threw himself into his studies, eventually receiving one of the first varsity letters in dramatics - a massive deal, by his own admission.
Extremely practical, Damon was also looking for parts, and getting them. In Rising Son, he got into trouble for dropping out of pre-med school just as his father, Brian Dennehy, was made redundant. Then came School Ties, where a Jewish boy battles for respect at a rich prep school. The movie featured the pre-stellar likes of Brendan Fraser and Chris O'Donnell, as well as Damon and, naturally, Affleck. Then came a big, big opportunity - a starring role (along with narrating duties) in Walter Hill's glorious epic of the Old West, Geronimo: An American Legend.
With this part in the bag, Damon quit Harvard with 12 credits still needed for graduation. He took off for Los Angeles, believing he was made. How could Geronimo fail? There was Hill, director of 48 Hours and The Warriors: there were Gene Hackman and Jason Patric: there was Wes Studi who'd just broken through in Dances With Wolves and Last Of The Mohicans: AND there was the eco-friendly, deeply spiritual, pro-Native American message. Surely everything was set for an avalanche of Oscars.
But, for the second time, nothing happened. Geronimo was a great movie, but bizarrely overlooked. Damon, now with Affleck crashing on his couch (which he did for YEARS), went looking again. Now began a dark time for Matt. He turned down a big-money role in Sam Raimi's The Quick And The Dead, only to see Leonardo DiCaprio snap up the part and, along with co-star Russell Crowe, race towards stardom. He lost out to Joaquin Phoenix over To Die For, as he would to Edward Norton over Primal Fear. The only part that came his way was as a member of the Calloway family in The Good Old Boys, a Western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones.
During filming, sat in a Texas hotel room, he wondered why he was earning less than when he was 19, how it had all failed to go right. His thoughts turned, as they often had done before, to writing a breakthrough role for himself. In fact, they turned to a breakthrough role he had ALREADY written for himself. Back at Harvard, for an English class, Damon had begun a script about a young maths prodigy working as a janitor at Harvard. Later, he'd worked on it some more with Affleck (whose father, as an ex-Harvard janitor, had partly inspired the tale). It was more or less completed by 1992 (it was originally a thriller), but the pair kept returning to refine it. They tried many times to sell it, too, but no one was buying. Now, in the throes of desperate disappointment, Damon decided to give the script, Good Will Hunting, another go.
At last, they found a taker. Trouble was, Castle Rock wanted the movie, but they didn't want Damon and Affleck to star in it (which pretty much defeated their purpose). The pair just weren't famous enough, and had no decent recommendations. Then, all of a sudden, things happened to change all that. While Damon had been battling for classy roles in big projects, Affleck had gone the indie route, appearing in several of Kevin Smith's movies. Now Smith took Good Will Hunting to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Weinstein respected Smith, liked the story, liked the price. And, perhaps most importantly, he saw that Damon and Affleck were no longer the nobodies they had been. At least, Damon wasn't.
While shopping Good Will Hunting around for the last time (Damon claims he was on the verge of quitting), Matt's profile was raised considerably. First, he scored a role as a junkie Gulf War vet in Courage Under Fire, starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. Washington's called in to investigate an incident in Iraq that's resulting in a posthumous medal for Ryan. Under heavy questioning Lou Diamond Phillips admits that Ryan, who had already stopped her men from deserting a wounded colleague, was left behind to be napalmed by her own side. He made the call, the indecisive Damon maintaining a guilty silence and consequently suffering a pain made bearable only by drugs. Damon would seriously suffer for the part, rather dangerously losing 40 pounds without the help of a professional nutritionist (it took years for his metabolism to return to normal), but his efforts were worthwhile. He was excellent and thoroughly eye-catching in his wrecked state. Unfortunately, despite Washington singing Matt's praises in every interview, the critics ignored him.
To Damon, this was an awful blow. He felt that no matter how hard he tried, he could get no further. But, thankfully, his efforts now paid off. Being an ambitious and canny sort, Damon had noted how his friend Matthew McConnaughey had hit paydirt with A Time To Kill, an adaptation of a hugely popular John Grisham novel. He began to chart the course of all the other Grisham projects in Hollywood, putting himself into contention wherever possible. Eventually, he found himself on a short-list of two to star in Francis Ford Coppola's take on The Rainmaker. Ordinarily, this would be exciting. Sadly, his rival was once again Ed Norton. "I didn't think I had anything on him," Damon told Premiere later "so I was really surprised and happy when I got it - literally jumping up and down".
Damon, of course, seized his chance. To pick up the Southern accent necessary, he went down to Knoxville, Tennessee, and worked for free in a bar, listening intently to the customers. He even hired one of them as his voice-coach. But whether or not he was going to be any good in The Rainmaker, just getting the role gave him a new stature in the industry. Miramax decided to pay him and Affleck $500,000 for Good Will Hunting.
Released on Christmas Day, 1997, Good Will Hunting was a mega-smash, appealing to all those who like to believe that you don't need high birth to reach high places. Damon and Affleck became heroes to underdogs everywhere (odd, given their privileged backgrounds), and the movie soon shot over the $100 million mark. Come the Oscars in 1998, it received no fewer than nine nominations. In the Best Actor category, Damon was beaten by Jack Nicholson's efforts in As Good As It Gets, but Robin Williams snapped up Best Supporting Actor, thereby revitalising a career that was floundering in a sea of schmaltz. Damon and Affleck, fittingly, were honoured together, sharing the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Their down-home boys-next-door reputation was further sealed when they turned up to the ceremony with their mums.
Also nominated was British actress Minnie Driver, who Damon had been dating for some time. Not only did she not win, but she'd also had to face the humiliation of being dumped by Damon, live on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Now, THIS was a strange story. In public, Damon had and has always been extremely reticent about his relationships. You might even call him a gentleman. So, to announce his split with Driver on TV was most unlike him - SO unlike him, in fact, that you feel there were ulterior motives. Was it for press at Oscar-time? Did Damon, convinced that he stood no chance against the weighty likes of Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and a resurgent Peter Fonda anyway, risk appearing like a right meanie to boost the chance of Best Movie and Best Director? Was he so very confident of the screenplay award? Did Driver accept the real-life role of the reject in order to tug at the heart-strings of Academy members?
So, by 1998, Damon, Affleck and Good Will Hunting were hot property. But it must be reiterated that Damon was already well on his way. In the same way that the super-smart Harvey Weinstein had recognised the industry buzz around Matt, and his tremendous abilities (he was proved correct by Good Will Hunting becoming Miramax's biggest ever grosser), so an even smarter power-monger had caught on to Damon's potential. Before the Oscars, before the big money, Steven Spielberg had already cast Matt in his forthcoming war epic, Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Damon was to BE Private Ryan, reluctantly rescued by Tom Hanks.
What a year. Not only did Good Will Hunting remain on screens throughout most of 1998, but the unbelievably brutal Saving Private Ryan was the most talked-about movie of the year. AND there was another US Number One in Rounders, a gambling drama in which Damon starred alongside his former nemesis Ed Norton.