Before 'I See Dead People,' Haley Joel Osment Saw Casting Agents At Ikea Discovered at an Ikea in Burbank, Calif., he was a Hollywood actor by the time he was 5. But it was his performance as Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense that propelled a career that's lasted over 20 years.

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

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The setting is the gritty 1950s underground jazz scene. The story - a hilariously bizarre tale of a jazz-pianist-turned-detective. "The Spoils Before Dying" is the new miniseries on IFC, starring none other than Haley Joel Osment as an eccentric band manager named Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS BEFORE DYING")

HALEY JOEL OSMENT: (As Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones) I dare say, old bean, fantastic set.

RATH: Osment is young actor, but the story of his big break takes place over 20 years ago. It starts at an IKEA store in Burbank.

OSMENT: There was a casting table where these two young women were taking Polaroids of the all the kids that came through this IKEA store. 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, Bigfoot pizza, which I remember not being very good.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIZZA HUT AD)

OSMENT: (As character) Big would be an understatement.

Why did I pronounce it onderstatement (ph)? I guess they left that in (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PIZZA HUT AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Pizza Hut.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) From Pizza Hut.

RATH: That one second appearance was enough to get him noticed. The casting director for "Forrest Gump" happened to see the commercial and called Osment in for an audition.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And action.

OSMENT: (As Forrest, Jr.) What, Daddy?

TOM HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) Nothing. I think you read the book really good.

OSMENT: Here's five-year-old Haley Joel Osment reading alongside Tom Hanks for the part of Forrest, Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) I just - I just wanted to tell you that I love you.

OSMENT: (As Forrest, Jr.) I love you, too, Daddy.

I guess I sort of knew who Tom Hanks was, but me and my family were going fishing with another family in Bishop, Calif., right after this screen test. I remember that being on my mind, going, like, all right, like, do this and then we're - we'd go to the cabin, and then later going, oh, wow, that was a pretty important day (laughter)

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) I know this.

OSMENT: (As Forrest Gump) I want to show that for show and tell because Grandma used to read it to you.

One of the most important scenes in the movie, at the end when we're reading the book - I guess that's the scene we were doing there. Tom had this yellow legal pad, and he wrote out the scene for me with my lines circled on this legal pad. And I still have it today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) Hey, Forrest?

OSMENT: That's, you know, how I learned my lines at the last minute, and we did the scene by the - by the bus stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) I wanted to tell you I love you.

OSMENT: (As Forrest, Jr.) I love you, too, Daddy.

So after "Forrest Gump," I did a couple of years of network television. And then right about the time that was coming to an end, we got this script called "The Sixth Sense." I was 10 by then, so I was reading at a little bit of a higher level than when I was four (laughter) and knowing at that time that it was unlike anything I'd ever read before.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SIXTH SENSE")

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) Mama?

JANIS DARDARIS: (As Kitchen Woman) No, dinner is not ready. What are you going to do? You can't hurt me anymore.

OSMENT: I went in for Night, who, by that time, had been auditioning the role for a long time, all over the country. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SIXTH SENSE")

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) I want to tell you my secret now.

BRUCE WILLIS: (As Dr. Malcolm Crowe) OK.

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) I see dead people.

Doing that scene in the hospital with Bruce and how totally unaware, once again, we all were of what it would become. When we did that scene, nobody was going that's the line. It was just something that served a very important option within the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SIXTH SENSE")

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) Do you ever feel prickly things on the back of your neck?

WILLIS: (As Dr. Malcom Crowe) Yes.

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) That's them.

It wasn't so much a movie as it was about communication and how frightening it can be to not communicate with the people that are close to you or be unable to communicate with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

OSMENT: I feel lucky every day. And technically, I've been an actor for 23 years, 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. And that's what is going to keep me with it forever, hopefully. Every character I approach from "Forrest Gump" all the way to "The Spoils Before Dying" has a different set of requirements and always fascinates me.

RATH: Actor Haley Joel Osmond. Catch him in the new miniseries "The Spoils Before Dying" on IFC. You don't have to see dead people to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org.

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