He has traded his Screen Actors Guild card for a Nike Tour card, but that doesn't mean Vic Wilk's days as a thespian are over. This much was obvious to anyone who watched Wilk's bravura performance during the pro-am that preceded last week's Nike San Jose Open at the Almaden Golf and Country Club. Playing with a quartet of hackers, Wilk was brilliant, praising each of them extravagantly for the most prosaic shots and masterfully implying, after their worm-burners, duck hooks and homely putts, that they weren't bad golfers, just unlucky.
When a computer-chip salesman uncorked a monstrous, rainbow slice on the 12th hole, Wilk recognized his cue. "With that natural fade of yours," he said, "this is a tough hole for you." When another exec yanked his tee shot 40 yards to the left of a 130-yard par-3, Wilk broke the embarrassed silence by proclaiming, "Your distance was perfect!" As Wilk kept up this spirit-raising patter for 18 holes, you couldn't help thinking, Now that's acting.
From Sonja Henie and Johnny Weismuller to O.J. Simpson and Shaquille O'Neal, plenty of athletes have moved into acting. Wilk has taken that path in reverse. He is the only professional actor we can think of who became a pro athlete. So unsubstantial were his roles that if you can remember any of them, you might consider seeking professional help. He was the elfin boy in the pointy green hat who declared, after a taste of Peter Pan peanut butter, "Super peanutty!" ("I caught so much grief in school for dressing up like Peter Pan," he recalls.) After making an entrance on a skateboard in another ad, he picked up a Stri-Dex medicated pad, ran it over his face, then held the dirty pad up for the camera. Says Wilk, "They told me not to wash my face for three days before the shoot."
The commercials helped pay for golf lessons and defray travel expenses. Wilk had a full schedule of tournaments during the summers because his parents had lofty ambitions on his behalf and, it turned out, at his expense. At 2½ Wilk picked up a wedge belonging to his stepfather, Allen Tonkins, and put a golf ball through a garage window 15 yards away.
"I said, 'This kid's a golfer,' " recalls Tonkins. "I tried to get him to swing right, but he was so lefthanded, I just left it alone." Last year Wilk became the first lefty in the Nike Tour's five-year history to win a tournament. He is known for having one of the sweetest, technically flawless swings on the tour. "It's because we started him so early," says Wilk's mother, Julie, who divorced Tonkins in the early '80s. "He was barely out of diapers."
When Wilk was five, Tonkins removed the backseat from the family's Cadillac and put a mattress down "so I could sleep and play," says Wilk. Two of the next three summers the family drove from its home in California's San Fernando Valley to Florida for the National Pee Wee championships, which Wilk won when he was seven. He played in as many as 20 tournaments per summer, and he won three junior world championships, twice in the 10-and-under and once in the 11-12 age divisions.
But golf didn't occupy all his time. About the same time young Vic busted that garage window with a golf shot, his mother took him to a tennis court and had him hit balls. A talent agent noticed him, and suddenly the toddler had a career in acting. By the time he was 17, Wilk had appeared in dozens of commercials, pitching such products as Mountain Dew, Snickers bars and Jell-O. In the twilight of his acting career he had a few bit parts in the soaps.
Sounds like a busy childhood. "It was," says the 34-year-old Wilk, a trace of bitterness creeping into his voice. "Too busy. I never had time to be a kid."
The constant cattle calls and early curfews and groundings for not playing well began to chafe on Wilk, who grew into an increasingly angry adolescent. Mount Wilk erupted during his senior year of high school. A review of his school records revealed something his mother had never told him: Tonkins was not his biological father. Wilk had always gone by his mother's maiden name—she'd told him it was to facilitate his acting career. He angrily accused his parents of having lied to him all his life. His grades, always excellent, went south, cooling the interest of college coaches.
It was around then, recalls Julie, that "Vic stopped showing up for auditions. His agent said goodbye." So much for his acting career.