TAMPA — Andy Steinlen had a childhood crush on Ike Eisenmann, star of the 1976 blockbuster “Escape to Witch Mountain.”
For starters, Eisenmann was a teen heartthrob, Steinlen said. But it was more so for what Eisenmann represented. Steinlen, 58, grew up gay in Tampa in the 1970s and ′80s, when coming out did not feel like an option.
“I felt like a misfit,” he said. And, while Eisenmann is straight, “he often played misfits. That’s probably why a lot of gay boys from that time weirdly all had a crush on him.”
Steinlen has produced a documentary about that phenomenon.
“Dear Ike: Lost Letters to a Teen Idol” is now streaming on PBS and will be broadcast on its Tampa affiliate, WEDU, on June 23 for Pride Month.
“It’s a love letter to anybody who remembers feeling out of place,” said Steinlen, who now lives in Los Angeles. “If anyone feels any sort of comfort after watching, I think we won.”
That wasn’t the movie’s initial intent.
“Dear Ike” began as a documentary about Dion Labriola’s innocent childhood obsession with Eisenmann. Labriola is a friend of Steinlen.
It started as a crush and then morphed into a dream to work with the actor who most famously played Tony in “Escape to Witch Mountain.”
Tony is an orphaned boy who can move objects with his mind and communicate telepathically with his sister. The siblings are outcasts at their orphanage, but then learn why they are different. They are aliens who must reunite with their kind at Witch Mountain.
A few years after the movie’s release, while growing up in Ohio, Labriola wrote a script for an animated science fiction movie about a boy who crashes on an alien planet, where he is befriended by a magical owl.
He wanted Eisenmann to voice the owl.
Upon later learning that Eisenmann wanted to make animated movies too, Labriola was adamant that they also needed to work together as producers. He wrote letters to Eisenmann — a lot of them.
The documentary focuses on Labriola’s humorous and often failed attempts to mail the letters to the right address and his disappointment when Eisenmann did not reply. But Labriola also realizes that his determination to make the movie with Eisenmann helped him make it through childhood years when he felt like an outcast for being gay.
Steinlen related to that.
“Junior high was the darkest time of my life,” he said. “That’s when kids start getting mean. I was clearly different, so I had it bad.”
Innocently focusing on actors and actresses was a distraction for him, too.
“I wasn’t nearly as obsessive as Dion,” Steinlen laughed. “But I was crazy about ‘Mary Poppins,’ so I wrote to Julie Andrews. And I was strangely obsessed with Margaret Hamilton,” the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” “I became hysterical when she melted. I was so upset because she was the best part of the movie.”
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He later found an outlet in acting, starring on stage for Chamberlain High School, the University of South Florida, The Playmakers and Stageworks.
“Acting changed everything,” Steinlen said. “I was able to do what I do and stand out for that.”
Then, in 1987, he was off to Hollywood to fulfill his cinematic dreams.
There was early success. He booked a few episodes of “General Hospital” and was cast in the school dance scene in the 1989 cult classic “Teen Witch.”
“You don’t even see me in ‘Teen Witch,’” Steinlen said. “That was one of the hard lessons. There are a lot of disappointments out here.”
But he thrived in the theater for decades.
“And then Dion called me out of the blue,” Steinlen said. “He wanted to make something about Ike, and I didn’t think twice.”
The documentary includes animations, and Eisenmann is interviewed, which enabled Labriola to fulfill that childhood dream of making an animated film with his favorite actor.
“Without sounding too Shirley MacLaine, it’s about the magic of the universe,” Steinlen said. “When you put a lot of love and passion into a dream, somehow the universe conspires, and it will make things happen.”
How to watch
“Dear Ike: Lost Letters to a Teen Idol”
To stream it, download the PBS app or visit pbs.org and search for the title. It will be broadcast on WEDU at 9 p.m. June 23.