Blue Bloods

The Transformation Of Donnie Wahlberg From Childhood To Blue Bloods

For most of his life, Donnie Wahlberg has endured the glare of the public spotlight, and every little step he takes adds to the legacy of his storied career. Any kid growing up in the 1980s or 1990s knew Wahlberg’s name by middle school — New Kids on the Block’s resident bad boy wore his Boston roots proudly, and fans were all for it. His posters adorned walls; his music blasted through boomboxes. Crowds of screaming preteen girls declared their steadfast love of and loyalty, then watched as Wahlberg transformed from boy band megastar to serious character actor and fast food restaurateur. The bad boy became a family man — and a familiar presence on our living room television screens.

Since 2010, Donnie Wahlberg has portrayed Detective Danny Reagan on the hit CBS drama “Blue Bloods.” Wahlberg makes Reagan a guy to root for, even when the detective’s hotheaded nature is frustrating. The eldest son of Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck), Danny is loyal to his family and dedicated to his job. He’s come a long way since his formative years in Boston — and with that in mind, here’s a look at the transformation of Donnie Wahlberg from childhood to “Blue Bloods.”

Born in Dorchester, Boston

Donald “Donnie” Edmond Wahlberg, Jr. entered the world on August 17, 1969. Born the eighth of nine children to Alma Elaine Donnelly Wahlberg, a nurse’s aide, and Donald Edmond Wahlberg, Sr., a Teamster and delivery driver, Donnie is the older brother of former rapper turned movie star Mark Wahlberg. Donnie was the fourth boy in the working-class clan, but his parents chose to bestow him with his father’s name — this kid would grow into something special.

Many people mistakenly believe that the Wahlbergs hail from South Boston, or “Southie,” Boston’s predominantly Irish neighborhood and the setting of a plethora of cinematic crime dramas. Donnie and his siblings actually grew up in Dorchester, a Boston area with its own distinctive charm and personality. In a November 28, 2017 tweet, Wahlberg called out the Mercury News for calling people “Southies” and for claiming the Wahlbergs grew up there. He proclaimed his love for South Boston, but confirmed he is most decidedly not native to “Southie.”

In a Boston Globe follow-up article to the Mercury News gaffe, writer Jeremy C. Fox likened calling someone a Southie to calling someone “a Bronx” or “a Queens.” No one in Boston refers to South Boston inhabitants as “Southies.” The neighborhoods border each other, but Dorchester is Boston’s largest neighborhood, and represents a more diverse population than its southern neighbor.

Childhood dreams and boyhood trouble

As Donnie Wahlberg reached adolescence, fractures in his home life grew. Wahlberg’s parents struggled to make ends meet and argued constantly. With seven older siblings at home, Wahlberg became known as the family peacemaker and interceded in normal teenage bickering. (Donnie didn’t remain the youngest for long; his brother Mark came along in 1971.)

When it came time for elementary school, Donnie Wahlberg was bussed to Roxbury — another Boston neighborhood a half-hour ride away from Dorchester. On the bus ride to school, he fell in love with rap music. After his parents divorced when he was 12, he fell into rebellious petty crime — shoplifting and fights — and in “Our Story,” the 1990 New Kids on the Block autobiography, he talks about living dangerously. But he also found a passion for performing and acted in school plays through high school; this passion would prove to transform his life.

At a young age, Wahlberg developed a love for music and obsessed over Michael Jackson videos. He would soak in Jackson’s choreography and teach himself the King of Pop’s dance moves. During his freshman year of high school, Wahlberg and fellow future New Kid on the Block Danny Wood formed a rap group called the Kool-Aid Bunch. It helped them meet girls, but neither dreamed of rising to stardom … although that would quickly change.

Hangin’ Tough

In 1984, 15-year-old Donnie Wahlberg found himself catapulting toward fame after music producer Maurice Starr hosted a massive talent search in Boston to discover the next New Edition. Starr was looking for kids with an edge that could sing, rap, and dance for his next superstar boy band, and he found his first two in Donnie and Mark Wahlberg. Donnie started recruiting his friends, including Kool-Aid Bunch member Danny Wood and buddy Jordan Knight. Knight’s older brother Jonathan signed on next. The band performed locally under the name Nynuk until Mark Wahlberg and original member Jamie Kelly decided to opt out. Starr held further auditions before landing on 12-year-old Joey McIntyre from Jamaica Plains, another Boston neighborhood.

Nynuk signed with Columbia Records, changed their name to New Kids on the Block, and released their eponymous debut album in 1986. The band’s second album, 1988’s “Hangin’ Tough,” cemented the boys on the Billboard music charts and saw them play sold-out venues. Each New Kids on the Block member played a stereotypical role, with Wahlberg serving as the bad boy. The band achieved international fame, sold millions of albums, and readied the stage for boy bands like NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. The band broke up in 1994 after Jonathan Knight left the group, but Wahlberg didn’t remain idle for long, as he took the leap into acting.

Charged with first-degree arson

On March 27, 1991, while on tour with New Kids on the Block, Donnie Wahlberg faced charges for first-degree arson. Wahlberg was a guest at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky when he soaked a hallway carpet with vodka and then ignited a small fire. He was partying with his friends and some New Kids on the Block fans, and took things a bit too far. Then 21 years old, Wahlberg didn’t harm anyone or cause extensive damage, but the charges he faced could have landed him significant jail time.

Although the fire reflected Wahlberg’s rebellious public image, he maintained that he didn’t intend to cause damage or do any harm. He immediately acknowledged his misstep and took full responsibility for his crime; as part of a plea deal, he offered to record a series of public service announcements and the court accepted his offer. The charges were reduced, but if they hadn’t been and the case had gone to trial, Wahlberg may have faced up to 20 years in prison.

The New Kid becomes a dad

During the same year Wahlberg set the fire, he began dating Kimberly Fey. Fey gave birth to Wahlberg’s first son, Xavier Alexander Wahlberg, on March 4, 1993. The 23-year-old father mellowed out a bit with young parenthood, and found himself devoted to the role of dad. On August 20, 2001, Fey gave birth to the couple’s second son, Elijah Hendrix Wahlberg.

Donnie Wahlberg has never thrust his kids into the spotlight, but his love for his sons is obvious. In fact, Xavier Wahlberg remains private into adulthood, and steers clear of social media. However, the eldest of Wahlberg’s sons has performed in a death metal band. Xavier Wahlberg refuses to ride on the coattails of his father’s success, and has carved out a life separate from the fame of the family name. Elijah doesn’t make public appearances very often either, but he can be spotted on his father’s old reality show “Donnie Loves Jenny” which ran on A&E for 26 episodes from January 2015 to April 2016.

A pop star lands a film role

Donnie Wahlberg made the leap from music to acting when he co-starred alongside Adrien Brody, Mickey Rourke, and Tupac Shakur in the 1996 crime thriller “Bullet.” The film’s story centers on Butch “Bullet” Stein (Mickey Rourke), a thief who escalates his crimes after serving an eight-year prison sentence. Bullet raises the ire of local crime kingpin Tank (Tupac Shakur) when he steals from him, and the two have a showdown. Wahlberg plays a henchman who works for Tank underling and Irish gangster Paddy (Matthew Powers), who winds up killing two of Tank’s cronies.

Wahlberg wasn’t handed a developed character with heavy dialogue, but he still managed to leave an onscreen impression. Although it was a small role, he worked alongside some real greats — including a then-unknown Peter Dinklage — and honed his acting talent. “Bullet” didn’t open to rave reviews and box office success, but it did open doors for Wahlberg to expand his acting resume. The same year, he appeared in the Mel Gibson vehicle “Ransom” and played Danny Quinn, the lead in the 1999 Boston crime drama “Southie.”

A pivotal role in The Sixth Sense

Wahlberg’s short yet pivotal appearance in M. Night Shyamalan’s critically acclaimed “The Sixth Sense” showed glimpses of his enormous acting talent. As Vincent Grey, Wahlberg is believable — and virtually unrecognizable: He starved himself to prepare to play Grey, and portrayed Grey’s mental disturbance with palpable distress. Grey’s actions in the opening moments of the film set in motion the character arc for Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). We won’t spoil the rest of the plot here … even though the movie earned six Academy Award nominations and its twist has become solidified in pop culture lore.

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“The Sixth Sense” proved Wahlberg’s dedication to character acting, and allowed him to shine. His appearance in the film only lasts for three minutes, but anyone who’s seen it will never forget his portrayal of Grey. After “The Sixth Sense,” Wahlberg began to land multiple film and television roles, and has since worked steadily in film as well as television.

Marries Kim Fey

Donnie Wahlberg began seriously dating Kimberly Fey, a singer and sound engineer, in 1991. Their son Xavier was six years old when they tied the knot in 1999. Fey produced some of Mark Wahlberg’s music when he was the frontman for Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Wahlberg never publicly immersed himself in the celebrity dating scene before meeting Fey, and didn’t receive much press about his dating partners until he and Fey grew serious. Fey’s life outside of the limelight seemed to provide balance for Wahlberg, and they began building a family together when they were both still in their early twenties.

After many years together, the couple looked ready to prepare for a lifetime commitment. They were married on August 20, 1999. Unfortunately, Wahlberg and Fey divorced in 2010 due to irreconcilable differences. Fey gained custody of their son Elijah (Xavier had reached adulthood), but Wahlberg remains close with him. Fey has since stepped completely out of the public eye, while Wahlberg found love again with Jenny McCarthy.

Welcome to the Boomtown

Donnie Wahlberg had starred in ten feature films and played several roles on television before he landed his first series regular part. While playing the role of Carwood Lipton in the award-winning HBO World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers,” he caught the eye of writer-producer Graham Yost, whose previous credits included writing the screenplay for “Speed”; in 2002, Wahlberg accepted Yost’s offer to play the role of Detective Joel Stevens on the NBC crime drama “Boomtown,” which ultimately aired from 2002-2003.

Also starring Neal McDonough and Jason Gedrick, “Boomtown” offered a gritty perspective on the lives of law enforcement, beat reporters, and emergency medical workers.The show might have flourished on cable television, but didn’t fare well as a network series. “Boomtown” lasted for two seasons, with Wahlberg appearing in each of the show’s 24 episodes. That was more than enough evidence to prove he was a natural at playing a detective — which more than likely led to the way he’s continued to land cop roles in the years to come.

More detective work in the Saw franchise

The hit horror film series “Saw” welcomed Wahlberg to the fold in its second film, 2005’s “Saw II.” He played protagonist Detective Eric Matthews, a disgraced cop tasked with capturing the demented killer known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). “Saw II” remains the highest-grossing film in the lengthy franchise, and longtime fans will also remember his brief appearance in the mockumentary “Full Disclosure Report: Piecing Together Jigsaw,” included on the “Saw” uncut DVD. He also appeared in “Saw III” and “Saw IV.”

In “Saw II,” Detective Matthews must come to terms with his own flaws and grievous missteps in order to save his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen). Wahlberg gives dimension to his character, making the detective someone we can cheer on in spite of his mistakes. Although “Saw” has a far grislier focus than most of the other projects in which Wahlberg’s played cops, it’s further proof of his knack for adding layers to very familiar roles.

Family burgers for the masses

In 2011, Donnie and his brothers, movie star Mark and chef Paul, collaborated to open the first Wahlburgers — combining delicious fast food and celebrity appeal to feed the masses. The brothers opened their first location in Hingham, Massachusetts with the tagline “Our Family. Our Story. Our Burgers.” The restaurant met with huge success right away, and in 2014, the “Wahlburgers” reality show began airing on A & E. The second Wahlburgers restaurant opened in Toronto, Ontario, Canada at the end of 2014.

In 2018, Donnie Wahlberg and his brothers opened their first location in Dorchester, bringing their cuisine and family support back to their old stomping grounds. The Wahlburgers brand now includes merchandise and a retail version of its “Wahl” sauce. In May 2020, Wahlburgers teamed with Crescent Capital to provide meals to frontline medical workers and families in need. Donnie and Mark Wahlberg are both “hands on” with the burger joints, finding time between their many other projects to help give back to the community. According to the Wahlburgers website, there are now 52 Wahlburgers locations around the world.

Narrates Boston Celtics documentary

Donnie Wahlberg has always been vocal about his lifelong loyalty to the Boston Celtics basketball team. In 2017, he had the chance to show off his support for his beloved Celtics when he signed on to narrate “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. The five-hour film showcases the storied histories of both franchises, dating back to the 1950s. Wahlberg shared narration duty with Ice Cube, who is a lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan.

Wahlberg’s pride for Boston sports shines through his narration, and he’s gone on record as saying he felt honored to be a part of the film. He recalled the fierce rivalry between the two teams in an interview for Boston.com, and remembered how it impacted fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. The documentary brought Wahlberg back to his own childhood when he was bussed to school as a part of Boston’s plan to desegregate the public school system, and spurred a personal reflection on his own Boston success story and how the Celtics impacted his formative years.

Hosts D Dubs R&B Back Rub

Donnie Wahlberg hasn’t slowed down since his entertainment career got started. He has a full-time acting schedule, co-owns a growing fast food empire, and enjoys life as a married father. Yet he still manages to squeeze more entertainment work into his tight itinerary. In 2011, Wahlberg started hosting D Dubs R&B Back Rub for Cherry Tree Radio. The show showcases the great R&B songs of the ’80s and ’90s, and helped increase public interest in the online radio station.

More recently, Wahlberg has entered another media world: In March 2022, he added “podcast host” to his lengthy resume, telling the story of convicted murderer Ronald DeFeo, Jr. for HLN. “Very Scary People” focuses on DeFeo’s life before the 1974 murders of his entire family in the Amityville, New York house that became the foundation for the “Amityville Horror” films. Just one of many attempts to shed light on a horrific crime, Wahlberg’s podcast investigates the story across six episodes.

Life with Jenny McCarthy

After recovering from the end of his marriage to Kim Fey, Wahlberg slowly re-entered the dating scene. In 2012, he met Jenny McCarthy; the following year, the pair embarked a relationship. McCarthy became a household name as the comedic host of the MTV dating show “Singled Out,” and before she met Wahlberg, she spent five years in a romantic relationship with Jim Carrey. McCarthy was also briefly married to television actor John Asher, with whom she had one son, Evan, in 2002.

Wahlberg and McCarthy quickly grew serious, marrying on June 8, 2014; along the way, McCarthy helped Wahlberg prepare for a particularly difficult “Blue Bloods” storyline. From 2015-’16, the newlyweds starred on the A&E reality show “Donnie Loves Jenny,” which highlighted their relationship and their blended family. According to an interview with US Weekly, the couple wanted the world to see that healthy, committed relationships take work, but the work pays off.

Blue-Blooded

Donnie Wahlberg’s professional and personal paths wound together to lead him to his long-lasting role as NYPD Detective Danny Reagan on the CBS police drama “Blue Bloods.” For over a decade, Wahlberg has portrayed the oldest son of the fictional Reagan law enforcement dynasty, and his nuanced performance uses the foundation of his previous roles to bring a palpable authenticity to the part.

Wahlberg gets along well with his onscreen “Blue Bloods” family, and has become close with Tom Selleck and Will Estes, who portrays his brother, NYPD Sergeant Jamie Reagan. His friendship with Bridget Moynahan, who plays Danny’s sister, Prosecutor Erin Reagan, goes back to 2008. The pop star who once lived life on the edge has evolved into a family man with an impressive acting resume. As for “Blue Bloods,” hardcore fans drive the series’ staying power … audiences could keep watching Wahlberg portray Danny Reagan for another 20 years.

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