Ben Curtis hopped on a bus, hoping to escape downtown Manhattan, like hundreds of others. He was covered in soot and had a shirt around his face to keep the debris out. He’d been crying and wasn’t sure if his friends were alive. The date was September 11, 2001 and the Twin Towers had collapsed. And despite the catastrophic tragedy that was taking place, the bus driver somehow managed to notice one detail.
“I needed to see if [some of my friends] were still alive, including my roommate,” explained Curtis to Fox News. “So I asked him if I could get off. And he was about to blow me off and say no way. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Wait a second. Are you the Dell guy?’ And I was like, ‘Seriously? Right now? It’s World War III can you let me off this bus?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, for you absolutely! You can get out right here.’”
At the time, the young actor was at the height of his fame. At age 20, while attending New York University on an acting scholarship, Curtis nabbed the commercial role of computer-loving slacker Steven in 2000, whose enthusiastic catchphrase, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” made him a celebrity.
It was a lucky break for the aspiring actor. He left behind Chattanooga, Tenn., for "the big city" to work. And thanks to a connection he had with a friend, he went to an audition for Dell that was originally casting a role for a child between the age of 12-17.
"I was the only guy in there without my mom," Curtis recalled.
After three call-backs, he got the role of Steven, quickly becoming a household name.
But Curtis, who lived two blocks from the World Trade Center, privately battled PTSD following what he witnessed on 9/11.
“I didn’t even know I was sick,” said the now 36-year-old. “For a long time, I was still really magnified at the height of the press. I was on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,’ and yet I was suffering with this PTSD and I had no idea… In all honesty, I was starting to self-destruct. I was showing up late for things, I struggled with drug and alcohol abuse — all of that was to try to self-medicate.”
Curtis’ tenure as the “Dell Dude” would end shortly after he began to spiral out of control. In 2003, he was arrested and accused of buying a bag of marijuana. Dell terminated the role and according to Curtis, he was blacklisted from the entertainment community, and it was impossible for him to find work.
But today he is grateful for the way his career came crashing down.
“Getting arrested actually helped me take time to get the help I needed and understand that I did actually have a disorder, a mental disorder,” he explained. “And I needed to take care of myself.”
It's been 17 years since Curtis landed his iconic role and he's in a better place these days. After the scandal, he immersed himself in theater and even used some of the money he earned from Dell to produce a stage version of the one-act play “The Indian Wants the Bronx."
Curtis is now sober and has launched a wellness company, Soul Fit NYC, with his fiancée Cassie Fireman. The duo's company aims to offer yoga and life coaching sessions to those in need.
He’s also starring in a new off-Broadway play, titled “The Crusade of Connor Stephens,” at New York City’s Jerry Orbach Theater beginning June 17.
“It deals with a family based in Texas, and it’s really an allegory for what American families are dealing with today in the 21st century,” he explained. “There’s an act of violence that takes place in the play that brings this family to deal with the ghost of their past. And there’s even some humor in there. But it really looks at how families overcome the differences or not and what happens when they’re forced to reconcile with what divides them.”
And Curtis, who has kept himself busy with auditions, is ready for a TV comeback. This time, he’ll know how to cope with the rise and pitfalls of stardom.
“I hope casting directors and agents come see the show,” he added, before giving the same megawatt smile that Steven once gave to his parents, friends and even co-workers before urging them to get Dell. “They’ll see my work and how I’ve grown as an adult.”