McCarthy gained recognition in Hollywood during the 1980s. His boyish good looks continually had him placed as the sincere and kind leading man. His breakout role was in the 1983 theatrical film Class. As McCarthy's career grew, he involuntarily became a member of the '80s Hollywood group of young actors known as the "Brat Pack"; McCarthy's better-known films include the Brat Pack films St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty in Pink. During the filming of St. Elmo's Fire, McCarthy took up smoking, a habit he dropped in 1995. He starred in the 1987 box office hits, Mannequin and Less Than Zero, a theatrical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' popular novel. In 1985, McCarthy starred with Donald Sutherland and Kevin Dillon in Heaven Help Us (also known as Catholic Boys) playing Michael Dunn. In 1985, McCarthy made his Broadway debut in The Boys of Winter. He quickly returned to Hollywood in 1988 to star in several films, such as Fresh Horses and Kansas.
He had another hit in the 1989 comedy film Weekend at Bernie's. In 1991, he played the lead role in the motion picture Year of the Gun, a thriller which received mixed reviews from critics. In 1992, he starred in the romantic comedy film Only You. In 1993, he reprised the lead role of Larry Wilson in the sequel to the box office hit Weekend at Bernie's, Weekend at Bernie's II, the sequel was successful in the box office. He also had a supporting role in the critically acclaimed The Joy Luck Club. In 1994, he starred in the motion pictures Getting In, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Dead Funny. In 1996, he starred in the motion picture I'm Losing You, a theatrical adaptation of the novel I'm Losing You. He also starred in the period piece, Mulholland Falls. In 1997, he starred in the motion picture Stag. He also starred in the 1999 theatrical film A Twist of Faith as a police detective.
He returned to Broadway theatre to star in Side Man, McCarthy's version of the play won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1999. In 2003, McCarthy was set to guest star in two episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Due to bad relations with actor Vincent D'Onofrio, series creator Dick Wolf decided against it. Wolf later stated, "Mr. McCarthy engaged in fractious behavior from the moment he walked on the set." McCarthy fired back in a statement of his own saying, "I was fired because I refused to allow a fellow actor to threaten me with physical violence, bully me and try to direct me." Despite this incident, he later guest starred in an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (with Chris Noth, not D'Onofrio) that originally aired in November 2007. In 2004, he played Dr. Hook in Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital. He appeared in five episodes of the now-cancelled NBC television series E-Ring. In 2008, he starred in the NBC television series Lipstick Jungle as a billionaire, but was eventually cancelled, and had a minor role in The Spiderwick Chronicles. He is ranked #40 on VH1's 100 Greatest Teen Stars of all time list. McCarthy recently directed several episodes of the hit CW television series, Gossip Girl, including Touch of Eva in the fourth season. In 2010 and 2011, he also appeared in the hit USA show White Collar; he was praised by several critics for his performance in the episodes. He returned to the series in the next season to direct the episode "Neighborhood Watch".
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