Achtung, babies! Success comes fast to showbiz kids,
lost careers faster
by Timothy M. Gray
Daily Variety, June 22, 1992
Child actors. The words conjure up the notable success stories: Jodie
Foster, Ron Howard, Kurt Russell, Shirley
Temple, Elizabeth Taylor,
Roddy McDowall, Barbara Hershey,
Richard Thomas, Patty Duke, Rick Schroder, Diane Lane, Molly Ringwald,
Valerie Bertinelli, Veronica Cartwright, Philip McKeon. The words also
conjure up names like Alfalfa Switzer, Judy
Garland, Adam Rich, Anissa Jones, the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes"--
cute kids who grew into lives colored by divorces, arrests, drug addictions,
suicides. But while a few have gone on to greater success and some have
come to troubled times, most of those are the extreme exceptions; in truth,
most child stars have simply disappeared. (Come back, Pamela Franklin,
we miss you!)
The way children have been depicted, as well as the way the industry
deals with them off-screen, reflect changes in society and in its attitudes
toward kids. The history of child stars in Hollywood begins with adults
playing children and ends with children being treated like adults. In the
early days, movies often borrowed tradition from the stage of having grownups
impersonating kids, especially in leading roles. America's Sweetheart Mary
Pickford was 24 when she played "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm";
two years later she played "Pollyanna." While there were child
actors in supporting roles, like Madge Evans, 5 in 1914's "Sign of
the Cross," arguably the first child star was Jackie Coogan, 6 in
Charlie Chaplin's 1920 "The
Kid." His family's use of money helped create the Coogan Law, which
guarantees that a big chunk of a minor's earnings will be saved for adulthood;
but the law only protects kids whose contracts have been approved by a
judge, thus exempting the vast majority of kidstars. Hal Roach started
the "Our Gang" shorts in the '20s, continuing cast changes into
the '40s. In the early '30s, the best known of the group was Jackie Cooper,
but, thanks to TV, the best known are probably Spanky Macfarland, Alfalfa
Switzer, Darla Hood and Buckwheat Thomas, who dominated the series in the
All in the family
In the '30s, filmgoing was a family activity, and studios devoted
a good percentage of their output to family films. That decade gave rise
to the image of child stars that persists today. Besides the "Our
Gang" actors, there were such little stars as Baby Leroy and Dickie
Moore; the two Jackies, Cooper and Coogan, and MGM's
stable, including such b.o. draws as Judy
Garland, Mickey Rooney and
Freddie Bartholomew. This era, more than any other, set the image of child
stars: adorable, talented, treated like royalty by the studio that tailored
projects to their abilities, and bringing home paychecks that surpassed
those of most Depression-era adults.
In truth, the realities of their studio situations were more complex
and often much darker than that, but in terms of big-screen child stars,
the '30s were the peak. And the quintessential child star was/is Twentieth
Century-Fox's Shirley Temple,
the chubby- cheeked tyke with the pouty lips who furrowed her brow when
upset, and erupted into a widening of the eyes and beaming grin when cheered.
Sixty years later, can anyone listen to "Animal Crackers in My Soup"
or "On the Good Ship Lollipop" without thinking of Temple?
(Conversely, can anyone today listen to those songs?) She certainly had
her detractors; at least one critic said that she seemed more like an adult's
inept impersonation of a child than a real youngster; and Temple
and Fox sued short-lived periodical
Night and Day after Graham Greene wrote an article commenting on
the seductive sexuality underneath the tot's smiling exterior. But the
public loved her. To most of them, the multi-talented Temple,
in her tailor-made vehicles like "Curly Top" and "Captain
January," was the ideal child: plucky, resourceful and selfless. She
was a star by age 5 in 1933 and was one of the top box office draws of
the decade. And the world was cheered by the fact that she seemed like
a normal kid.
The talented tyke grew up to be a congresswoman [sic], U.S. rep to
the U.N. and Ambassador to Ghana; what more could any parent ask for in
a child? Values change In the '40s, post-WW II era, values changed and
the improbability of a child like Temple
solving adult problems seemed no longer acceptable. As they got older,
Garland and Rooney
flourished in vehicles reflecting their growth: Garland
in such fare as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "The Clock,"
Rooney in roles ranging from
Puck to Andy Hardy. (Laurence Olivier
once praised Rooney as the world's
greatest actor.) Meanwhile, a new generation of youngsters cropped up.
Notable '40s tykes include Virginia Weidler ("The
Philadelphia Story"), Margaret
O'Brien, who could cry at the drop of a hat; Roddy
McDowall, Deanna Durbin,
Peggy Ann Garner, Claude
Jarman Jr. (in "The Yearling," one of the best examples of
the children-and-animals genre); and three who would go on to bigger success
in the '50s: Donald O'Connor,
Ann Blyth (excellent in "Mildred Pierce") and Natalie
Wood. And, of course, the star of "National Velvet," MGM's
Elizabeth Taylor. If Shirley
Temple is the ultimate child star, Taylor
is the ultimate movie star. Taylor's
life, though not always easy, became a matter of public record and public
fascination: the marriages, the divorces, the illnesses, the diamonds.
Her larger-than-life lifestyle often threatened to overshadow the fact
that she is also a hard-working philanthropist and a very talented actress.
The end of the innocence of on-screen childhood is signaled in the
late '40s with Ivan Jandl in Fred
Zinnemann's "The Search" and Dean Stockwell in "The
Boy with the Green Hair" as post-war sensibilities and European neo-realist
films caused Americans to look on the troubles of childhood in a different
way. The changes became even more pronounced in the '50s as the grip of
the production code loosened and America became obsessed with television
and teenagers. Filmgoing was no longer a family event. TV watching was.
Before the word demographics was used, producers realized teens were a
target audience. And filmmakers also realized teens don't want to see their
kid brothers and sisters on the screen. The era of sweet with gee-whiz
troubles, like Andy Hardy or radio's Henry Aldrich, was over. It was a
decade of "Blackboard Jungle," of youth heroes like motorcycle-riding
Marlon Brando in "The Wild
One" (asked what he was rebelling against, he replies "What have
you got?") James Dean in "East
of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause." Latter pic also reflected
the changes by starring Natalie Wood,
the precocious kid who had learned to believe in Santa Claus in 1947's
"Miracle on 34th Street,"
as a troubled teen, rebelling against her parents. It was a decade of "I
Was a Teenage Werewolf," "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," "Teenage
Caveman," "Teenage Monster," "Teenage Rebel," "Teenagers
From Outer Space," an era of Sandra Dee, Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue
and Carole Lynley. And while it would be a generalization to say that children
were muscled off the screen in the '50s, kids were often relegated to supporting
roles as parents dealt with post-war anxieties: divorce, romance, etc.,
personified by such tykes as Gigi Perreau in Douglas Sirk melodramas.
But on TV, well, that was another story. Children ruled TV in the
'50s. Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Laurin Chapin, "Father Knows
Best"; Tommy Rettig then Jon Provost, "Lassie"; David and
Ricky Nelson, "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," with Skip
Young as Wally; "The Mickey Mouse Club" (in early examples of
actors making the transition to bigscreen from TV, Disney
starred Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine in features after
they'd proven themselves on television); Sherry Jackson and Rusty Hamer,
"Make Room for Daddy," later "The Danny Thomas Show"
with Angela Cartwright and Hamer. TV also included such youngsters as Noreen
Corcoran on "Bachelor Father," and Stan Livingston, Don Grady,
Tim Considine, later Barry Livingston, "My Three Sons," two of
a long tradition of sitcoms about single parents raising kids--does Dan
Quayle know about these shows?
The '60s continued the tradition of child stars flourishing on TV
(see below), often as smart-mouthed kids who see things more clearly than
the befuddled adults.
Acting high points
While youngsters on the bigscreen were less frequent than in earlier
years, the '60s brought some of the best child performances ever: Patty
Duke in "The Miracle Worker," Barry Gordon in "A Thousand
Clowns," Sue Lyon in "Lolita," Hayley
Mills in "Tiger Bay" and Mary Badham, Philip Alford and John
Megna in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Last pic is a rare example
of a film, like "Shane," "Member of the Wedding," "The
Yearling," "E.T." and "Men Don't Leave," that
attempts to see childhood from a child's point of view. Too often, children's
roles are written as if children are little adults; cute kids are plentiful
and often used as plot devices or adult accessories, but few pix have seriously
attempted to see childhood from kids' perspective.
The '70s brought a new era to the bigscreen: demonic children. Perhaps
it was a reaction to the wholesome image of TV kids from the '50s and '60s;
maybe the breakdown of the traditional family made traditional kids seem
impossible--or perhaps it was from filmmakers seeing the results of having
raised their kids permissively ("We believe it's a very freeing experience
for Dylan to have these tantrums"). Before the '70s, there had been
occasional film presentations of the dark side of childhood, with brats
like Bonita Granville in 1936's "These Three" and Jane Withers,
tormenting Little Miss Temple
in such films as "Bright Eyes." But in general types like the
Dead End Kids, the Bowery Boys and the little delinquents in "Boys
Town," well, gee, they wasn't bad, they was just misunderstood. The
seeds for the '70s vision of kids was planted in 1956's "The Bad Seed"
with Patty McCormack as the murderous Rhoda; underneath that sweet exterior,
she was one tough little Girl Scout cookie. The '60s brought the British
blond, piercing-stare outer-space offspring of "Village of the Damned"
and "Children of the Damned." The gleefully perverse Alfred
Hitchcock had the title characters in "The Birds" attack
hordes of children, which must have created some odd conversations among
proud stage mothers ("Britanny was singled out today for a close-up
of a bird pecking away at her little ears!") However, the scary side
of on-screen childhood reached its peak in the '70s. Gang leaders here
were Linda Blair, in her head-turning performance as a possessed kid in
"The Exorcist"; the murderous infant in "It's Alive"
and the satanic children in "The Omen" and "Damien: Omen
Part II," played respectively by Harvey Stephens and Jonathan Scott-Taylor.
Other diabolical kids in the decade appeared in "The Other" and
"The Boys from Brazil," with "The Day of the Locust"
featuring Jackie Earle Haley's devastating performance as a '30s would-be
childstar. Sex and violence "Halloween," in 1978, gave birth
in the next few years to a genre of teenagers mixing sex and violence in
series like "Friday the 13th," "Nightmare on Elm Street,"
"Fright Night," etc.
Children in the '70s also became associated with something more horrifying
to adult Americans than violence: sex. Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster
played teen prostitutes in, respectively, "Pretty Baby" and "Taxi
Driver," while Tatum O'Neal, et al., in "The Bad News Bears"
and "Little Darlings" (with Kristy McNichol) shocked the nation
by using four-letter words and exhibiting a sexual awareness. However,
to counteract all this, TV offered the "Donny and Marie" variety
show. If Shirley Temple
represents the bright hope of stage mothers, "Diff'rent Strokes"
represents their nightmare. The NBC show ran 1978-1986; within a few years
after it had ended, Gary Coleman was unemployed and locked in a series
of suits and countersuits with his parents; Dana Plato, working at a Vegas
dry cleaner for $ 5.75 an hour (down from $ 22,000 a week) was arrested
for armed robbery, and Todd Bridges, who at that time was an admitted cocaine
addict, was fined for carrying a concealed weapon but acquitted of shooting
a drug dealer. Three out of three. A few years after CBS's 1966-71 "A
Family Affair" ended, childstar Anissa Jones died of a drug overdose.
(As a sort of tribute to Jones' role as Buffy, one of three kids adopted
by yet another single parent, rock group Angel & the Reruns had a hit
on alternative-radio stations, "Buffy, Buffy Come Back to Me, Why'd
You Have to Go and O.D.?") Erin Moran has recently denounced her own
parents and announced she is praying for her "Happy Days" TV
family. Drew Barrymore at 17 is working again, saying her years of boozing
and drugs are behind her. Adam Rich has had repeated run-ins with the law,
and Danny Bonaduce, with his legal problems apparently behind him, was
last seen touring Australia in the one-man show "My Life as a Has-Been."
Acting is a profession of auditions and rejections, shyness and self-promotion,
business pressures and work demands--difficult enough for most adults to
deal with, much less children.
But most child stars don't have such colorful stories. The fact that
most just simply disappear is an indication of the changing nature of the
business. Since the end of the studio era, young actors, like their adult
counterparts, have been independent contractors. (While the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has handed out 12 special Oscars to
youngsters, it's symbolic that none has been given since 1960. The message
is clear: kids are to be treated as equals.) The last of the breed to benefit
from the studio system were, fittingly, at Disney,
which gave the star treatment to such performers as English actress Hayley
Mills and Kurt Russell. We watched them grow up. Then, in most cases,
we watched them disappear. The past few decades saw numerous youngsters
succeed, though few of them, whether it was their own choice or not, continued
as adult actors. TV shows were filled with kids: "Leave It to Beaver,"
"Dennis the Menace," "The Rifleman," "The Donna
Reed Show," "Hazel," "Dobie Gillis," "Bewitched,"
"The Farmer's Daughter," "The Munsters," "The
Addams Family," "Lost in Space," "Flipper" "The
Courtship of Eddie's Father," "Please Don't Eat the Daisies,"
"Nanny and the Professor," "The Ghost & Mrs. Muir,"
"A Family Affair," "Little House on the Prairie," "The
Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "The Waltons,"
"Eight is Enough," "The Facts of Life," "Good
Times." And movies: "Mary
Poppins," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "The
Sound of Music," "40 Pounds of Trouble," "Oliver!"
"The Innocents," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "Close
Encounters of the Third Kind," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,"
"Mame," "Little Miss Marker," "Annie," "The
Black Stallion," "The Shining," "All That Jazz,"
"Days of Heaven," "Aliens," and "Three Men and
a Little Lady."
Studio support missing
Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore starred in the
highest-grossing feature film of all time, "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,"
in 1982; but, like some of the adults in that film, they lacked the needed
studio backing to help them capitalize on its success. Tatum O'Neal--at
age 10 the youngest Oscar winner for "Paper Moon"--worked occasionally
after that film, but others, like Justin Henry ("Kramer Vs. Kramer")
and Quinn Cummings ("The Goodbye Girl") didn't parlay their Oscar
nominations to long-term success.
After the sitcom form was declared in critical condition, "The
Cosby Show" changed everyone's perception in the '80s, and family
sitcoms again flourished, including "Full House," "Growing
Pains" and "Who's the Boss?" Also included were "The
Hogan Family" and "Family Ties," respectively starring the
John and Ethyl Barrymore
of the Clearasil set, Jason and Justine Bateman. The '80s saw post-Spielberg
films like "The Goonies" and "Harry & the Hendersons,"
and John Hughes' troubled, heartbroken teens in "Sixteen Candles,"
"Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club," and Francis
Ford Coppola gave a boost to the careers of lots of young actors in "The
Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish." As youth appeal threatens
to overtake the country, young versions of childhood faves are being served
up: "Muppet Babies," "Flintstone Babies," "Young
Sherlock Holmes" and "Young Indiana Jones." Apparently the
thinking is that the problems of the adult Kermit and Barney Rubble are
too complex for children to relate to. There are innumerable major minors
working today: Fred Savage, Lukas Haas, Edward Furlong, Michael Oliver,
Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Jonathan Brandis, Anna Chlumsky, Mayim Bialik,
Allisan Porter, Autumn Winters and Charlie Korsmo, and young actors who
got their start when in their teens, like Chris O'Donnell, River Phoenix,
Chris Demetral, Wil Wheaton Slater and Juliette Lewis. Some would argue
that Macaulay Culkin is the biggest child star working now, but arguably
even bigger is the animated Bart Simpson--voiced by an adult woman. The
series originated on Fox Broadcasting Company's "The Tracey Ullman
Show," where the adult star frequently and brilliantly played a young
teen; in Orion's on-the-shelf "Clifford," Martin Short plays
a child. Maybe the '90s will bring us back to the Mary Pickford era and
the whole cycle will start over again.
© 1992 Daily Variety Ltd.