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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Childhood lost?

What is the deal with child actors? Or, I should say, with former child actors?

Several things have occurred in the past few months to get us thinking about this question. Last autumn Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison company released a David Spade comedy called Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, which dramatized (comedy-ized?) the well-known pitfalls that child actors face when they grow up and are no longer in demand as actors. It featured a huge number of actual former child stars in bit parts and cameos, including a hilarious “We Are the World”-style singing performance by virtually every former child star you have ever heard of and who is still alive. And that last qualifier brings me to my point.

In my annual roll call of departed movie people and other entertainment figures, which I posted last week and the one before, there were two actors whose careers peaked before they reached full adulthood and another whose career peaked while he was still young enough to play a juvenile part. Of these, one (Fred “Rerun” Berry) died at the age of 52, after a history of drugs, food binges and diabetes. Another (Stanley “Whitey” Fafara) died at the age of 54, after years and alcohol and drug abuse, which led to hepatitis C. Another (Jonathan “Lucas” Brandis) hanged himself in his apartment, at the age of 27. This conforms neatly to the popular stereotype of former child actors as basket cases, who are ill-equipped to deal with life in their adult lives, providing plenty of fodder for tabloid papers, e.g. Danny Bonaduce, Adam Rich, Todd Bridges (who all appeared, along with Fred Berry, with many others in the Spade film).

The case of Brandis is particularly evocative of the faded child star phenomenon. There were a couple of years in the 1990s, while he was featured on Seaquest DSV, that his face was inescapable on newsstands, where he was the permanent cover boy for a slew of teen idol magazines. He was part of a long line of such idols, ranging from Bobby Sherman to Jonathan Taylor Thomas to the band Hanson, that have occupied that strange quasi-journalistic space. These idols are frequently blond and appear to have only recently reached puberty. With his big, blue eyes and baby face, Brandis fit the mold perfectly. Then Seaquest DSV went off the air, and Brandis more or less vanished, at least as far as people who weren’t actively following his career were concerned. He actually did continue to work, but usually in small roles, as in his part as a soldier in Hart’s War. For me, Brandis was totally off the radar until my obsessive personality got snagged one day last November. While scanning a Usenet newsgroup, I happened to see a message stating that Brandis had died. I looked for confirmation, since all kinds of alive-and-kicking celebrities are regularly reported dead by pranksters on these newsgroups. I expected that the task would take a few minutes. That’s when my odyssey began.

In this day and age of instant communication and information about everybody and everyone at your fingertips, I couldn’t find confirmation that Brandis was dead, but neither could I find confirmation that he was alive. It turned out that The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper and web site had reported Brandis’s death as the last (brief) item in a general celebrity gossip column. This seemed a strange way for the news to be announced. On the one hand, the Plain Dealer is a perfectly respectable and reliable newspaper and generally credible. Yet there was no similar report in any other newspaper (including The Los Angeles Times, which is published in the center of the show business world and in the city where Brandis was living) or from any other news source anywhere. Why would the Plain Dealer have the story and no one else? It made no sense. As the “news” spread across newsgroups and message boards (yes, my obsessive personality forced me to search them all), no one seemed to have any answers. This was a strange event, since invariably when these stories and/or rumors crop up on the ‘net, someone authoritative usually steps in fairly quickly to give the real scoop. For days the buzz continued with no definitive answer. Surely today, I would tell myself each day as I rechecked the message boards (along with countless women who had been teenagers in the mid-1990s and more than a few men as well), this thing will have been settled. It went on for well more than a week. Some posters reported that they had rung up the L.A. coroner, who had confirmed that a 27-year-old actor named Jonathan Brandis had indeed died on November 12. Why had the press, with one low-profile exception, not picked up on the story?

In the end, the mainstream press did pick up. The Associated Press reported it on November 22, and the story was carried in newspapers, including The New York Times. Brandis’s death was slow to be reported because his parents declined to announce it, given the fact that it was a suicide. They later explained that they didn’t want his death to be “glorified.” The Plain Dealer reported it fairly promptly only because Brandis had recently filmed the movie The Year That Trembled in Ohio, and the film’s director had passed on the info.

It speaks volumes about what had happened to Brandis’s career that the information about his death did not surface in a major media outlet for ten days after it occurred. His suicide wasn’t kept secret. It simply wasn’t announced, and the entertainment press didn’t notice what had happened for nearly two weeks. Still, it caused a huge stir and a great outpouring of emotion among a segment of people who, thanks to the internet, were able to share information and thoughts among themselves, beginning just a few days after Brandis died. As a former teen idol, whose fan base is able to keep in touch for as many years as people are interested in him, Brandis represents something that might be called niche celebrity. We will never know exactly why Brandis did himself in (he left no note), but if it was over his fading from the limelight, the fact that an active fan base was able to keep itself going wasn’t enough to make up for the loss of wider fame. And, of course, the state of his career may have had absolutely nothing to do with whatever anguish he was going through.

Brandis is not the first former child star to end his own life, whether by deliberate means or indirectly through self-destructive behavior. Another case is Bobby Driscoll, about whom I wrote a while back in my review of Disney’s Peter Pan. I have since learned even more about Driscoll, as a reader who is writing a book on him contacted me about quoting my review and was kind enough to let me read a draft of his book. It painted a vivid portrait of what it is like to have fame, acclaim and the world’s attention showered on you as a child and then to have it all suddenly taken away, just as you are making the transition to adulthood. If you haven’t lived through it, I don’t suppose there is any way to know what it would be like or how well we ourselves would have coped in that situation.

Is there something inherent in being a child star that dooms you or at least makes you more predisposed to a difficult adulthood and/or a bad end? It’s worth remembering that, for every former child star who met an early and sad end, there are plenty of cases of former child stars who have grown into long, successful and stable show business careers. (Dean Stockwell, Ron Howard and Jodie Foster come to mind.) Still, going from childhood stardom to even bigger success in adulthood is no guarantee of normality and stability. (Two words: Michael Jackson.)

So, what’s the deal with former child actors? I’ll ponder this more next time.

-S.L., 22 January 2004


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