Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Bad Ship Lollipop

As you may recall, I said last time (and by “last time” I mean, of course, “two weeks ago") that I would wrestle further with the question: what’s the deal with former child actors?

From reading the tabloids as well as the mainstream celebrity press, we get the definite impression that every kid who works in Hollywood grows up to be totally screwed up. But what’s the truth? I have no data (and don’t even know if it exists) to give me a real idea of what the statistics are in terms of incidences of drug abuse, run-ins with the law, suicides, etc. among former child actors as compared with (and this is the crucial part) the population as a whole. With all their well-known personal travails, are these people any different on average from everybody else? Or is the difference that we hear much more about them because they are, or were, famous? I don’t actually know the answer, so you won’t find it here. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. For people not familiar with the term, “anecdotal evidence” is a phrase used in politics and punditry that more or less means “hey, I found something that supports the opinion I already had!”

We all know the stories of former child stars whose adult lives have been blighted and/or ended tragically. But, as I pointed out last time, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. I happened to catch Kurt Russell, plugging his new movie Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, on Jay Leno’s show the other night. Russell, whose show business career began around the age of 6, has never been long off the small or big screen. He had one-off parts on lots of TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s and had the title role in The Travels of Jamie McPheeters in the early 1960s. Ironically, his first movie appearance was in an Elvis Presley movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair, and 16 years later he played Elvis himself in a TV movie. To all appearances, Russell today seems to be a happy, well-adjusted human being. And why not? He is living the American dream of being married to Goldie Hawn and being a stepfather to Kate Hudson.

And let us not forget that the most beloved child star of the last century, Shirley Temple, matured into a life of public service, including stints as United States ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. But does that make up for every brat who found success in an insipid boy band and then grew up to expose Janet Jackson’s breast on national TV? (Okay, not the most cogent example, but hey I like to be topical.)

Perhaps the best argument that something unusually weird goes on with child actors is the existence of an organization that was founded 14 years ago by Paul Petersen, who played Donna Reed’s son Jeff on her old sitcom from 1958 to 1966. His organization is called A Minor Consideration and has a web page with the (rather unfortunate, for a group looking for financial donations) domain name minorcon.org. On his web site, Petersen chronicles how he was moved to form A Minor Consideration after the suicide of Rusty Hamer, who had had played Danny Thomas’s son on Make Room for Daddy. As Petersen notes, there was a lot of ink being spilled on former child stars at the time. Dana Plato (Diff’rent Strokes) was posing nude for Playboy, one of her former cast mates, Todd Bridges, was in jail for attempted murder, and another, Gary Coleman, was suing his parents. Fifteen-year-old Drew Barrymore was about to publish an autobiography “detailing drug and alcohol abuse and serial exploitation,” and “Danny Bonaduce had lost another radio job.” First, however, Petersen had his own demons to deal with. He had to “get Sober.” Since that time, Petersen has been an outspoken advocate of the welfare of child actors, lobbying for laws that protect their rights and look out for their interests.

Most startlingly, Petersen tells how his second recruit (after his wife), Jeannie Russell (who played Margaret on the Dennis the Menace sitcom, which ran from 1959 to 1963) “was crucial in the rescue of” Jay North, who played the title role in her series. “Television’s ‘Dennis’ was a killer waiting to erupt,” writes Petersen, adding that he and Jimmy Hawkins (who had appeared on The Donna Reed Show as well as Dennis the Menace) “had heard him issue the threat, and we saw his Hit List.”

Now, there’s something to give us pause. Jay North as a mass murderer? I saw North years ago on a TV special, and it was one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed. It was a “where are they now?” program about former child actors, aired by one of the TV networks. The theme, naturally, was how early stardom had affected their lives for the worse. North was interviewed and went on at length, rather vaguely, about suffering and exploitation as a child. Frustratingly, we never got the precise details of how he was exploited, so it was difficult to judge the merits of his complaints. He came off as someone who was once famous and showered with attention as a child and who was now resentful that nobody cared about him anymore. It was immensely sad to see the clips of him as a smiling, seemingly happy child and then to see him as a bitter, rueful adult, who was clearly in serious pain. Obviously, there was more to this story than we could get in a TV program. And that is ultimately the point. If we haven’t been through it ourselves, then we really can’t understand it.

It must take an exceptional child to withstand the experience of stardom and to mature in a well-adjusted way. Moreover, it must take well-balanced and savvy parents to keep things in perspective. As we saw with Macauley Culkin’s family, when large amounts of money are at stake, it doesn’t usually bring out the best in people—even parents. And it certainly doesn’t bring out sympathy from the general public, who imagine that a child actor’s life is one of privilege and luxury. Maybe that’s why people seem so eager to read about it and discuss it when their lives turn spectacularly and publicly miserable.

-S.L., 5 February 2004


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