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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 '30s.

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.

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