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The complicated, frequently sad plight of former child stars as they outgrow their cuteness--and often their fame--has long been the topic of editorials, TMZ and stand-up comics. And, granted, there is a long, tragic litany of stories related to former child stars. It only takes the remembrance of the once-young cast of “Diff’rent Strokes” to make one firmly believe in a “kid actor curse” but let’s also not forget other doomed cases now turned cautionary tales.
One time “Our Gang” actor Scotty Beckett died a probable suicide in 1968. That same year, the body of former Disney kid Bobby (“Song of the South”) Driscoll was found in a New York City tenement, dead from complications from drug abuse; he was 31. Anissa Jones, Buffy from “Family Affair,” died of a drug overdose in 1976. And Danny Thomas’s “Make Room for Daddy” young co-star Rusty Hamer committed suicide by gunshot in 1990. More recently, death prematurely claimed Corey Haim, Brad Renfro, and Jonathan Brandis.
Former child actors and teen idols are also known for their frequent trips in and out of rehab, and sometimes in and out of jail. Leif Garrett, Adam Rich, Eddie Furlong, Jodi Sweetin, Brian Bonsall and, of course, Robert Blake have all made headlines in recent years, all for the wrong reasons.
All in all, it’s enough to make you want to tear up all your old issues of “Tiger Beat.”
Yet, despite this rogue’s gallery, numerous former child actors, whether they stay in show business or not, often go on to live very successful, scandal-free adult lives. In fact, often their adult careers and fame so transcends their childhood notoriety it becomes easy to forget how young they were when they started, thereby fueling the popular myth of all former child stars ending up dead, behind bars or on skid row.
The two names most frequently bandied about as former kid actors made good are Ron Howard and Jodie Foster. Howard, of course, went from being Opie on “Andy Griffith” to “Happy Days” to, now, being an Oscar-winning director. Foster, who began her career in “Freaky Friday” and TV’s “Paper Moon,” has two Oscars to her name (for “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs”) and has also taken, successfully, to the director’s chair.
But they aren’t the only success stories. Sarah Jessica Parker (“Square Pegs”), Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser”) and Jason Bateman (“Valerie/The Hogan Family”) are all having very accomplished careers since growing up. As are Oscar-winner Helen Hunt (who bounced around ‘70s TV in “The Fitzpatricks” and “Swiss Family Robinson”), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Saved by the Bell”) and Fred Savage (former “Wonder Years” wonder kid turned busy director of the “Hannah Montana” film and episodes of “Modern Family,” “Happy Endings” and “2 Broke Girls”).
Consider as well: Rick(y) Schroeder, Melissa Joan Hart, Raven-Simone, Melissa Gilbert (currently featured on “Dancing with the Stars” alongside Urkel himself, Jaleel White), Jerry O’Connell, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Ricci, Anna Paquin (another Oscar winner), Mario Lopez, Claire Danes, Tiffani Thiessen (who lost her middle name—Amber--but not her way), and Jennifer Love Hewitt. And: Jessica Biel, Kirk Cameron (who, despite some unpopular opinions, has managed to stay out of trouble…mostly), Janet Jackson, Joey Lawrence, and, truth be told, most of “young Hollywood” (including Reese Witherspoon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCapro, among others).
And despite a few pronounced growing pains along the way, Drew Barrymore and Tracey Gold are all still popping up on the big and small screens with regular frequency. (As is Oscar winner Patty Duke.)
Traipsing back through film and TV history, it’s not too hard to come up with a considerable number of other kids who have defied the “child actor’s curse” including Kurt Russell, Anne Francis, Hayley Mills, Jackie Cooper, Dick Van Patten, and Natalie Wood.
Lest we forget, Elizabeth Taylor made her first film appearances while still a child and ended up a legend. The same can also be said for Mickey Rooney and Roddy McDowall. Meanwhile, the most successful child star of all time, Shirley Temple, has had nothing but an esteemed and dignified adult life.
While we’re at it, let’s also tip the hat to: Valerie Bertinelli, Chad Allen, Shia LeBeouf, Seth Green, Tamera & Tia, Brooke Shields and the (very wealthy) Olson twins. Heck, let’s also include the girls of “The Facts of Life” and all of the original “Brady” kids. (Mrs. Brady may not have let them play ball in the house but she must have done something right; you never hear of Barry Williams or Eve Plumb holding up a dry cleaners.)
Of course, child stars don’t have to stay in the industry once they reach maturity and can still go on to triumphant adult lives. Mayim Bialik (who just return to acting with a role on “The Big Bang Theory”) has a Ph.D. in neuroscience (!); Jeremy Licht (who was once Mark on “Valerie/The Hogan Family”) has a degree in finance and owns his own investment firm; Danica McKellar (formerly of “The Wonder Years”) graduated UCLA with a degree in mathematics proving the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem (whatever that is); and Danielle Spencer (once enfant terrible Dee on “What’s Happening”) is now Dr. Spencer, a veterinarian.
While the life of a professional actor for a 10- or 12-year old may be an unnatural one (we don’t allow kids to work in factories but put ‘em on a sound stage and we’ll happily look the other way), it need not be a tragic one nor one fraught with scandal as so many former kid actors have proved or are proving. In other words, there may still be hope for Lindsay Lohan after all.
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