Home EMail German Version

To be a Child Star - Curse or Blessing?


The appeal which children have to adults was made out early. To the first child or youth stars belonged Mary Pickford who already appeared in 15 short movies by D. W. Griffith in 1909 (at the age of 17). However her greatest popularity she obtained as an adult in the 20s.
The first true child star was Jackie Coogan in Chaplin's "The Kid" (1920). But already for him it turned out that there exist great disadvantages which a tiny actor has to go through. Coogan became an international idol in no time and he earned an immense fortune. When his career ended abrupt, aside from some later movies, he had to sue his mother and his stepfather in order to save the rest of his fortune at least (in the following years Coogan acted in small parts and with the serial "The Addams Family" (64-65) he succeeded in a late comeback).
The process lead to the so-called CooganLaw. On January 1st, 2000, the Revised Coogan Law goes into effect in California.  

A similar destiny happened to Freddie Bartholomew - he was besides Shirley Temple the great star in movies like "David Copperfield" (34) and "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (37).
In the 20s the later discoverer of Laurel & Hardy - Hal Roach - launched the serial "Our Gang - The Little Rascals". Because it concerned a group of children, not the individual became famous (except Spanky and Alfalfa) but could assert themselves as a group, where the one or the other could be replaced if required. The gang enjoyed enormous popularity till the mid-40s.

With Shirley Temple at the latest it turned out what a fascination children have in movieland. Rom 1936 till 1938 she was the leading crowd-puller, even ahead of Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby. When she was 10 years old the demand for Shirley-Temple movies satisfied. She turned towards the politic in the 60s and became a representative of the United Nations, from 1974 to 1976 she was an US ambassador in Ghana, later on she acted as chief of protocol of the White House.
When she wanted paid out her three million dollars she earned in her childhood, she found out that her parents had left only 44'000 dollars. She let this fact rest in order to protect the family peace at least.

Till the end of the 80s the phenomenon, that the name of a child star could fill the cinemas, seems to be limited to the 20s and 30s. But since Macaulay Culkins appearance in "Home Alone" the status of a child stars was lauchned anew.
Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur (in the 20s), Klaus-Detlef Sierck (in the 30s), Michael Ande and especially Oliver Grimm (both in the 50s) could get a great name recognition and popularity in Germany.

At first sight the life of a child star in Hollywood seems to be enviable. But to become such a state at all you need a lot of luck.  Expectant parents with their descendants arrive Hollywood by the thousand and all hope for a great career of their children. In fact only five of 100'000! children in Hollywood earn their living through the film. And only a few of them become real stars.
The jump from a child star to an adult actor constitutes as a invincible wall for the most of them. The actress Inger Nilsson, who played the legendary Pippi Longstocking, is still working as an actress but her occupation is limited to smaller theater engagements. The fame she could enjoy as a child she couldn't transfer into her adult life. The same destiny happened to Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster in der cult serial "The Munsters" in the 60s.
Among the experts they grant the biggest chance for this jump to Elijah Wood, who belonged to the most successful youth actors in the 90s besides Culkin.

When the way to a child star is paved then the life of suffering often just begins. Besides of the above-mentioned financial exploitation through relatives they also go through several lows and heights with drugs, depressions and isolation during and after their active career. As child stars they were handled like kings and they grew up in a artificial world, far away of reality. In their early years they possess a lot of money, and luxury has become usual. Nothing seems to turn them on except of consuming drugs and the like. Unfortunately River Phoenix is a sad example with fatal end when he died because of an overdose at the age of 23.

The everyday things which come along with a normal childlife are normally not involved in their lifes. Eric Scott (he played the red-haired Ben in the serial "The Waltons" since he was 13 years old) replied to the question if he has missed his lost childhood: "Ask a one-armed person if he has the feeling to miss something".

The foundations of problems of a lot of children are laid in a instable home. Because of the sudden fame and the financial side effects for many parents this is more than they can handle.

Many celebrities have gone through teen drug abuse, while some even started abusing alcohol and other substances way before they hit their teens.

Furtunately the negative concomitants mentioned here aren't inevitable but represent more likely extreme situations. Beside it there is also the success story of a former child star who found his place in the world of adults. A classic example is definitely Jodie Foster who already appeared at the age of three as a model for sun cream. She shot several movies as a child. Today she belongs to the most influential persons in Hollywood. 

At the example of Drew Barrymore you can see both sides of success very clear. Became famous in young years because of E.T. (82) she went through lows in her teenage age with alcohol and drugs. Already at the age of 10 she smoked grass, with 12 she took snuff of cocaine. It followed two withdrawal treatments and an attempted suicide. Fortunately she found her way out of this low and counts now to the very busy actresses.

A club called "A Minor Consideration" was founded for child players from then and now. The group comprises more than 400 members, from the Olsen twins to Sybil Jason (the former competitor of Shirley Temple).
The organization supports child players who got problems with their life and with it the organization offers an important service for the pubertiing youth.