It's been a bad year for former child/teen stars, with the deaths of Brittany Murphy, Corey Haim and Gary Coleman. While I've been very critical of the Sunderlands, who encouraged their 16-year-old daughter to try a solo round-the-world sail at the wrong time of year, I'm equally skeptical of any parent who allows, encourages or pushes children to perform on screen.
Don't get me wrong: children are natural actors. Most children love dressing up, pretending, and getting attention and praise from adults. Children's theater camps are a great idea, and theater training can be an important tool to teach children empathy and tolerance.
But when children are dropped into adult environments and asked to work as adults, behave as adults, and accept bizarre behavior from adults as normal, bad things happen, even with the best of intentions. Kids need to be kids. They need to hang out with other children, they need find their own place among peers, they need to pass through the major developmental stages more or less on schedule, and without feeling that those stages (growth spurts, voice changes, puberty) jeopardize their or their families' material well-being. Despite the laws in place to protect them, too many child actors grow up too fast, without the skills or preparation they need, and the extreme pressure of their early years leads to mental illness and substance abuse in adulthood. This website, maintained by former child star Paul Peterson, explores these issues in depth.
But some child actors, through luck, strength of character, skillful parenting or a combination of the three, make it through relatively unscathed. Here are five who come to mind.
1. Mary Badham, b. 1952. Her appearance in the 2005 film Our Very Own was her first screen role in almost 40 years. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and after that appeared in two more movies and episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and "Dr. Kildare." Her much-older brother, John, went on to become a prolific director and producer of TV and film, but Mary Badham left show business in 1966, went to school, got married, and raised two children. According to IMDb, she works as an art restorer and college testing coordinator, and frequently speaks (with great affection) about her experience on To Kill a Mockingbird.
2. Jodie Foster, b. 1962. She made her screen debut in a Coppertone commercial when she was only two years old, and was making regular appearances on TV by the age of seven. She played Iris, a teenaged prostitute, in Taxi Driver when she was only 12 years old; her older sister, Connie, served as her double in the explicit scenes. Melanie Griffith, then 17, had turned the role down. A friend asked me recently whether I thought that Jodie Foster's role in Taxi Driver constituted child abuse; I honestly don't know. It certainly made her the target of John Hinckley's deadly obsession, but how could anyone predict that? Foster went on to earn a degree from Yale and two Oscars. She works when she wants to, as much as she wants to, and spends the rest of her time raising her sons.
3. Brooke Shields, b. 1965. She too played a child prostitute at the age of 12, in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978). More a model than an actress for most of her teens, she was the face of Calvin Klein Jeans ("Nothing comes between me and my Calvins") and on the cover of every major fashion magazine by the time she was 16. She went to Princeton, starred in a hit TV series, married and divorced Andre Agassi, and is now married to a screenwriter, the mother of two children, and a bestselling author.
4. Peter Billingsley, b. 1971. The star of A Christmas Story (1983) did not shoot his eye out, but grew up to be a successful Hollywood producer. Before he starred as Ralphie, he made dozens of TV commercials, most notably as "Messy Marvin" for Hershey's Chocolate Syrup. His executive producer credits include The Break-Up, Iron Man, and Four Christmases, and he directed last year's Vince Vaughn comedy Couples Retreat.
5. Neil Patrick Harris, b. 1973. Today's his birthday, so a very happy birthday to him, and many happy returns. He starred in TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D." from 1989 to 1993, then moved to the stage, where his roles included Mark in the Los Angeles production of Rent (1997). He's succeeded in every medium he's tried, including the Internet phenomenon Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Last year he hosted both the Primetime Emmys and the Tonys. He is the only actor I follow on Twitter. If he's not the ridiculously cool guy he appears to be, I don't want to hear about it.