Sunday, October 7, 2012

Child Star

When I was a kid, Family Affair was a huge hit.  It was a sitcom with the premise that a successful bachelor engineer with a butler could take over the raising of his nieces and nephews after this brother and his wife are killed in an accident.  Not exactly fodder for a sit-com, but the cast made it work.  Cissy was the protective big sister and who looked after her six year old twin brother and sister.  When they had to move in with their Uncle Bill they also got a very proper English butler named Mr. French.  I loved watching Buffy and Jody try to outwit Mr. French and live in a huge apartment in Manhattan.   I wanted a Mrs. Beasley doll so badly and when I got it for Christmas, it was like all my Buffy dreams came true.   I would wear my hair in pigtails just like her and wished that my parents would get us a British man servant to take us out to eat or to the museum.   It was fun, harmless and having child stars that I could identify with just made it worth watching.   It must be fun to be those actors, I thought to myself when I was little – I have been hooked on acting ever since.

Then in 1976, when I was 14 years old, I found out that Anissa Jones who had played Buffy had died of a drug overdose at 18.  I remember standing in the middle of Sentry’s Drug Store - hearing the news on the radio and being stunned.   Buffy, the sweet little girl from my favorite TV show when I was a small child was dead from drugs.   I still had my Mrs. Beasley doll in the bottom of the toy chest and now it seemed to have lost its innocence.  She was just four years older than me and now she was gone.  Of course, things hadn’t gone well for her after the show ended – but 18 and out just seemed too soon.  The next day at Glades Jr. High, many of my friends were also reeling from the news.   I mean, where were her parents?  Why didn’t anybody try to stop her?  Why didn’t anyone care?   Sadly that seems to be the case for too many child stars – after the lights dim and the fame goes away, they don’t have much in the way of support or a passion to pursue acting or much of anything else.  It’s just too much too soon.

I’ve always thought that being a child star must be a very strange dynamic.   Here you are - a kid - yet so many adults have their livelihoods depending on you.  There must be days when you want to say “Screw this, I’m going outside to play.  I want to be a kid who wants to be the pretend king of the mountain rather than worrying about if our stupid Neilson ratings make us king of the network,” but you can’t.  You’re stuck inside a studio dealing with the meltdowns of the director or the adult actors who are worried that if the show is cancelled they won’t make their mortgage payments.   That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of someone who is just a child.   Add the fact that these kids are probably spoon fed their lines by the director so that they say it exactly like the adults tell them to and you have someone who has never really learned how to act – just be cute and parrot the lines the adults told them to.   The parents of these kids start to get dependent on the attention their children receive and the money that it brings in (and thanks to the Coogen Law, 15% of their earnings is put into a trust fund so they can access it when they are legal adults).  The life of a child actor can be a life of someone who adults look to for their livelihood and depend on - it’s just not natural.


I remember hearing Simon Cowell once say that he doesn’t like to pick singers who still in their teens because “child performers make very weird adults.”  You don’t have to look further than Michael Jackson to see some truth in that statement.   Joe Jackson seemed to be the devil incarnate and the stories of how he treated his children are pathetic.  So when Michael had the money, he created “Neverland” and had this odd fixation with inviting kids over to his house as an adult for sleepovers, no one said anything.  Even if nothing happened – it was still weird that no one could tell him no because so many were so dependent on him for their jobs.   As he spiraled more and more out of control emotionally and financially, this man-child with the high voice continued to demand drugs to sleep that you would only get from a hospital and had a greedy doctor that was only too happy to give them to him for $150,000 a month.  I’m sure some folks might have tried a few interventions but by then it was too late.  He had retreated into a fantasy world where no one could reach him.   When he died, people were upset but not surprised.  Sadly a great talent expired because he never got a chance to be a kid and never got the normal discipline that helps you grow into a healthy adult.

But it’s not just Michael Jackson; it’s so many others who haven’t had parents that looking out for their best interests because they got caught up into the fame machine.  Lindsay Lohan’s father has been incarcerated twice.  Her mother seems oblivious to her daughter’s problems as she tries to cash in on her success.  She even parties with Lindsay and gets drunk with a daughter who needs to be in rehab.  It’s no wonder Lindsay is such a train wreck and it’s a shame because she’s actually a good actress when she’s not high.   Then there are the kids from Diff’ent Strokes – two of them are gone before their time and one has been in and out of jail and has also had problems with drug abuse.  Gary Coleman died at age 42, Dana Plato died of a drug overdose at age 35 and Todd Bridges has been in trouble with the law for decades but seems to have finally straightened his life out.   These young stars faced physical and sexual abuse either while they were doing the show or after and it sucks that no one at the studio system took the time to see what their home life was like and tried to protect them.   

The fact is that many child actors fall on hard times after they hit the pinnacle of their careers and those precocious catch phrases seem creepy when they are uttered by their teenage selves.  “The road through all child stardom is strewn with carnage,” explains Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “Being a child star is a high-risk occupation, not unlike being a coal miner or an oil rig worker.”  If the parents don’t have a strong sense of how to handle the child who is a big shot on the set but just another member of the family when they get home with chores and an allowance,  these children get crushed in the Hollywood shuffle and have a hard time recovering and dammit – that’s just so sad.   No one should have their childhood stolen in the name of entertainment

There are the success stories – like Ron Howard who was smart enough to figure out after Happy Days that he wanted to direct and asked B-Movie film director Roger Corman to help him learn how to do it.  Jodie Foster decided to go to Yale to get an Ivy League education and came back a stronger actress for it.   Natalie Portman also went to college, can speak Hebrew fluently and once said that she would rather be a smart person than an actor – which is why that woman has a great career and a strong sense of self.  Other child stars like Christian Bale had smart adults around them who loved and nurtured them and were happy to have them step away from the spotlight for awhile and come back when they were ready. 

On a few of the reality shows, they have psychologists who counsel the contestants who get voted off to prepare them for life after their part of the show is over and they have to go back to their regular lives.  They also get an initial psychological assessment to see if they can handle the strain and instant celebrity that it might bring.  It seems like if they have that in place for the contestants who do Survivor and The Apprentice, they should do that for the children who have the potential to be cast in a big network or movie project.  You would avoid a lot of post production meltdowns years after the fact if the child actor and the family had the opportunity to find out if they were really equipped to handle it all in the first place.   As adorable as the cast of Diff’ent Strokes was, it would have been better for all of them if they had never had fame thrust on them so soon and having no way for their family  to handle the down times.  Someone other young girl could have been cast as the twins in The Parent Trap who had a stronger family support system then Lindsay Lohan.   My prayer is that the kids on Modern Family, The Middle and Suburgatory have family members who will step in if they see their children starting to lose their way.

So who are the next Joseph Gordon-Levitts, Kurt Russells, Leonardo DiCaprios, Mayim Bialiks? They are the ones who can survive the fame monster and come out stronger on the other side.   It’s the ones who have adults that treat them like children in a good way – setting boundaries, giving them discipline and not allowing them to run rough shot at home.   They get down time and a chance to hang out at the mall and go to movies with their friends and are encouraged to study either acting or any other subject in an academic setting.  They get to run outside instead of being paraded from one dingy casting offices to another grueling auditions.   They get to be kids.  You have only 18 glorious years to be a child and the rest of your life after that to be an adult.   Show business can be a very lonely industry but what every young actor needs is having an adult in their life who is willing to make their healthy childhood a family affair.

No comments:

Post a Comment