It’s almost expected nowadays: a child star in a hit movie or TV show. The kid works hard, earns lots of money, and becomes the main breadwinner for a whole family. This cash cow is exploited by parents or managers, starts hanging out with older friends, develops an addiction, disappears from public, and ends up broke, washed up, or dead before middle age.
It’s not easy to be a child star. Hollywood history is littered with sad stories of those who had too much, too young. Jackie Coogan was perhaps the first child star. He made millions in movies in the 1920s, but his parents spent it all. This led to the Coogan Bill, which requires employers of child stars to put some of their wages in a trust, rather than their parents’ hands.
Coogan survived his fame, at least. Corey Haim, Dana Plato, River Phoenix, Bobby Driscoll, Anissa Jones, and Brad Renfro all had promising acting careers as kids. But they all died before 40 from drugrelated problems. Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman, and Judy Garland, all extremely famous as children, struggled longer with drugs, alcohol, and depression, but still didn’t reach old age. And stars like Drew Barrymore, Jodie Sweetin, Todd Bridges, and Danny Bonaduce barely survived their young fame to get to adulthood and clean up. Lindsay Lohan is currently fighting her way through stardom and addiction, but we can’t predict whether she’ll succeed.
There are exceptions to this rule. Jodie Foster transitioned smoothly from child star to adult professional, as did Natalie Portman. Dakota Fanning is a model of good behavior, and the Harry Potter kids don’t seem to be self-destructing. Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter star, explains it this way: "It’s very different doing it in England. In America, you’re treated as an actor first and a kid second. Here, you’re a kid first and an actor second, which is how it should be."
Kid first, actor second. Hollywood would do well to remember that.