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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

19 Child Actors Who Went on to Respectable Careers

By Donna Bowman, Amelie Gillette, Sean O'Neal, Keith Phipps, Leonard Pierce, Tasha Robinson, Claire Zulkey
September 15th, 2008

1. Jackie Coogan

As the original kid star (literally: He captured audiences' hearts as the titular sidekick in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid), Coogan was also the first Hollywood actor to become an industry through heavy merchandising. His signature pageboy haircut and droopy overalls adorned everything from dolls to peanut-butter jars to toy whistles in the early 1920s, generating millions of dollars in income before Coogan even hit puberty. Unfortunately, his mother and stepfather blew through it to support heroin and cocaine habits, leaving him nearly penniless. He wasn't successful in taking them to court, but California did institute the still-active Child Actor's Bill, or Coogan Bill, in his honor, protecting the rights of child stars for decades to come. Robbed of early retirement in his teens, Coogan remained in show business until his death at age 69; after a stint in World War II, he even landed a second iconic role (and arguably his most famous today) as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family, whereupon he once again found his face—albeit one nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup—plastered across the cultural landscape.

2. Dean Stockwell

Dean Stockwell has so firmly established himself as an aging character actor with a line in playing worldly, wise smart-asses who know more than they're telling that it's odd to think he was ever even a young man, let alone a child star. But Stockwell had a dozen movies under his belt before he was a dozen years old. Before he was 14, he'd played the son of Nick and Nora Charles, the lead role in Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and the titular weirdo in The Boy With Green Hair. And as odd as it may seem for fans of his sex-crazed, cynical Cylon in Battlestar Galactica to think of him as the cherubic youth from Anchors Aweigh, imagine how people who grew up watching him in Gentleman's Agreement must have felt when they saw him crooning "In Dreams" to a maniacal Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.

3. Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore, it can fairly be said, was born to be a star. At one point the darling of an acting dynasty that produced Hollywood legends like John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, she got her first screen role when she was less than a year old, and by the time she was 10, she'd already appeared in Altered States, with star-making turns in Firestarter and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Unfortunately, she proved equally precocious at movie-star temptations: She started using drugs when she was 9, and checked herself into rehab at 13. Now that's determination! Since her adult comeback, she hasn't always chosen the best roles—her, uh, biggest moneymaking parts were in the Charlie's Angels remakes—but she's at least showed an interest in stretching, as witnessed by appealing turns in Donnie Darko, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and Music And Lyrics.

4. Christian Bale

Many of Christian Bale's memorable youthful roles—Jim Hawkins in a TV-movie adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, his turn as Cowboy Kelly in the inexplicably beloved Disney musical Newsies, his tweener turns in Swing Kids and Little Women—were built on the part that made him a young star: His impressive performance as Jamie Graham, the stand-in for J.G. Ballard in Steven Spielberg's hit-and-miss adaptation of Empire Of The Sun. Only 11 years old when he got the part, and barely 13 when it was released, Bale inhabited the role—only his second big-screen part—as if he'd been acting for decades. Nowadays, Bale has gone on to mega-stardom playing Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, but unlike many child stars, he's never really had any downtime in his transition from child star to adult draw; he's basically been constantly in front of a camera since he was 12.

5. Jodie Foster

Even since her childhood acting days, Jodie Foster maintained a certain dignity that helped her transition from youngster to adult performer without much visible difficulty. Even when she was performing in Disney kid fare such as Freaky Friday, she had a sort of no-nonsense cool that indicated she, like her characters, was already inclined more toward maturity than cuteness. It probably helped that her breakout role at age 14, as an underage prostitute in 1976's Taxi Driver, left very little room for adorability. Since then, an Ivy-League education, a grounded and fiercely-guarded private life, plus good fortune with roles (Oscars for The Accused and Silence Of The Lambs—even Bugsy Malone, one of her kid roles, is a classic) kept her on a track that no one, not even John Hinckley, could distract her from.

6. Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood was acting by age 4, and before she turned sweet 16, she had 20 credits to her name, including a classic role in Miracle On 34th Street and a pivotal turn in The Searchers. When she appeared as James Dean's love interest in Rebel Without A Cause, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, she marked the transition from child star to all-grown-up actress, and she never looked back. Before her untimely death at age 43, she received two more nominations and appeared in hits and critics' darlings: West Side Story, Splendor In The Grass, The Great Race, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Her string of turkeys in adulthood earned her a Worst Actress Of The Year award from the Harvard Lampoon in 1966; she had the good grace to show up and accept the award in person, surely proof that not all child actors grow up to be spoiled brats.

7. Mickey Rooney

Nobody defines "child star" as thoroughly as Rooney, a tot who entered moviemaking at age 5 as the star of a series of one-reelers. He was a boyish 16 when he was cast in A Family Affair, the first of 14 Andy Hardy movies released in the next nine years. At the same time, he started his longtime collaboration with Judy Garland, and just a year later, he played his first dramatic role, in Boys Town. Although he continued working in television after the war, it wasn't until he became a dwarfish father figure that he returned to popular and critical acclaim, playing wise old coots in films like Requiem For A HeavyweightandThe Black Stallion. As for his yellowface role as Holly Golightly's screechy Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany's, we'll just note that the broad ethnic stereotype might have fit his comedic talents, but it certainly wasn't all his idea.

8. Seth Green

Not every child actor gets to jump straight into a John Irving adaptation (The Hotel New Hampshire, 1984) with Jodie Foster. And it didn't exactly happen to Seth Green, who at age 10 appeared in the now-forgotten wacky comedy Billions For Boris,which was released the same year. But Green always managed to land on his feet when bouncing from TV commercials to prestige films like Woody Allen's Radio Days, in which he played a 13-year-old stand-in for Allen's own childhood self. Green segued smoothly from child actor to teenage wisecracker in Buffy The Vampire Slayerand the Austin Powers series, then without missing a beat, reinvented himself as a self-aware adult star (Josie And The Pussycats, The Italian Job) and an auteur (Robot Chicken). It's no accident that he's always seemed smart and in full control of his persona, even as a kid; that impression makes him easy for postmodern viewers to love.

9. Kirsten Dunst

In Interview With The Vampire, Kirsten Dunst played a child vampire, a role that required her to project world-weary experience and frustration through the prism of youth. Not an easy task for an 11-year-old. But Dunst pulled it off, becoming the most memorable vampire in a movie full of them, and not just because of her famous snaggletooth smile. Since then, Dunst has made a career out of balancing roles both light and heavy, straightforward and strange. She can be an excellent comic actress (Dick, or Bring It On), as well as an effectively moving one (The Virgin Suicides). For every misstep (Wimbledon) or turn as Spider-Man's love interest, there's an Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. On paper (or the IMDB), her career almost looks schizophrenic, but it's better to be the actress who's allowed to be all over the place than the one stuck in romantic-comedy purgatory. (Hi, Kate Hudson!)

10. Christina Ricci

Christina Ricci got her start playing Cher's daughter in Mermaids, but she's best known for playing creepy/cute Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family movies (and MC Hammer video). That "creepy/cute" quality has informed most of Ricci's best roles, like her turn in The Opposite Of Sex as a cynical, sharp teen con artist. There's a kind of spacey-ness to Ricci's looks—wide, far-set eyes, round kewpie-doll face, large forehead—that can either be dialed up for maximum creepiness (The Ice Storm, Pumpkin) or dialed down until she appears almost child-like and vulnerable (as the girlfriend of a serial killer in Monster, or as a fairy-tale heroine in Sleepy Hollow and Penelope). Dark, yes. Cartoonish, yes. But Ricci could never play conventional.

11. Roddy McDowall

World War II sent young Roddy McDowall to America, where he achieved stardom almost immediately as the lead in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, a fond-but-unsparing tale of growing up poor and Welsh. From there, he had a couple of high-profile roles working with animals in Lassie Come Home and in My Friend Flicka and its sequel. After sticking largely to television in the '50s, McDowall worked steadily as a character actor up to his death in 1998. Always fragile and boyish in appearance and politely eccentric in demeanor, he worked especially well in black comedies like The Loved One, Lord Love A Duck, Pretty Maids All In A Row, and the smart '80s horror movie Fright Night, a late-career highlight. His most iconic adult role, however, found him hiding his face behind ape makeup as Dr. Cornelius in The Planet Of The Apes.

12. Ron Howard

After growing up in everyone's living room as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Ron Howard enjoyed a second act as a young actor thanks to Happy Days. Then he shifted gears for a third act as a highly successful director and producer, first by directing himself in the Roger Corman-produced Grand Theft Auto, then by helming a series of hits that began with Night Shift and have carried on through The Da Vinci Code.

13. Jason Bateman

Howard also memorably provided the narration for Arrested Development, a show starring another former child actor, Jason Bateman. Bateman never really disappeared from acting, working through a fallow period post-child-stardom in the '80s, which found him working onLittle House On The Prairie, Silver Spoons, and The Hogan Family. In the years between, Bateman appeared on one non-starter series after another, but he must have been honing the dry delivery that made him the perfect straight man in Arrested Development, skills he's since brought to work in films like Hancockand Juno.

14. Robert Blake

Young Mickey Gubitosi joined the cast of the Our Gang short series in 1939 when he replaced Eugene "Porky" Lee. It was a time of transition, as the series moved from Hal Roach's studios to MGM. Breakout star Alfalfa soon left, and the quality of the shorts dropped until MGM pulled the plug in 1944. Gubitosi stuck with it, becoming Bobby Blake along the way. Our Gang led the way to parts in Red Ryder Westerns and a memorable, but uncredited, role in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. After a stint in the army, Blake began to rebuild his acting career, cementing his stardom in 1967 as one of the killers in In Cold Blood. Then he, um, lived happily ever after.

15. Joaquin Phoenix

The middle child of the Phoenix clan, Joaquin Phoenix had his first TV role at age 8, appearing in a single episode of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, alongside his older brother River. (That show was River Phoenix's debut as well; he'd just turned 12 when the first of his 21 episodes aired.) River became famous faster, picking up increasingly visible roles in Explorers, Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, My Own Private Idaho, and more, while their sisters Rain and Summer had lower-profile careers, and Liberty Phoenix limited her show-biz career to two TV outings. (One was that same Seven Brides episode that introduced Joaquin.) But while River died young, victim of a drug overdose, Joaquin toiled in the trenches, with TV appearances on the likes of Murder, She Wrote, Hill Street Blues, The Fall Guy, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Acting under the name Leaf Phoenix—reportedly inspired by his more nature-named siblings—he gradually worked his way up to larger roles, first in the likes of SpaceCamp and Parenthood (where he played the miserable, furtively masturbating son of Diane Wiest), and then in more adult roles, in To Die For, Quills, and Gladiator. By the time of the M. Night Shyamalan films Signs and The Village, he already had a reputation as a deeply committed, serious adult actor, and his Oscar-nominated lead role in Walk The Line just sealed that rep.

16. Elijah Wood

It may be hard to think of Elijah Wood as an adult actor, considering his signature role as digitally tiny-fied, childlike hobbit Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings movies. In the first of those films, at age 20, he doesn't look much bigger than he was when he got his start at age 8 in Internal Affairs, or the older of two abused brothers in the underrated Radio Flyer. Still, while he's spent years playing Frodo, he's made time for a small number of well-chosen, memorable adult rules, including the playing-against-type serial killer in Sin City, the lovelorn Patrick in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and author Jonathan Safran Foer in the weird, unloved, but striking book adaptation Everything Is Illuminated.

17. Anna Paquin

Given that she'll always be remembered as the girl who won an Oscar at age 11 (though she still isn't the youngest Oscar winner), it's sometimes a little strange to see Anna Paquin all grown up—and sexified up—in the likes of 25th Hour or the new HBO series True Blood. As with many child stars, it may be tempting to think of her as two people—one, the cute little girl from The Piano and Fly Away Home, and the other, the cynical man-manipulator of The Squid And The Whale.

18. Natalie Portman

The same could be said of Natalie Portman, though she contains such multitudes that a simple dichotomy doesn't work. Is she the threatened little girl from Luc Besson's The Professional? (It was her feature debut; she was 12.) The remote, heavily costumed princess-slash-action-heroine of The Phantom Menace and its sequels? The sexy, slightly trampy, ignorant but determined power-player in Closer? The irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl of Garden State? The abused victim of V For Vendetta and Goya's Ghosts? The domineering bitch-queen of The Other Boleyn Girl? Does her starring role in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium explain anything? Portman is another actor who effectively grew up onscreen, but even watching her develop up close year after year since her childhood hasn't made it any easier to predict how good she'll be in a given role, or how good the film around her will be. Still, she's usually an arresting presence, if she gets material worth working with.

19. Elizabeth Taylor

McDowall's lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor enjoyed an even smoother transition to adult roles. After breaking out at the age of 12 in National Velvet, she inched into grown-up parts incrementally, co-starring in Life With Father at 15, Little Women at 17, and playing a young bride at the age of 18 in 1950's Father Of The Bride. That hit doubled as a coming-out party, and Taylor spent the '50s and '60s as an international star, thanks to films like A Place In The Sun, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, which paired her with her most famous on- and offscreen partner, Richard Burton. By the '70s, however, her most iconic roles were behind her. Growing up onscreen was easy. Growing old onscreen wasn't.


Unknown September 16, 2008 at 4:55 PM  

Mickey Rooney has had such a long and varied career that it's difficult to avoid leaving out important milestones in a short summary, but I think it should be noted that in from 1939 to 1941, Mickey Rooney was the number one box office draw in Hollywood cinema -- an absolutely astonishing achievement for a period that included Clark Gable's appearance in GONE WITH THE WIND! Rooney did continue to appear in theatrical films (in addition to tv) during the 1950's, mostly in "B" movies like QUICKSAND (1950), THE ATOMIC KID (1954), and FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1956), though he also appeared in THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (1954). Finally, I think his roles as the voice of a puppetoon version of himself as Santa in the Rankin-Bass television holiday specials SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN (1970) and THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974), as well as his appearance as the Lighthouse keeper in Disney's classic PETE'S DRAGON (1977), were instrumental in reviving the public's affection for him as he transitioned from a working middle-aged character actor to the more loveable, grandfatherly roles he has often played since. As much as his MGM classics, these 1970's performances continue to cement his status as an indestructible show-biz icon as they are watched and re-watched by old fans who love them, and by new generations of fans who discover them year after year after year.

Unknown September 16, 2008 at 5:16 PM  

Also: I guess I can forgive your leaving out such important Elizabeth Taylor appearances as GIANT (1956) and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1977), but can you really have intended to leave out CLEOPATRA (1963), the mammoth spectacle that brought Burton & Taylor together for the first time? Roddy McDowall was in it, too, by the way.