by Steve Ryfle
When the words "former child actor" appear in the news, they're often accompanied by other words, such as "arrested," "overdosed," or even "suicide." From River Phoenix to Todd Bridges to Dana Plato, America has become accustomed to, and perhaps even a little bit obsessed with, the trials and tribulations and failures of famous kids who self-destruct as adults.
But not every child actor ends up dead, in jail, or living in obscurity, pumping gas for a living in some podunk town--not by a long shot. Some of them keep on acting and become more famous in long pants than they ever were in short pants.
Actor and poker champ Ben Affleck likes to pretend that he was just a nobody when he came to Hollywood in his early twenties, struggling to get a foothold in the acting world. But the truth is he'd been working since he was eight years old, when he was a fixture on a PBS miniseries, and he appeared in TV movies and other productions throughout his teens.
Sarah Jessica Parker
and Cynthia Nixon were successful, working actresses long before "Sex and the City
," but it's amazing just how long before. Parker became sorta famous in the early 1980s sitcom "Square Pegs," and also appeared in movies associated with that decade including "Footloose" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," while Nixon appeared in an endless string of TV movies during the Reagan era. (Interestingly, Nixon and Parker did one TV flick together, "My Body, My Child," in 1982.)
Drew Barrymore is one of the film world's elite actresses today, earning eight-figure paydays and producing big-ticket movies, but not long ago, some thought she wouldn't last to age 20. Everyone fell in love with her when, at just seven years old, she played that cute-as-a-button, alien-befriending little girl named Gertie in "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial." Barrymore then proceeded to spin down the drain that swallows many child stars, partying too hard and spending her teen years on the tabloid pages for all the wrong reasons. She bounced back, got clean, and despite a few missteps (Tom Green? Blecch.) she's become a player.
Before she was caught kissing old geezers like Bill Murray on film, Scarlett Johansson was winning the Hollywood Reporter's Young Star Award at age 14, for her work as the troubled teen in "The Horse Whisperer." Johansson has been working fairly steadily since she was just 8, when she debuted in a comedy sketch on Conan O'Brien's show. She's 20 now, and still shows no apparent sign of melting down. Of course, she's in the new Michael Bay movie, so wait til she reads the reviews.
As a tiny tyke, the story goes, Leonardo DiCaprio made an appearance on "Romper Room" and was nearly kicked off the show for misbehaving. With such auspicious beginnings, it's a wonder DiCaprio's acting career didn't flame out in his youth. But we all know what happened. He played a homeless kid on "Growing Pains" in the 1980s, then played a disturbed kid in "This Boy's Life" (stealing the movie from DeNiro), and then there was something about a big boat and an iceberg. Despite a few public scuffles and assorted lawsuits, DiCaprio has eluded the usual ex-child-actor curses.
Christian Slater and Winona Ryder struck Hollywood pay dirt in the weirdo high school flick "Heathers," but they both began their careers years earlier, as mere youths. Slater was still in elementary school when he started working in a series of TV movies in the early 1980s, while Ryder was about 15 when she debuted in 1986's "Lucas." Their adult years have not been without incident--Slater did two months in jail for assault, and Ryder did community service for her infamous five-finger discount episode--but they remain gainfully employed.
Most every kid actor in the 1986 hit "Stand by Me" became either famous or infamous. The most successful of them are Jerry O'Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Kiefer Sutherland, while the aforementioned River Phoenix met a premature fate and Corey Feldman became...well, Corey Feldman.
Time flies. It's hard to believe, but Kirsten Dunst was under 10 when she appeared in "Bonfire of the Vanities" with Tom Hanks. Likewise, the currently rejuvenated career of Christina Applegate got its start back when she played the kid version of Grace Kelly in a 1983 TV biopic.
And there are others. "Land of the Dead" star Asia Argento started acting as a kid in her native Italy, thanks in part to her dad, the cult horror filmmaker Dario Argento. Alyson Hanigan of "American Wedding" fame was in the non-classic "My Stepmother is an Alien" and a bunch of TV stuff back in the 1980s, when she was barely in double-digits. Just a few of the many stars who turned pro at a young age, and managed to keep afloat.