Child Stars & what happened to some of them

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Child Stars & what happened to some of them

River Phoenix was one of the really tragic child stars /

River Phoenix was one of the really tragic child stars /

Since cinema started small children with the talent (and courage) to act in front of a camera team have been popular with cinemagoers. In the Twenties Mary Pickford charmed everyone by staying childlike as long as she could, and sometimes after. And before you could say “Action!” she had grown up and part-owned her own production company (United Artists).

Charles Chaplin was never a child star but he appeared with one – Jackie Coogan – and the still of them seated together on a mean step is world-famous. Then Jackie became a star in his own right, playing in The Champ and Skippy. But he and others were soon replaced by the much younger Freddie Bartholomew, who could do an English upper-class accent like no-one else, and did it to perfection in David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy. He even halfstole Captains Courageous from Spencer Tracy: in Copperfield Freddie was famously caned by the wicked Basil Rathbone as Mr Murdstone. Rathbone shares with Christoper Lee the dubious distinction of being a near-Olympic-standard swordsman never allowed to win a duel on screen. How real fencers have enjoyed the comic sight of Rathbone being outfought by clunks like Errol Flynn. I digress as usual but it is Christmas.

Many child stars grew up to become drunks or druggers or dead before their time, but Freddie lived until 1982 thank you, dying in Florida having renounced the film business years before. Another youngster who became an old-timer was Shirley Temple, a star at five (1933)! Shirley is said to have captivated a whole generation but there are some films buffs, myself among them, who are turned off by all that sweetness. Cary Grant certainly was in the one film he made with Miss Temple.

Mickey Rooney was a child star who turned into an adult star, and lasted the course. So did Elizabeth Taylor, playing the lead in National Velvet  (Mickey was in it too) at twelve, and still drawing the crowds (and Richard Burton) in her forties and fifties. Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland entranced the world as children but as the years went by their personal problems overcame their popularity. Another child who went to to musical stardom was Donald O’Connor but he could only act with a talking mule when he grew up.

Virginia Weidler stole scenes from Katherine Hepburn (not wise), and James Stewart in The Philadephia Story when she was twelve, but shortly afterwards vanished.

In Britain there were the two Spenser brothers, Jeremy and David, busily playing every kind of role in movies as long as it was definitely upper class. Jeremy was delightful in Prelude to Fame and stunning in Prince and the Showgirl – where he had world-class competition in Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, not to mention the extraordinary Richard Wattis, who was never a child star, nor even a star, but always enchanted everyone in the cinema (see top picture). But Jeremy’s career disappeared as child actor’s careers tend to do. Still, he was a child star actively from 1948 to 1967. He is a year older than me.

Also in Britain, in the Fifties, two kids in Mary Poppins worked superbly with Julie Andrew and David Tomlinson. They were Karen Dotrice (whatever happened to her?) and poor little Matthew Gerber. Sadly we know what happened to him: he died of natural causes before he was twenty-one. I have not forgotten that James Fox (still with us thank God) appeared as a child actor in the Fifties, calling himself William. Anthony Newley made a superb and very young foil for Alec Guinness and Robert Newton in Oliver Twist. Mandy Miller made us cry in Mandy  and Vincent Winter and Jon Whiteley entertained us in The Kidnappers.

An American tragedy was Bobby Driscoll. Walt Disney’s favourite child star appeared with eye-rolling Robert Newton in Treasure Island, had most of us weeping in So dear to my heart, and did the voice-over for Peter in Disney’s full length cartoon Peter Pan (1953). The last serious film work done by Driscoll was in 1955. Hollywood then dropped him, as so very often happens. He died in total poverty in 1968, but not before he made a famous quote during a TV interview: “In Hollywood I was carried around on a satin cushion and then dropped in a garbage can.”

Brandon de Wilde was the wide-eyed little boy in Shane but we hardly ever saw him again. River Phoenix did an extraordinary imitation of what Harrison Ford was probably like when he was a kid – in the third Indiana Jones. He had played in Mosquito Coast when he was fifteen, and is thus entitled to the label ‘teenstar’ at least. He was eighteen when he played the youthful Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade; seventeen in the excellent Running on Empty, twenty years old in the chilling ‘arthouse picture’ My Own Private Idaho where Keanu Reeves and River play male prostitutes; He died (on the pavement outside a club) of overdoses of heroin and cocaine when he was twenty-two, a stupid waste of star quality, charm, acting ability in spades and integrity (despite his appalling death). Director Sidney Lumet said of him: “There wasn’t a false bone in his body.’

Macaulay Culkin perhaps deserves a whole post to himself. He and his career went to pieces, but he delighted the world in three Home Alone pictures which he carried himself despite the presence of some of Hollywood’s leading character actors.

Charley Sheen, brother and son of professional actors, was a child star who became a teen star who became a liability to himself, and a favourite target of the American press and justice system. When still young he made an excellent Aramis in a Musketeer epic. He lost an excellent role in a long-running series because of his uncontrollable antics off the set. Too much success too soon?

Sal Mineo was a child star all right. He cannot be forgotten as James Dean’s kid brother in Rebel without a Cause, appearing again with Dean in Giant (1956), and as a young Israeli in Exodus with Paul Newman in English guise. He is killed in the star-laden Longest Day clutching an irritating clicker. He had come to the movies from the stage, and when his film career collapsed, he returned to it. In 1976 he had just got home from rehearsals on stage when he was murdered by a pizza salesman.

In 1958 a daughter of the British actor John Mills embarked on a six-year screen career. Her name is Hayley Mills. She duly went to Hollywood but finally vanished, unlike her father who was still working at ninety. In France cinemagoers were seduced by the remarkable boy actor Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les Quatre Cents Coups. Mark Lester did even better than Jack Wild in the film stakes, though both had appeared in Oliver! And talking about Oliver Twist here is a happier story. David Lean chose John Howard Davies to play Twist in his 1951 film (still by far the best version ever made – imitated by Polanski in his recent attempt). Howard Davies worked with Lean on this film, played a not very memorable Tom Brown in one of those interminable Schooldays pics, decided to retire gracefully, and became a television executive and producer. No Driscoll or Phoenix experiences for John Howard Davies.

Ryan O’Neal’s daughter appeared very successfully with Dad in Paper Moon, a film in which Father allowed Daughter to steal every scene from him. But then she grew up and vanished. Linda Blair terrified us all in a perfectly dreadful film called The Exorcist and maybe shouldn’t have done because she has not worked very much since. Then there was the utterly enchanting Ricky Schroder in The Champ, but he, like so many more dear little moppets waiting in the wings, has since disappeared.

It may be significant that Jodie Foster, a child star if ever there was one, went on to become an adult star appearing in very adult films, and is now a director in her own right. Her directorial debut came in 1991 with a good film made about the problems of gifted children. Last but not least, and still with us as good as ever is young Joel Osment, who managed to do a great deal of scene-stealing from Bruce Willis ( in The Sixth Sense), though one must say Mr Willis did not seem to mind at all. Of the two young boys who appeared in The Never-ending Story (1984, Barret Oliver and Gerald McRaney?) I cannot find a trace. Perhaps some friendly and clever visitor to this website can give me some information . . .)

By | 2012-12-25T12:40:56+00:00 December 25th, 2012|History of the Cinema|1 Comment

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

One Comment

  1. David Rayner December 10, 2021 at 8:38 pm - Reply

    The John Howard Davies version of OLIVER TWIST was ,made in 1948, not 1951.

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