“(Little) Stars in Their Eyes”: How Hollywood Makes and Breaks its Child Actors

People view child actors the same way that girls treat their Barbie dolls” (Mara Wilson, former child actress, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)).” A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” (a Chinese proverb). “Childhood experiences are very important to lifelong outcomes… (Andrew S. Garner, MD).

We all know past childhood or teenage horrors/troubles of such celebrities as Judy Garland, Macaulay Culkin, River Phoenix or Lindsay Lohan. We also know the examples of successful transitions from child actors to adult stars, such as the Harry Potter cast. The point is that the cinema industry has learnt much about the treatment of child actors, but it has also done so at a considerable cost, including in terms of human lives. In this post, I would like to highlight three child actors (some alive and some already dead) who were essentially let down by Hollywood, and their cases were really such that more effort and support should have been given to see these child actors’ transition to adult actors or adults with other careers – especially since so much was done by Hollywood to elevate them to their “star” status from their very young ages. Studios often became the children’s second home in the examples below, and since the children relied so much on that early expectation of praise and success (and money was made out of them), these children and then teenagers had to be helped later to deal with their expected career declines. There are those who blame the pushy parents, and I am not saying that personal factors or choices did not play a role in the cases below, but I also believe that no one should have forgotten that the actors below were also mere children, much more sensitive to their environment, praise and criticism than adults, and, thus, later, needing much more support and reassurance in their careers.

Bobby_Driscoll_1946I. Bobby Driscoll (1937 – 1968)

I really feared people…the other kids did not accept me. I tried desperately to be one of the gang. When they rejected me, I fought back, becoming belligerent and cocky and was afraid all the time. I have found that memories were not very useful. I was carried on a silver cushion and then dropped into a garbage can” (Bobby Driscoll).

Bobby Driscoll is one of the most heart-breaking examples of Hollywood’s callousness and indifference to the plight of their former child actors, who they once loved and worshipped so much, giving every award possible to, and instilling into them so much early hope and success reassurance. The most shocking thing about the case of Bobby Driscoll is the marked difference between the unbelievable success, recognition and stardom which he enjoyed as a child actor, and the complete indifference to the fact that this once Winner of an Academy Award then met with the obscurity and loneliness that most people would never know and cannot even imagine, with Driscoll sliding into extreme poverty and drug-use as an adult.

Bobby Driscoll was not an average child actor landing small roles, he was the epitome of success at MGM, that elevated him to a real star shortly after Driscoll finished his first film at the age of 6 – Lost Angel (1943). At the age of 9, Driscoll was chosen by Walt Disney Studios as a lead actor in very popular live actions films Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and Treasure Island (1950). Bobby Driscoll was also Peter Pan, serving as a model for all the sketches of this character in the famous Disney cartoon (1953), and providing his voice for the main character too. An Academy Award was given to Driscoll in 1950, when he was 13 years old, for the Best Juvenile Performance (see his claiming of the award in this short video). By 1951, at the age of just 14, Driscoll was cast in more than 17! well-known films, among which was The Window (1949), which The New York Times claimed was so successful because of Driscoll’s performance – “the striking force and terrifying impact of this [movie] is chiefly due to Bobby’s brilliant acting”.

Fortunes for the young actor turned in 1953 when Disney decided that they no longer see him as a likeable character and that he is only suited for the role of “bullies” (Wikipedia). Driscoll’s contract with Disney was cancelled in 1953 and the studios stated that it was because of the boy’s puberty acne. When Driscoll enteres a normal school shortly after, he was bullied there, as well as ridiculed for his previous roles. He only finished school when he was transferred back to the Hollywood Professional School. In the late 1950s, drugs and prison sentences were already ruling the actor’s life, and after numerous minor roles on TV, in 1961 there were no acting jobs available to him. At that point, he turned to artistic work in New York, until abandoning this also some years before his death. In 1968, Bobby Driscoll was found dead, broke and alone in an abandoned building in East Village. He has just turned 31 years old and the cause of death was heart failure from prolonged drug use. To make matters worse, his death was not reported anywhere until 1972 when reporters started investigating the lives of the Song of the South stars.

It is shocking how Hollywood can forget one of their most golden and promising stars, especially the one who contributed so much to the most popular films of the decade. It seems that the “fault” of Driscoll was that he simply grew up and became suddenly completely unwanted. It is unbelievable how in Driscoll’s last years there was not one single option or avenue of support left for this actor who was once so beloved by so many.

kinopoisk.ruII. Jonathan Brandis (1976 – 2003)

Jonathan Brandis began his professional career at the age of 4 as a child model, and, shortly after, was cast in numerous commercials. His TV debut came when he was only 6 years of age in a TV series One Life to Life. At the age of 14, Brandis got his leading role in The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter and also had a role in the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It, alongside Tim Curry. Later, he also starred with Chuck Norris in Sidekicks.

At the age of 17, Brandis landed his role in Steven Spielberg’s series seaQuest DSV, and it is this role that made him a heartthrob and a recognisable teenager. However, seaQuest DSV was cancelled in 1996, and after some TV roles, his roles were mainly in supporting categories from then on. He thought that his another break would come after Hart’s War (2002), where he starred alongside Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, but his role in that film was substantially reduced, and a later pilot 111 Gramercy Park was ignored. Feeling depressed about where his acting career was going, Brandis committed suicide by hanging in Los Angeles in 2003 at the age of only 27. 

Brandis may not have made the acting contribution that Driscoll made, but there is still this feeling that he deserved more support to cope with what he was going through when his acting career prospects declined. It is easy for us to say that there were so many lifetime options available for Brandis, but my point is – Are we really good judges of that? – Have we walked in his shoes? – Have we been acting in films and on TV since the age of 4? How can we know what it is really like, and how does it really feel when acting on films and TV has been a person’s life since the time he was able to make his first intelligible sounds? 

skywalkerIII. Jake Lloyd (1989 – )

Jake Lloyd landed his first role at the age of 7 in 1996 in one episode of ER, and then starred in minor roles in films Unhook the Stars (1996) and Jingle All the Way (1996). He then landed the coveted role of young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) at the age of 10. This was a very big film and a big role for Jake Lloyd whose cute Anakin became memorable. In my opinion, the shocking thing was that Lloyd was nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award (the Razzie) for the Worst Performance of the year in the category of a Supporting Actor. A question arises – what is the point of nominating a 10-year-old child, who still looks up to adults to know how good he is at acting, for the Worst Supporting Acting Award, publicly shaming him in the process to the whole world since the Award is known internationally? He may be an actor with three other TV/film appearances already behind him, but he remains an impressionable and sensitive child who tried his best on the set, inwardly craving praise from adults, and was chosen so lovingly by George Lucas among so many others for this role. The Golden Raspberry Foundation, that give such awards, claims that its awards “encourage well-known filmmakers and top notch performers to own to their bad.” How can a 10-year-old child “own to his bad” in this manner? 

After Star Wars, Lloyd was bullied at school, and seemed to have trouble integrating successfully into society because in the 2010s he had troubles with the law, and, in 2016, was transferred from jail to psychiatric facilities, being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Although all cases of child actors are different and I am not claiming to know the Jake Lloyd case thoroughly, one may still wonder whether Lloyd really did receive all the help and especially psychological support he needed following the premier of such a big film as Star Wars, where he was almost in one of the leading roles. The fact that he was only ten years old and already his performance was deemed among the worst of the year was certainty not something a child should have to confront. One cannot help but wonder whether Jake Lloyd was really there once “to provide a cute face for the movie”, and certainly never was wanted by anyone again after that performance of his. And, what about maybe thinking, as a child, that you are blamed for contributing to the failure of one important movie in America’s most beloved sci-fi franchise? 

Conclusion 

Everyone knows that film-making is a tough business and no one denies the primary role of parents in their children’s lives. However, one question also emerges – if you are six years old and you are told by everyone at film studios that you are the best and cutest actor, lavished with attention, how can you then, after say seven years, deal with the fact that you are no longer wanted by absolutely anyone in the only field you know so much about, and not even by those people who admired you in the past and who you grew up to trust? How can you be discarded like old clothes when you do not feel any different inside? Children are different from adults, and it has been shown that childhood memories and the consequences of those impressions last the whole of a person’s life. If companies were ripping immense monetary profits from some young actors, encouraging them in every possible way so they would act more, they must also then face to their responsibilities and made sure that these people are provided with sufficient (even psychological) support and options to enable them to deal with their adult transitions in the industry.  This is a basic issue of humanity and compassion after the companies have already made much money from the participation of these very vulnerable and impressionable “little people” that children always are.

27 thoughts on ““(Little) Stars in Their Eyes”: How Hollywood Makes and Breaks its Child Actors

  1. I wasn’t aware of that with those actors. How tragic. I heard a lot of shady things with Hollywood or former child stars going crazy, but I couldn’t believe what they all went through. Don’t even get me started with the even more malevolent aspects like what Corey Feldman has been talking about for example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! Yes, Corey Feldman is another example, and I thought I would bring to the attention these cases in particular because they are lesser known but not less horrifying. Another tragic thing of course is that children do not have full comprehension of what they are getting into until, of course, they are in the middle of this Hollywood machine and have few chances of getting out – with most back then not even having any other skills apart from posing and acting because they missed a lot of normal school.

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      1. No problem. Corey Feldman was certainly an obvious choice, but this was all new to me. The Jake Lloyd example really hit me hard because I actually saw Episode 1 when I was a kid in theaters and I didn’t realize how close in age he was to me. Sure, I don’t like Episode I as an adult, but Lloyd didn’t deserve all of that scorn or the Razzie nomination.

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  2. Oh man…this is incredibly tragic and an all too familiar story. I can think of many other child actors who also had a turmultuous life that ended too soon. And yes, you are so right that we can’t ever know what that feels like to be acting since you first learning to walk, how that would be your sole identity, also how lonely that existence would be without the right support around you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, exactly, I am glad you agree. Everything that one does in childhood shapes him or her in some way, and it is sad that while children or teenagers may be receiving monetary compensation for their work, they are not often receiving other, much more needed support.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In a kind of sick way, Hollywood is sort of like giant pet shop with cute animals in it, and they are only wanted when they are young and cute. However when they grow up they aren’t loved in the same way. 😦

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, this is very sad – especially when you consider the case from these little children’s perspectives. Children often get attached mentally and emotionally to, and begin to trust so much,”parental/instructing” authority, be it even people at the studio or production companies that love them so much. It may be very extreme! to say this but it can feel like when one has grown up one’s parent does not want them anymore.

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        1. Hopefully it has become better – I want to believe that, but, you know, when there is big money making as the first priority, there will always be some tragic cases like this, I think. It is horrifying to think how many cases like this or similar we still do not know about, that are hidden and that we will never find out about (for example because those people were not sufficiently famous, etc.).

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  4. What a fantastic article and the three cases you outline are incredibly tragic. To thrust someone so young into the spotlight is so risky, as you don’t know how resilient they are going to be. Some – like Ethan Hawke and Jodie Foster – were clearly built for the industry’s highs and lows. While the young actors you highlight were clearly not. How can you tell?
    Jake Lloyd’s case is the one I am aware of and while you cannot blame George Lucas directly, it was such a big role for someone so young. In hindsight perhaps Annakin should have been cast a bit older. Then again, there are many older actors who have suffered when their careers have finished too. That’s a whole other article though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! I agree with you on different levels of children’s resilience. But I also think these child actor cases also depend on how much support at home children receive. This is very important too.

      Well, sensing that she was growing up fast, Jodie Foster actually embarked on a very prestigious Literature course at Yale simply BECAUSE she did not want “to follow the destiny of other child actors”, and wanted to do something different. Actually, Natalie Portman, who started acting much later than other child actors and only at 12! also did a course in psychology at Harvard, and the same course was followed by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) when she finished Oxford University. I personally think this is telling us something.

      Moreover, Jodie Foster’s almost native French language skills meant that even France/Europe cinema was open to her and she did grow up to be a beautiful woman. I guess my point is that there are different factors involved, including the level of connections to the industry.

      What I find worrying is that there are many people who do not even guess what their admired former child actors went through. For example, when doing research for this article, I saw a number of lists titled “former child actors that have made a great adult star transition” and Drew Barrymore (E.T.) was included in some of them. Maybe Barrymore is alright now, but she went through absolute hell in her teenage years, including acting out, and addiction to drugs and alcohol. I don’t know how that qualifies a success story.

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  5. I don’t think I knew about Bobby Driscoll, that’s really sad.

    The thing is that everyone knows that a child actor’s appeal comes because they’re young and cute, but that’s obviously not going to last. I remember with Macauley Culkin, it almost seemed to be seized on by the media with relish. He’s a spotty teenager now, he’s not cute anymore! Ha ha!

    I definitely agree with your point about the Razzies and Jake Lloyd, that was irresponsible. People just didn’t like the idea of Darth Vadar being turned into a cute little moppet, and that’s perfectly understandable. But they shouldn’t have blamed the kid for that and children shouldn’t be singled out in these kind of awards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I am glad you agree on Jake Lloyd, the Razzies and that small children should not be the centre of them. Something about the whole situation just feels so wrong. I imagine being only 10 years old and being in one’s first big movie that millions of fans anticipate is scary and daunting enough, but then to realise that you were actually so bad in it apparently that you were nominated for the world-famous worst acting award. Horrific.

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  6. You wrote a compelling article and I agree with you. The biggest child star that comes to mind with tragic results for me is Judy Garland. Her biography reveals the horrors of studio life and the manipulations are cruel. It’s the mother that’s to blame in her case, shelling out uppers and downers at such a young age until they were intrinsic to her personality and life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Judy Garland is indeed a very tragic example – I would say the most tragic even. One thing is to have the producers or strangers manipulating a child, but another thing to have one’s own mother overseeing and encouraging this exploitation – horrific.

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  7. I always knew this was a problem and it always breaks my heart when people and the media criticize a maturing actor for behaving badly (Drew Barrymore, Lindsey Lohan, River Phoenix and others). I spoke with one famous child star, none other than Shirley Temple Black and she said to me, that had it not been for her parents safeguarding her, controlling her environment and keeping her grounded, she too could have been a statistic. When I had my daughter in pageants at a young age, the pressure some parents put on their child to succeed caused me to pull my daughter out of such an environment. It was so sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts! And I agree that it is very important to have parents that support a child and actually tell him or her that “such” professional success is not everything in life. I am glad that Shirley had that support – at least that child actor was saved.

      I also understand and support your decision re pageants – they can be so damaging to a child and her self-esteem. I do not think child pageants send out the right message at all – especially the way adults view them (fun shows) and the way a child can perceive them (the way you look means everything in this world) can be worlds apart. It is, of course, children’s perceptions that matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Such a powerful post! I never really thought about it, but I have heard the stories of the child stars who were chewed up and spit out by Hollywood. To hear their painful stories here is so heartbreaking, but I am glad you wrote it and shed light even if it’s only on a few.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! When I found out about these three stories I just could not be silent about them and wanted to share them. There is just something so wrong about each of these cases. People talk about individual and parental responsibilities, and yet companies and industries who are making millions and millions each year, and off children actors too, cannot have in place even basic care, help or safeguards when their child actors grow up and visibly struggling a lot. It defies belief.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A great article that more people should read! When it comes to the demise of some child stars, personal family issues are the root of the problem. One example is Judith Barsi, who was killed by her father. As the story goes, he was jealous of how much money she was making and he felt she was undeserving of her success. If you want to learn more about Judith’s story, I’d recommend the Youtube video, “The Tragic Murder of Child Star Judith Barsi”, from the Youtuber Eleanor Neale.

    To bring some good news to this rather sad comment, I nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award! Here’s the link:

    https://18cinemalane.com/2020/09/04/accepting-my-fourth-blogger-recognition-award/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I do know about Judith Barsi – it is an extremely tragic case that also exposes the weaknesses in child and family protection. I will check out the video you mention, thanks very much – and for the nomination! Much appreciate.

      Liked by 1 person

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