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He's a former child star?! Oh, just lock him up and throw away the jail!
—Bosco, Sam and Max: Culture Shock
Probably one of Hollywood's biggest Acceptable Targets, the Former Child Star is just what it sounds like: a star of TV or film whose career was at its peak in their formative years. Alas, such an unorthodox childhood can leave its mark on anyone (especially if they were Not Allowed to Grow Up), and it always does in fictional depictions of the Former Child Star. In adulthood, they may be a struggling actor who finds it hard to be taken seriously when everyone remembers them as "that one kid from that one show", if they're remembered at all. And that's if they're lucky: the unlucky ones wind up mourning their glory days in a dead-end job, or (dis)gracing the covers of tabloids after a run-in with the law. Sadly, a case of Truth in Television, as the troubled biographies of some real-life Former Child Stars will show. On the other hand, there are other child actors who grew up well, like Jodie Foster and Bill Mumy, because their parents took care to raise them up right under the circumstances.
While some kids idolize these stars and want to be like--or be--them because of how "glamorous" their lives are, their lives more or less suck 80% of the time. Can you say Blessed with Suck?
Compare White Dwarf Starlet.
- The title character of the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
- The David Spade film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star is about one of these characters trying to learn about "normal" family life from a typical suburban family in preparation for a role.
- Jaleel "Steve Urkel" White played himself in the film Big Fat Liar, briefly showcasing his struggles as an adult actor when everyone remembers him as "that Urkel kid".
- Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle had Real Life Former Child Star Neil Patrick Harris, although playing a far more dysfunctional version of himself than actually exists.
- This ironically led to a revival in Harris' career.
- "Baby" Brent in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. As a baby he was the mascot of the town sardine cannery and has spent his entire life trading on his fame, down to wearing a diaper underneath his clothes.
- Donnie in Magnolia, a former Child Prodigy on a TV quiz show who fell on hard times.
- Life With Mikey starred Michael J. Fox as a former child star turned talent agent.
- Although in his case it's even weirder, most of his fame came from him playing a child while he was an adult. These weren't roles he had played since he was a child, his entire carreer was simply Not Allowed to Grow Up.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Along Came Polly plays with this trope, even featuring a movie poster in the style of The Breakfast Club, and a character meltdown when he tries to direct and play every role in a community theatre production.
- The Gemma books by Noel Streatfeild are about a teenage Former Child Star who is sent to comprehensive school. She changes her surname so as to be inconspicuous, but finds she doesn't like being a nobody, and ends up becoming (locally) famous again.
- Subverted in the X Wing Series, part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Garik "Face" Loran was a child star who appeared in Imperial propagandist "holodramas" until he realized the levels of cruelty The Empire was capable of. Now he's one part The Atoner, one part Master of Disguise (he's still a fantastic actor), and one part The Ace (though this is mostly an act, and he can be a truly competent pilot when he needs to be). This definition of "child" is a bit flexible and seems to extend to "teen", since a number of women in his squadron had crushes on him when he was starring in holofilms.
- His old contemporary and rival Tetran Cowall, on the other hand, stayed Imperial.
- Pearl Bright of Jane Lindskold's Breaking the Wall trilogy is a Former Child Star, a contemporary of no less than Shirley Temple herself. However Pearl herself subverts the usual description of this trope by being moderately wealthy thanks to her mother's careful investing of her childhood earnings, maintaining connections throughout Hollywood, and being an octogenarian Badass.
Live Action TV
- An SCTV segment parodies the trope with the show Oh That Rusty!, which has been running for over 20 years with the same lead actor. He's clearly an adult, and offscreen he basically runs the show now, but his character Rusty has never aged. Since Rusty is eight years old, the show recasts the other characters and redesigns the sets to try and hide this.
- Robin from How I Met Your Mother was one (in Canada). The rest of the group mock her mercilessly for it.
- In the Married... with Children episode, "You Better Shop Around" Jerry Mathers (known for Leave It to Beaver) guest stars, playing himself as a washed-up former child star, who has resorted to judging shopping contests in supermarkets. Bud and Kelly mercilessly mock him for this.
- Marcus Little of The Suite Life On Deck was formerly the One-Hit Wonder kid rapper Lil' Little.
Music & Radio
- Peter Sellers' 1958 comedy album The Best of Sellers has a song, "I'm So Ashamed", where a pop singer laments his falling out of favor, having not had a hit song in three weeks. It's revealed that the poor guy's almost 9 years old now...
- George Tirebiter from the Firesign Theatre album Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.
- Barenaked Ladies' song "New Kid On The Block" has a line about this: "I'm a New Kid on the Block/I'm 23 and they won't let me grow up."
- The Broadway musical Avenue Q features Gary Coleman as a superintendent.
- Baby Rose, from the original version of Babes in Arms, moved to New York after she got older and "became passé". Now a gorgeous teenager, she's followed everywhere by a barbershop quartet who sing backup for her, but she has so little money left from her Hollywood days that, when the rest of the cast gets sent to a work farm, she and the quartet get sent there, too.
- The Soda Poppers from Telltale Games' episodic Sam and Max adventure games, who were reoccurring characters throughout the first two seasons before revealing themselves to be evil in Episode 205, What's New Beelzebub?.
- Funny Or Die's Wax On, Fuck Off is about Ralph Macchio trying to become a Hollywood trainwreck (or at least look like one) in order to gain more roles.
- Batman the Animated Series had minor baddie "Baby" Dahl, a former starlet who wasn't able to find work as a serious after her show was cancelled because she's stuck in the body of a little girl.
- One episode of Bonkers had a Former Child Star trying to pass himself off as Mickey Mouse.
- Static Shock had a one-shot villain named Replay who was a former child star with self-duplication.
- And was also voiced by former child star Neil Patrick Harris.
- The Simpsons' episode "Last Tap Dance In Springfield" has this with Lisa's tap teacher, who was a Shirley Temple-style star and is now a nasty old harridan who hides behind Tastes Like Diabetes mannerisms most of the time. She admits to tapping coded messages for the Allies in WWII and destroying Buddy Ebsen's credit rating, so this two-faced nature was probably always there.
- Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture from The Venture Brothers applies to this in a non-acting sense: he was a boy adventurer a la Jonny Quest, but has been met with failure after abject failure in his attempt to "adventure" post-adolescence.
- This could also apply to supporting character Dr. Billy Quizboy.
- One of the recurring themes in the show is that this ends up happening to pretty much all "Boy Adventurers" when they grow up. Jonny Quest himself, for example, is now a paranoid junkie. Rusty also attends a therapy session that features a Robin like former sidekick with an eating disorder, an Astro Boy looking robot with anger management problems, and two Hardy Boys like former boy detectives who almost certainly killed their father. The whole experience actually leads Rusty to realize that by the standards of his peers he made out pretty good.
Real Life instances:
- As a musical example, Britney Spears has fallen on this hard. Though her musical career has rebounded, her personal life and reputation are a massive train wreck, with her remaining in the conservatorship of her father.
- Lindsay Lohan... Oh dear. It was a mix of her personality (even as a child) and her parents that eventually demolished anything she had left resembling a professional career.
- The famous child acting duo Corey Feldman and Corey Haim both had meltdowns for adult lives. Eventually it claimed Corey Haim's life. Corey Feldman has survived fairly well, but unfortunately that's all we ever hear of him doing anymore.
- Brian Bonsall, who played baby brother Andy Keaton on Family Ties and Worf's son Alexander on Star Trek: The Next Generation has been arrested several times for assault and drug possession.
- Macaulay Culkin became a star after Home Alone. Twenty years later, it still is his most important role.
- Edward Furlong, despite solid performances in American History X and a couple of other movies, is still remembered as a juvenile John Connor.
- Jake Lloyd today seems to be very bitter and cynical about his role as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, but when you have gone through high-school and college with people constantly accusing you of ruining Star Wars, it is pretty hard to not to.
- Michael Jackson was ultimately a bigger star as an adult solo act, but didn't completely subvert this trope. The abuse he suffered under his dad's thumb as a child star warped him so badly that once he was able to stand on his own, he became obsessed with finally having a happy childhood in his private life. Thus, most of his adult pursuits and hobbies were juvenile and a way for him to "live as a kid" (i.e., the whole Neverland Ranch), and were a big reason he wound up with the Memetic Molester reputation that ruined his career.
- Brad Renfro was 12 when he made his film debut in the critically-acclaimed film The Client, co-starring with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. He won The Hollywood Reporter's Young Star Award in 1995 went on to appear in Apt Pupil and Ghost World. Sadly, he spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse and died from a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
- The three lead kid actors on Diff'rent Strokes — Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato — became infamous for brushes with the law as adults. Plato ultimately died at 34 of a drug overdose which was ruled a suicide. Gary Coleman, meanwhile,
turned into a crossdressing woman and became the super for an apartment building somewhere in Upper Manhattanstruggled to recover before tragically dying at 42 from head trauma. Bridges, meanwhile, is a regular on TruTV's The Smoking Gun Presents, along with former Partridge Family cast member Danny Bonaduce, another example of a Former Child Star who fell into serious problems as an adult (both Bridges and Bonaduce appear to be getting their lives on track at this point).
- Played tragically straight with River Phoenix. He had a skill for acting far beyond anyone else in his generation, but couldn't cope with the pressures of fame and hated that he was part of a system he despised. in which he was the focus of attention that should have been devoted to causes such as Humanitarian or Animal Rights which he felt strongly about. He turned to drugs and wound up dying of an overdose.
- Averted with his brother Joaquin, who's got a pretty good career as an adult.
- Although Joaquin played up to the trope with his extended breakdown in the fake-autobiographical I'm Still Here.
- Averted with his brother Joaquin, who's got a pretty good career as an adult.
- The rather sad case of Bobby Driscoll who was Disney's golden boy during the 1940s. Famous for his roles in Song Of The South and Peter Pan he was in several movies but was abruptly let go in the middle of the 1950s. He was ridiculed in school for being a child star and lapsed into obscurity through drugs. He was found dead and the body wasn't identified until a year later.
- Other than the Olsen Twins (who have also fallen out in recent times), just about all of the child/teenage actors who starred in Full House have fallen out of the limelight.
- Jodie Sweetin in particular stands out as an example of this trope played straight. Facing an inability to find further work and a traumatic social life due to being typecast as Stephanie Tanner, she became an alcoholic and a habitual user of marijuana, cocaine, LSD and most famously, meth. However, she seems to have gotten her life back on track recently, has published a memoir about her drug addiction, and is now seeking a Career Resurrection.
- Candace Cameron has since bouced back a bit, now appearing on Make It or Break It. Not as well-known or massive as Full House was in its time, but still a noteworthy performance.
- Leif Garrett is an example of this, a child pop star who got embroiled with drugs and scandals. Currently a commentator on Tru TV's Worlds Dumbest alongside fellow Former Child Stars Danny Bonaduce and Todd Bridges.
- There is an interesting contrast between the two stars of Guest From the Future. Natalia Guseva acted in a few more movies, but decided to become a scientist instead. Now, she not only works as a biochemist, but also is still involved with the fan community, and is raising a daughter. Meanwhile, Alexei Fomkin had a few more roles, but got into drug problems, which caused him to lose roles and spiral further downward. He quit acting and moved to a village, which seemed to be straightening him out. Sadly, he died in 1996 when his apartment burned.
- Robert Blake also starred in Our Gang comedies (as Mickey Gubitosi), then later starred in In Cold Blood and had the title role on the TV series Baretta, and years later was acquitted of his wife's murder, but lost a civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by his children.
Real Life aversions:
- Elizabeth Taylor, going from a child star in movies like Lassie Come Home to one of the most famous film actresses ever. Her private life, however, was notably less successful: she was notorious for her large number of weddings and divorces, and was treated for alcoholism and prescription drug addiction.
- Jodie Foster. First major role was in Taxi Driver as a twelve-year-old child prostitute. Even after the scandal over John Hinckley, she went on to have a very successful career which includes two acting Oscars.
- Shirley Temple. She went to be happily married for 50 years until her husband's death, and was an Ambassador for the United States to Czechoslovakia, during the Velvet Revolution. Also, during the 1968 Soviet Crackdown on Czechoslovakia, she led over 700 people to the border and got them through because the guards were fans of her.
- Jackie Cooper starred in some Our Gang comedies and was still a successful actor, director, and producer, most famous on screen as Perry White in the Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve.
- Bill Mumy of Lost in Space. His parents took care that he grew up properly during his career as a child, including carefully investing his pay, and he became a successful musician (his comedy pop band Barnes & Barnes is responsible for that "Fish Heads" song) and a reasonably busy actor who even got another juicy sci-fi TV role as Lennier in Babylon 5.
- Dean Stockwell averts this big time, starting as a child star in the 1940s, and continuing to work steadily for the next sixty-five years, being best known as Al on Quantum Leap and Cavil on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.
- The child cast of The Wonder Years have all managed to do well as adults: Fred Savage is a director and producer along with occasional acting, Danica McKellar is an author and mathematician when not acting, and Josh Saviano (Paul) is an attorney.
- Although Saviano has been the subject of the famous myth that he became Marilyn Manson when he grew up which he has found very amusing
- Christian Bale. He rose to fame as a child actor in films like Empire of the Sun and his Old Shame Newsies, but truly came into his own in American Psycho and is now best known as Batman from The Dark Knight Saga, and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in The Fighter.
- Danny Bonaduce has made an entire career out of being a washed-up ex-child-star.
- Natalie Wood. Starred in Miracle on 34th Street aged 8, but successfully adapted to 'grown-up' parts in her teens with Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers and is barely remembered as a child star at all.
- Natalie Portman. Her first big role was at the age of 11/12 in The Professional, and she has been
equallyfar more successful as an adult, starring in the Star Wars prequel films, V for Vendetta, Black Swan (which won her an Oscar) and Thor. Like Emma Watson below, Portman's taking a career break to go to college (and Harvard, no less) may have had something to do with it. Like Christian Bale, she also won an Oscar, for Best Actress, for her role in Black Swan.
- Kirsten Dunst. Her first big role was in Interview With The Vampire at 12 then Jumanji when she was 14, but she went on to a string of critically acclaimed as well as commercially successful roles in the Spider-Man films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Marie Antoinette, and Melancholia, which won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.
- Speaking of Christmas movies, Peter Billingsley from A Christmas Story grew up to be a successful director and producer. And he's quite handsome, too.
- Ron Howard. Starting out as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days he went on to direct films like Apollo13 and A Beautiful Mind (not to mention his involment in Arrested Development).
- Howard is still an Acceptable Target in comedy for how his appearance has aged horribly.
- Neil Patrick Harris is a notable aversion: after spending his teens on Doogie Howser, M.D., he worked steadily as a guest star on TV and on Broadway. But his career really took off after he did a cameo in the first Harold and Kumar movie - ironically enough, playing a lecherous, drug-addled version of himself. He's now best known to present-day audiences as the womanizing Barney Stimson on How I Met Your Mother, as well as Dr. Horrible from Doctor Horribles Sing Along Blog.
- The main cast of the Harry Potter movies seem to have avoided the worst aspects of child acting. Having begun acting at 9-11, they've shown steady development for over a decade and a total of eight films without any major misbehaviors or prima donna-ism. By all reports, all seem genuinely well-adjusted and mature.
- Daniel Radcliffe, apart from his role as the title character, has starred in the stage play Equus and was critically acclaimed for his performance. He has since begun slowly branching out into other film and stage productions.
- Rupert Grint's major claim to eccentricity is owning an ice cream truck, saying that if his career after the Harry Potter movies are finished falls through, he can always fall back on a career as an ice cream man. A fairly mild indulgence for a multimillionaire, all things considered.
- As for Emma Watson... well, let's face it, there's no way anyone as good looking as her won't get at least a few more major roles in her career. Much like her character, she has done very well in school work and has since decided that, after her work with the movie series is done, she'll take a career break to finish her college degree like Natalie Portman did.
- Film critic Leonard Maltin famously said that Watson was in "the early stages of babehood". Now that she's most certainly an adult and effectively an adult actress, she is considered to have reached that milepost.
- As a side note, Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, previously directed Home Alone. As he has discussed in interviews, Columbus is unhappy with how Macaulay Culkin turned out and considers this partly his fault. When casting the Potter kids, he was determined to avoid the same mistakes and tried to cast children with stable home lives.
- Phil Collins. Though he was a child model/actor who played The Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver! and had teeny tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-him roles in A Hard Day's Night and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his success as an adult far eclipsed his success as a child actor/model.
- Another aversion: early productions of Oliver! featured Steve Marriott in the titular role. Marriott infuriated his family by choosing music over acting, given that he'd already established success, but went on to be the extremely popular frontman for Small Faces and Humble Pie.
- Whit Hertford was a fairly popular child actor and voice actor appearing in works like Jurassic Park, Full House, and Tiny Toon Adventures, he came back into show business having a successful career as an actor, writer, and director.
- After a successful career as a child, which included an Oscar for her role in The Piano, Anna Paquin transitioned to adulthood easily, finding her best work on T.V.
- Averted with Sarah Jessica Parker, who started her career as Annie on Broadway and Square Pegs, then made the transition to adult star with plenty of movie roles...and then she starred in Sex and the City...
- Sean Astin transitioned fairly well from child actor to adult actor.
- Jennifer Connelly went a long way from being a young girl in Labyrinth to being the respectable adult actress she is today.
- Thomas Sangster, from such films as Love Actually and Nanny McPhee, has had success beyond his cute little boy image, in films as diverse as Hitler: The Rise of Evil and Tristan & Isolde. Sangster also played young Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy.
- Back in the 1910s, at the Vitagraph film studio, there was a local kid from Brooklyn named Harry Horowitz who enjoyed hanging out there. Harry was charming and a natural ham, and the Vitagraph people began putting him in films, making him a child star. Young Harry would grow up to be one of the most violent and abusive men in the world: Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. But it's an aversion too.
- Stefan Brogren has come as close as anyone to being a Real Life version of SCTV's Rusty by playing the role of Archie "Snake" Simpson in every incarnation of the Degrassi franchise since 1987 while taking on an ever larger role behind the camera. His character, however, has aged and progressed from student to teacher to principal of the titular High School, while the show's hiatus coincides with the period the character would've been getting his degree.
- Justin Timberlake started off early, as a performer on The New Mickey Mouse Club (other cast members included Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera). After departing from N*Sync, he's gone on to have a successful solo music career, and has appeared in films like The Social Network.
- Elijah Wood started off as a modestly successful child actor, appearing in such films as Back to the Future: Part II, The Good Son, and North. It wasn't until starring in Peter Jackson's take on Lord of the Rings that his adult career really kicked off.
- Blake Foster has been doing alright since his time as Justin Stewart, and while Justin was decried by many back then, there are plenty who wouldn't mind having him return.
Real Life subversions:
- Up until a few years ago, Jackie Earle Haley was the embodiment of this trope, having starred in '70s hits The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, but then failing to make the transition to adult roles and quit acting for 13 years. However, in 2006 he returned to Hollywood and after playing supporting roles in the remake of All the King's Men and Little Children (and getting an Oscar nomination in the latter), he starred in Watchmen as Rorschach, signed a multi-picture deal to star as Freddy Krueger in the rebooted Nightmare On Elm Street series, and is co-starring on Human Target.
- Once famous as a child actor in Sweden and the son of a famous actor, Alexander Skarsgård gave up acting for quite a while until returning a decade later and becoming famous for roles on True Blood and Generation Kill.
- At one point, Drew Barrymore was the epitome of the bad end of this trope; at the age of 15, she already went through smoking cigarettes and pot, drinking, doing cocaine, attempting suicide and staying in rehab twice. However, she eventually sobered up and became a successful adult actress.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt took a breather from acting after playing Tommy on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Since he resumed his career, he's won raves in just about every project he's done.
- Something similar can be said of Wil Wheaton and his role as Wesley. But he grew up pretty well of it.
- Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett are subversions as well, now much better known for their indie rock band Rilo Kiley then their pasts as child actors.
- Jackie Coogan starred with Charlie Chaplin as The Kid, sued his parents for squandering his film earnings before he became an adult (which led to the California Child Actor's Bill, AKA the Coogan Act), and much later became known as TV's Uncle Fester.
- Ironically played with in the life of Mickey Dolenz. He was the child star of Circus Boy for several years, after which his parents took him out of show business entirely to avert this trope. By all accounts, it worked... far better than when he gained and lost fame AGAIN as one of The Monkees.