Top 10 Child Stars Whose Lives Were Not Ruined By Fame

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Considering the scandal, tragedy, and failure that typically plague child stars after their careers end, you’d think any parent would keep their child as far away from a Hollywood studio as humanly possible. Yet, despite the numbers of child actors who end up as drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, or worst of all- reality show participants, millions of stage moms and dads drag their kids along to audition after audition, hoping their child will become the next Gary Coleman or Lindsey Lohan. All while keeping their fingers crossed that they can skip all the numerous betrayals, arrests or humiliations that seem to plague so many kids who spend time in front of a camera. Maybe those parents are thinking of the precious few child actors whose lives don’t turn into tabloid meltdowns and court proceedings. Those few who manage to cheat Fate and actually become functioning, successful adults. Here are the top ten child stars who managed to beat the curse.

10. Christian Bale

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Photo courtesy of BigStock

In 1987, a 13 year old Christian Bale rocketed to international fame playing the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun. Despite his previous acting experiences in commercials and made-for-TV movies, Bale was quite unprepared for the sudden, scary adulation that he received for the role in school and on the streets. Unnerved as his mostly normal childhood disappeared overnight, young Bale made the decision to quit acting for good. He didn’t of course, but that first distaste of fame may have been what allowed Bale to avoid the traps of child stardom. The critical acclaim he received for the role in Empire of the Sun brought offers from all corners of the movie world. Offers which Bale and his father manager carefully chose. Instead of cashing in on his instant fame, Bale Sr. guided his son to interesting roles and kept him far from the temptations and pitfalls of Hollywood. Bale built up an impressive resume and made a perfect transition form child actor to adult one. He now holds the enviable position of being a major star and a respected actor. Sure, he did yell at that poor guy on the set of the Terminator movie, but overall, he seems like a pretty together guy.

9. Danica McKellar

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Like many child stars, Danica McKellar really only had one role of any note. Playing the next-door neighbour and object of Fred Savage’s preteen affections on the hit TV series The Wonder Years, McKellar was a supporting character on a big network show. Once The Wonder Years ended and adulthood approached, McKellar found that the roles were starting to dry up and producers weren’t all that interested in casting a former child star. A pretty standard beginning in the former child star arc. All that remained for McKellar was to get high, steal a car, and screw up her life in an embarrassing public flameout. She had other plans. First, she studied mathematics at UCLA, coauthored a paper on her own mathematical theorem, and wrote a best-selling book that encouraged young women to break stereotypes and excel at math. She still does acting work (mostly voice over) and she now has three books under her belt. She’s beautiful, smart, successful, and most importantly of all, grounded. Do you hear that Screech? There is a better way.

8. Kurt Russell

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Yes, Mr. Badass himself was once a child star. The movies haven’t really stood the test of time and his later work has mostly overshadowed them, but Kurt Russell became a huge star as a Disney contract player in the 1970s. He spent most of the Sixties amassing TV roles, but it wasn’t until Disney signed him to a ten year contract that his career took off. Russell became a bona fide teen idol in flicks like Original Family Band (where he met his future wife Goldie Hawn) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. He was even a semi-pro baseball player for a time before an injury ended his career. After his childhood stardom, Russell continued to act and despite some failures (he lost out to Harrison Ford for the role of Han Solo), eventually struck up a partnership with director John Carpenter which began with an Emmy-award winning turn as the King himself in Elvis and included iconic anti-hero roles in Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. His career has continued unabated ever since, giving lie to the belief that all child actors have to end up dead, drunk, or ashamed.

7. Dakota Fanning

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It may be a little presumptuous to claim Dakota Fanning has missed the perils and pitfalls of a former child star considering she’s only 16, but all signs point to a healthy, interesting career for the young woman. Starting out in commercials at the tender age of five, Fanning quickly rose through the child star ranks, appearing on popular TV series and eventually big budget movies. Even at her young age, people realized Fanning wasn’t just another cute kid. At seven, she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in I Am Sam. She continued to give amazing performances in all sorts of movies, working in everything from thrillers to voice-over work for cartoons that blew away her co-stars and critics alike. Fanning drew controversy for a 2006 role in Hounddog which her character is raped. But, consummate professional that she is, she patiently explained that it was “a movie. It’s not really happening.” Comments like that, and her decision in 2009 to lay off any more lead roles until she finishes high school, are evidence enough that no matter how her career goes, Dakota Fanning is one person who isn’t going to let fame screw her up.

6. Shirley Temple (Black)

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Shirley Temple may be one of the best examples of a child star who leaves the entertainment industry completely, but still has a successful life. In the early 30s, Shirley Temple was not only the biggest child star, she was the biggest star period. With her golden locks, expressive eyes, and cute-without-being-cloying personality, she captivated the nation and ruled the box office. As she grew up, her acting career began to fade as audiences had trouble accepting her as anything but an angelic child. This is the part of the story where drugs, alcohol and a string of failed marriages to seedy guys called Eddie are supposed to enter the picture. But Shirley Temple was raised too well for that. She married, had a family, and set out upon a new career. She still appeared in some films and on TV, but she turned most of her attention to politics. After a few failed runs for office, she became an ambassador and diplomat. Yes, the little girl who sailed one the Good Ship Lollypop became a government official. She represented the United States’ interests at the UN, in Ghana, and finally Czechoslovakia. She also served on the boards of many companies, and published a best-selling book about her experiences.

5. Seth Green

Seth Green

Outside of Hollywood movies and TV sitcoms, nobody likes a smartass kid. Unless they grow up to be a smartass adult. Take Seth Green. After a successful career as a child actor- including his first role playing a young version of Woody Allen in Radio Days– Green has built a solid, respectable career playing likable smartasses in geek favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Family Guy, and his own Robot Chicken. That just might be the secret. Compared to so many young actors who traffic in the idea that they are tortured artists and that acting in such a hard job, Seth Green seems to genuinely enjoy his life and career. That permanent smirk on his face isn’t because he’s a jerk, it’s because he realizes just how lucky he is to make a good living playing pretend with his buddies and making people laugh. That or he’s a big a-hole. Either way, he has successfully avoided the child star trap. And you got to respect him for it.

4. Christina Ricci

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One of the main reasons a lot of child stars can’t make the transition to adult fame is that cute doesn’t age well. A person may be adorable as a child, but take those same features and put them on an adult face, and it just looks creepy. The one exception to that rule may be Christina Ricci. She was a pretty cute kid, but there’s something just slightly off about her as an adult. But luckily for her, it’s a good kind of off. The quirky kind of off that allows a young actress to stand out from the legions of dyed blonde robo-beauties that flood into Los Angeles every year looking for stardom. After a healthy start playing cute kids in big movies like Mermaids and The Addams Family, Christina Ricci made the transition to adult fame almost seamlessly. One minute she was a child actor in Casper, the next she was giving complex adult performances in Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex. Her career has slowed down a little lately, but she’s still a great actress and a long way from appearing on a crappy reality show to make a quick buck.

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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Otherwise known as the only three named child actor you don’t want to punch in the face, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has one other defining feature that has spared him the indignities of the former child star curse; he’s a terrific actor. He first came to public attention playing the old alien trapped in a teenager’s body on Third Rock from the Sun. If you didn’t know his later work, after reading that last sentence, you’d be forgiven for assuming Levitt disappeared off the face of the earth once the show was over. And he did, kind of. Avoiding the simple path to glory that so many teen actors take, Levitt instead chose difficult roles in dark films. He played a male prostitute in Mysterious Skin, and a high school gumshoe in Brick. His radical strategy of only appearing in what he called “good movies,” Levitt built up a critical following and reputation as one of the most interesting up and coming actors in Hollywood. Levitt’s is still young (30) and his career is still beginning. His ability to avoid the pitfalls of childhood fame has  guaranteed audiences another great actor to watch for years to come.

2. Kirsten Dunst

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Like Christina Ricci, Kirsten Dunst made transitioning from a child star into an adult seem like the easiest thing in the world. After a successful career as a child model and actress, Dunst made her breakthrough with a well-received role in Interview With A Vampire opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. She went on to star in several more hits as a kid and teenager, and eventually landed the plum role of Mary Jane in the Spiderman films. And just to keep things interesting, she also appeared in several romantic comedies and indie films as well as starting a fledgling singing career. But this is where Dunst’s story gets interesting. She actually battled with mental illness as an adult and stopped working and entered a rehab facility to battle depression. Sounds familiar, right? But unlike so many other of her former child star colleagues, Dunst got help and resumed her career with barely a hiccup. If only Dana Plato would have done the same.

1. Ron Howard

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Studying the career or Ron Howard should be a requirement for any kid actor who wants a career that lasts longer than his 19th birthday. For starters, Howard actually came back from being a former child star twice. In 1960, when he was six years old, he was cast as the precocious Opie on the Andy Griffith Show. Once that ended, he bounced around and turned in a few TV roles here and there, but it wasn’t until 1973 when he starred in American Graffiti and Happy Days that he was a star again. This time, Howard wasn’t prepared to let anyone but himself decide the future of his career. He left Happy Days at the height of its popularity and began a quest to become a director. Trading on his fame, he made a deal with B-movie producer Roger Corman to star in one of his movies, but only if he could direct another one himself. He did, and parlayed the experience into gigs directing TV and lower budget movies. The rest is history. Howard has directed major hits, critically acclaimed dramas, and has an Academy Award. Now that’s how you have a career, kids!


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85 Comments

  1. Slightly shocked that none of the Harry Potter stars are on this. Emma Watson went to Brown for a while, Daniel Radcliffe is doing a broadway musical and is known for his kindness and work ethic, and Rupert Grint isn’t a druggie or wasting away his life either.

    • I guess it’s just too early to say with the Harry Potter stars. Even with his stage work, I would have thought that Daniel Radcliffe is going to have a tough time finding film roles a decade from now… hope I’m wrong.

      Good theme for a top ten article though. The world needs a bit of positivity about its child stars. We seem preoccupied with seeing how many mouseketeers we can destroy.

      • Too early??!! And it’s not for Dakota Fanning? I might be slightly biased because I think Dakota Fanning is a stuck up, precoscious prick, but I think the HP guys should defnately be here.

  2. Neil Patrick Harris? He is the first person I think of when someone says “Child actor who didnt screw things up”.

    • Thinking the same thing. Also, Christina Ricci (I believe) had some trouble with an eating disorder, and Kirsten Dunst with substance abuse…while neither crashed and burned and are doing okay now, I wouldn’t call those seamless transitions.

      • Yeah I probably would have taken Christina Ricci off the list. And put Neil Patrick Harris on the list instead.
        Even though she’s doing well now, there were a few years where Christina battled an eating disorder as well as trouble with self injury (mainly cutting I believe).

      • Absolutely Drew Barrymore !!!
        She flamed out a little bit after ET – but her roles w/ Adam Sandler really put her back on top. It’s a crime to not include her on this list.

        • She didn’t flame out, she crashed and burned. She’s one of the people that first comes to mind when I think of fame screwing up children. Though she has turned around now.

  3. You claim that Shirley Temple is “Black” but that’s just because she could dance and you are racists. She is pure white.

      • How old is she now and what is she doing? Perhaps she should be here like Jodie Foster, Leonardo DiCaprio, and I would perhaps add Hayden Pannetierre?

        • evolutionairy on

          She’s ~30 and currently stars in True Blood (HBO). She was in the X-men movies (Rogue) and will be in Scream 4. (Granted, not following up with Oscar quality movies, but *I* find the series entertaining.)

          Yeah… hehe, sorry about that, Curious, I guess I didn’t have to say that she was eleven years old twice.

        • i was definitely looking for anna paquin on the list.
          i think they should crash out either christina ricci or kirsten dunst.. coz weren’t they rumored anorexic once before?

  4. Paul Petersen should be on this list. He not only survived child stardom and flourished, he has reached out to help child stars who came after him.

  5. the only one i don’t get is kirsten dunst..she was in the clinic for depression..that should disqualify her from the list of child actors who didn’t let fame ruin them..granted..she bounced back…but she DID get there in the first place because of mental illness….my vote is for Leo Dicaprio..he was an amazingly successful child actor..and even though some of his movies weren’t very good…his personal life was never in peril…intresting list..and someone had mentioned natalie portman..idk what movies she’s done as a child..and someone else mentioned drew barrymore??..really?..she was just as messed up for a while as dana plato. drew was lucky to have stopped when she did.

    • Natalie Portman was received an Oscar for her role in The Piano when she was 11. She also Played in “Leon” (also known as “The professional”) and was phenomenal.

      I think she just didn’t really reach high fame until she was an adult, so I assume that’s why she was left off the list.

      • The actress in The Piano was not natalie portman. It was Anna Pacquin.
        but yes, Natalie’s firstbreakthrough

        • ..Natalie’s first breakthrough performance was The Professional.
          and i agree w/ jason – kirsten dunst shouldnt be on this list.

        • Haha oops you’re correct.
          I don’t know why I ALWAYS do that. I get Anna and Natalie mixed up pretty frequently when it comes to their younger roles. By that I mean I tend to think Natalie works in more movies that she did. I tend to think movies with Anna Paquin in them when she was younger were Natalie Portman.

          Thanks for correcting me. I hate to give out wrong information. 🙂

  6. I would assume that Drew did not make it to this list because she did have such a long bout with drugs and bad marriages before getting straightened out again.

    And Kirsten’s getting help for depression is not the same as what has happened to the likes of Lindsay Lohan, who went off the deep end with her “friends” Paris and Nicole, or even the extended period that Drew went through.

    Perhaps Hayden Panetierre could be here along with some other names mentioned (Jodie Foster). What about Alyssa Milano? She’s not nearly as big a name was she was in the 80s, but she’s still getting regular work and never seemed to go nuts like Lindsay and others.

  7. Get the facts straight on

    Actually, Joseph Gordon Levitt got his start on Roseanne, playing DJ’s friend. Do your research TopTenz!

  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually got his start playing David Collins in the 1990 prime-time remake of Dark Shadows

  9. Are you kidding? No Jodi Foster, Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Dan Radcliffe (or any of the other Harry Potter stars!) I know it’s a top ten list, but clump them together as 1 because none of them have F-ed up yet, nor is likely to, and Foster and Portman hae no excuse for not being on here either.

  10. Jersey Dave on

    Another one who comes to mind is Bill Mumy, who is a remarkably well adjusted quiet guy who still acts and writes music, several decades after he started acting in the early 60s as the kid on “Lost In Space” as well as in stuff like “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

  11. i don’t get how dakota fanning is on this list isn’t she still a child… if thats the case shouldnt the kid from 2 1/2 men be on here… he hasn’t messed up yet and he was working with ole whats-his-name (rhetorical: i hope by pretending hes not there he’ll stay away)

  12. I don’t know if he was already mentioned but David Krumholtz is a child actor who seems very level headed , stable, and happy. He’s probably best known for being on Numb3rs playing Charles Eppes.

  13. Dakota Fanning is too young to be in this list. and Kirsten Dunst had mental illness.
    I just think their spots should be given to someone else more worthy and qualified, like Natalie Portman and Anna Pacquin.

  14. Jackie Earle Haley. Yet another three named child star you do not want to punch in the face! He got his start in the horror film ‘Day of the Locust’ in 1975 but his breakout role was the next year when he starred as the tough kid who was always smoking, Kelly Leak, in ‘The Bad News Bears’. He went on to act in other movies like ‘Breaking Away’ and ‘Losin It’, and guest starred in some TV shows like ‘McGayver’ and ‘Murder, She Wrote’. But somewhere in the early to mid 1990s, his acting career slowed down and he stopped to pursue other interests, got married and had a family. Then, in the middle of the 2000s, he gave acting another shot and came back in the films, ‘All The Kings Men’ and ‘Little Children’ to which he was nominated for an Oscar. Then, a few years later, people were really all over him when he was Rorschach in ‘Watchmen’ and people were enthralled by him. What amazes some people is that when they see him in interviews, he comes across as nice, soft spoken, and gentle as opposed to his dark and disturbing characters. That right there show that he is an amazing actor and hasn’t let fame & the pressure get to him. 🙂

    Also, notice that in most of his movies and some of the television shows he’s guest starred in, his roles are supporting, and rarely the lead. Ironically, though, he outshines most of the other actors’ performances. Just about all of the films and even in the ‘Human Target’ show on the dreadful Fox channel, people kept mentioning how impressed they are by him and his acting.
    But anyway, he’s the one that I thought about who is a child star that ended up not being a victim to fame, greed, ego, etc.

    Btw, for those who are interested in seeing what’s next for Mr. Haley, he’ll be in ‘Dark Shadows’ and ‘Lincoln’ next year.

  15. Ron Howard is a great example of child stars who didn’t get screwed up by Hollywood..but the list is missing LEO DICAPRIO! and, if you’re going to Dakota Fanning, who is still a child, you might as well add the 3 Potter leads: Dan Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint..they’re still young but they are all adults, at least.

  16. No Jodie Foster? This is a ridiculous list. No Elijah wood? Some of these names I’ve never heard of. I ‘m not surprised a guy who makes this list always puts a male actor #1. In my opinion Jodie Foster is #1.

  17. What about Megan Good? she was in Friday, a LOT of nickelodeon shows and these days… a LOT of bet movies

  18. Where is Elijah Wood???? Amazing actor as a child and an adult. Lead as well as character actor. Lord of the Rings would not have been nearly as good without those impossibly big blue eyes. And now in the most hysterical TV show “Wlifred”.

  19. Shirley Temple is head and shoulders above all these people, and by far the most important, beloved, talented, influential and enduring of any of them. Nobody watches those other child actors anymore, except for Opie, who didn’t carry his show the way Shirley did her movies. She was also good in some very well made movies in her teens, directed by the likes of John Ford. Kids still watch, like and understand her old b&w movies today. Christian Bale can’t be regarded as a child actor if he was 13 and he made 1 sort of somewhat well known movie as a teen, though he turned out to be a great actor. I took your article to also be a ranking of their work and importance as a child actor, not so much as their subsequent adult success. Shirley Temple Black very quietly went about her diplomatic career, unlike Ron Howard who we have to hear about a fair bit but when you see his movies they leave alot to be desired. You left off alot of great child actors of the classic film era also.

    • Shirley Temple destroyed so many other young female child stars careers. One example is Sybil Jason who played Becky in ‘The Little Princess’. Sybil Jason was to rise to stardom, but thanks to the two ******* (Shirley Temple and her mother, Gertrude Temple) they made it a point to destroy Sybil’s career and other girls. They were both a couple of greedy bitches. Gertrude Temple made it a point on the set to have Sybil nowhere near Shirley as Gertrude Temple was paranoid that Sybil Jason would pick up some of Shirley’s acting habits. Shirley joined in with her mother and made it a point to treat Sybil and other girls as if they were nothings. They were nobodies, which was very incorrect and highly inappropriate. So now what does everyone think of Shirley Temple? Shirley’s parents only used Shirley as a tool to make them big money. There is evidence by this when her parents took every bit of Shirley’s hard-earned dollar and spent her millions on a home in California. It has been said that Shirley only made out with a total of $35,000.00 in income, but that is not so. She made millions and her parents stole it from her to buy their fancy materialistic home. So, yes, Shirley your mommy and daddy used you to get only what they desired. Another point I must mention is the use and abuse upon Shirley Temple by Fox. Fox was drowning in debt and was ready to close its doors. Nevertheless, they discovered Shirley’s talents and kept her under contract so that she would make Fox millions and get them out of the red.
      No, Shirley was and still is no angel. She was evil and unsophisticated. What goes around comes around as Miss Temple lost her career after losing her childish little girl looks. Nothing lasts forever Miss Temple. How gracious of you to take away other talented girls careers and you know darn well you destroyed a lot of little girls dreams, but you surely got yours, didn’t you?

  20. Hayley Mills comes to mind. I know of no scandal with her. Also, I don’t think any of the “Leave It to Beaver” child stars had big problems. I think it has to do with the people around you–the parents, in particular, and the grounding they provide.

  21. I can’t think of any of the recent crop of stars, including those in music, who haven’t at least been involved in questionable activities. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose. Let’s hope it doesn’t get even worse!

  22. I have to correct my last post…I think that Beverley McKenzie from Seventh Heaven has transitioned into womanhood without becoming an embarrassment to herself…If indeed she is considered “recent.”

  23. Christian Bale? Seriously? The guy who assaulted and cussed out his own mother and sister, and then trashed his hotel room? That is not a normal person.

  24. Hold up!

    Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn ARE NOT MARRIED, and further DON’T INTEND TO GET MARRIED. “Met his wife” is pulling facts out of somebody’s butt.

  25. What about Tia & Tamera Mowery??? and not mention why aren’t there any black child stars on this list?? Now that’s racists

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