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
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.
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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!