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The perils of child stardom

Former child actors Tracey Gold and Melissa Gilbert say strong support from their families helped them cope with their celebrity status.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


She knows what most people think of when they hear the phrase "former child star."

Images of those who have had brushes with the law, substance abuse problems and worse -- Diff'rent Strokes actors Todd Bridges and Dana Plato, for instance -- likely come to mind, fueled by a modern media that loves to outline such plunges from stardom.

But former Growing Pains star Tracey Gold (Carol) resists the notion that any of those actors' problems stem mostly from the work they did as children.

"I always say, the problems a lot of child actors go through, they probably would have gone through if they were on the football team, or Girl Scouts or whatever," says Gold, 31. An actor since age 7, she returns to the small screen at 7 tonight on ABC's The Growing Pains Movie reunion. "It's because you're in the public eye that it seems so extreme."

The popular perception of successful child actors -- that the fame and crushing work demands invariably warp them -- prompted former Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) to assemble a documentary on the subject for A&E, Child Stars: Their Story.

Working with ex-Leave it to Beaver actor Tony Dow (Wally), she interviewed former child stars ranging from Our Gang's Jackie Cooper to Gilbert's own sister, ex-Roseanne actor Sara Gilbert (Darlene). They concluded that capable, sensitive parenting often spelled the difference between tragedy and success for young actors.

"It gets a little tedious being lumped in as a drug-addled loser or survivor . . . (when) there's a middle ground there," says Melissa Gilbert, 36, who -- like Gold -- remains one of the few child actors still working as an adult, mostly in made-for-TV movies. "More of us didn't go to rehab than did."

Still, Gilbert's documentary features some cautionary tales, including Patty Duke's story on being forced to attend her father's funeral in costume because her managers wouldn't give her a day off from The Patty Duke Show.

And even as she rails against stereotypes of the abused child actor as dysfunctional adult, Gilbert hesitates when asked if she would allow her young sons, Dakota and Michael, to follow her early acting footsteps.

"Why subject a child to . . . the constant rejection?" she says. "We asked every (child actor), "Would you put your child in this business?' They said, "Absolutely not.' Then we asked them if they would do it again and be child actors. They said, "Of course, I would.'

"This is the dilemma of the former child actor . . . after all, who's going to play my kids in whatever movie I'm doing?" Gilbert adds. "Now that I'm a mom, there's a part of this that makes me cringe. I can't imagine my kids' time not being their own."

Gold, who struggled with anorexia during her time on the Growing Pains TV series, notes that youthful actors often grapple with adult-size fears and demands, which can isolate them from their peers.

"You're expected to have the same responsibilities as an adult, but you don't have the control," she says. "If you put me with kids my own age, I was like, "Oh my God, what do I say to them?' But with adults I could relax. How strange is that?"

Dow noted the experience can turn young actors into people pleasers, inordinately focused on pleasing the adults in their life.

"These kids . . . they're always on time, they always have to say "yes,' there's no time for goofing around," adds the former actor, who now works as a TV director. "So, we all grew up wanting to please everybody . . . the director, the producer, mom, the public, whoever it happens to be. And that manifests itself in different ways for different people."

Gilbert also has mixed feelings about facilities such as the Oakwood, a Los Angeles apartment complex with special programs to attract child actors from across the country (see main story).

"There's something odd about moving an entire family out here for something that is essentially a hobby," says the Los Angeles native. "I mean, would you make that sacrifice so your kid could play soccer?"

The stars offer simple advice to aspiring child actors and their parents: don't be distracted by the money and fame; keep the child's career from being the focus of the family; make sure a parent is always on the set with the child.

Above all, they say, make sure young actors are ready for the day when puberty hits or tastes change and the industry isn't interested in them anymore.

"Kids should have every opportunity . . . but stay home, study acting and have a normal life," Gilbert says. "When you're old enough and ready. . . . Hollywood will be waiting."

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