Jonathan Brandis is dead. He hung himself in the hallway of his apartment building and left no suicide note. Brandis is perhaps best remembered as young Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club in the TV adaptation of Stephen King‘s It and as Bastion Bux in The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter. He also had roles in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Ladybugs and the ridiculous Chuck Norris-Karate Kid wannabe Sidekicks.
By 2003, his career had stagnated. Following a failed audition for the role of Anakin Skywalker for Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he took a small part in the Bruce Willis film Hart’s War. With his career on the line, Brandis hoped War would be the revival he so desperately needed. Tragically, his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. After a long, heavy drinking binge, he was pronounced dead on November 12.
Child actors fall off the radar so often and face obstacles in Hollywood from familial pressure to, if you believe Corey Feldman, potential molestation from a secret cabal of Beverly Hills perverts. It’s so common that Paul Petersen, a former child actor, formed a support group for fellow child stars known as A Minor Consideration.
Every now and then, however, there’s the success story. The anomaly that broke through the child to adult barrier and moved forth to better things. It’s that very can-do spirit and tenacity that inspired the following young stars to continue, you know, living.
15. Ryan Gosling
Peck got his start on the Nickelodeon hit Drake & Josh alongside co-star Drake Bell. The show, like most recent original Nickelodeon programming, was a sitcom premise writ large and overacted to appeal to youths with no sense of subtlety. Frasier this was not.
Nickelodeon actors, outside of Miley Cyrus and Keenan Thompson, are rarely expected to go much further than their initial shows (example: Where are all the kids from Salute Your Shorts today?), and Bell and Peck were no exception. Their performances weren’t exactly stand outs and there was no nepotism to forward them along. Peck, however, started a career in indie films playing against Ben Kingsley in Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness (considerably slimmed down from his plump teen years on Nick). His career has showed no signs of slowing down, taking more serious roles in admittedly silly fare like the Red Dawn remake. Bell, in contrast, has filed for bankruptcy and already has a DUI on his record, though he still performs with his band and does some voice work.
13. Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis loves the power glove. It’s so bad. Or so goes the infamous line spoken by the villainous Lucas Barton in the 90-minute Nintendo commercial that was The Wizard. Lewis got her start as a child actress in a Jell-O commercial before starting acting proper on the short-lived Lucille Ball show Life With Lucy as one of her grandchildren.
She still appears as an actress, but rarely seriously. Her last role as a real actress was in 1998’s Pleasantville. Since then, she formed the indie rock band Rilo Kiley and then ventured into a solo career. Her most recent album, The Voyager, is a somber reflection on turning 40 and the loss of her father. It was a critical darling, with the single “Just One of the Guys” listed as the fifth best song of 2014.
Her latest band, the all-female trio Nice As F*#k, debuted at a Bernie Sanders rally in June. The Huffington Post perhaps best described Lewis as not just a “grown up little girl” but much, much more.
12. Danica McKellar
Children of the 80s will forever remember Danica McKellar as The Wonder Years‘ Winnie Cooper, the object of Kevin Arnold’s affection. McKellar began taking acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute at the age of seven. Her story could easily be a sad one, as it has all the ingredients including a difficult transition to adult acting, a slew of Lifetime movies and an appearance on the 18th season of Dancing With The Stars. Worse yet, she even has a SyFy original in her filmography – all of which usually spells death for the formerly famous.
And that may well have been the case were she not also somewhat brilliant. McKellar graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Mathematics from UCLA in 1998, during which time she co-authored a paper that led to the Chayes-McKellar-Wynn Theorem – an equation I could totally explain to you but…um…I have this thing I have to do. She’s also written four books, one of which a New York Times bestseller entitled Math Doesn’t Suck, all aimed at making mathematics accessible to middle schoolers.
11. Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman, like Gosling, is a child actor we forget ever was a child actor. Portman began show business at four taking dancing lessons and performing in local troupes. By ten, she was tapped by an agent to become a child model for Revlon. However, she refused, choosing instead to focus on acting. That focus led to her first major role in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional opposite French actor Jean Reno. Her obvious talent led her to roles in Michael Mann‘s Heat as the troubled daughter of Al Pacino’s girlfriend and finally in 1997 as Padme Amidala in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Those early dance lessons finally came to use in Darren Aaronofsky‘s Black Swan.
Incidentally, the scene in The Social Network that refers to a famous actress attending Harvard at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg? That was her.
10. Justin Timberlake
Speaking of The Social Network, another Mouseketeer who rose well beyond his Disney roots deserves special mention. Justin Timberlake joined Mickey’s club alongside future girlfriend Britney Spears. He was also around during Gosling and actress Keri Russell‘s tenure. Soon after, producer, talent scout, money launderer and alleged sexual predator Lou Pearlman dug his grubby fingers in Timberlake’s business. He served as one of two lead singers for *NSYNC before going off on his own.
9. Peter Billingsley
If Peter Billingsley‘s career had taken a turn for the worse, he would have had an allegorical life experience no writer could have resisted. In 1986, Billingsley was the spokesman for NASA’s young astronaut program. On January 28th, he and the students of the first teacher in space gathered at the launch pad of the Kennedy Space Centre to cheer as The Challenger gave lifted off. A number of child actor careers could be easily described in the same tragic manner as the events that took place next. As the space shuttle rose higher and higher, it exploded after a triumphant 73 seconds.
The name may not be familiar, but his performance as the BB gun-obsessed Ralphie in Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story surely touched your childhood at some point.
Though he occasionally acts today, he found his way behind the scenes, serving as executive producer on Jon Favreau‘s Zathura, Iron Man and the IFC show Dinner for Five. He can be spotted as a scientist working under Jeff Bridges‘ Obadiah Stane in Iron Man.
8. Anna Paquin
There was little chance of Anna Paquin‘s career imploding. With little acting experience, she beat over 5000 other children for her role in Jane Campion’s The Piano. At 11, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the second youngest winner after Tatum O’Neal.
Post-Oscar win, Paquin didn’t intend to continue acting, refusing an offer to be represented by the William Morris Agency. But offers came flooding in nonetheless. She starred in two more major releases, including Fly Away Home in which Jeff Daniels played her father. Years later, she would play his student/lover in The Squid and The Whale, making the whole film incredibly awkward.
Since then, she’s found success as the lead in Alan Ball‘s supremely annoying True Blood.
7. Neil Patrick Harris
As some point in the last six years, America decided unanimously that Neil Patrick Harris should host every major award ceremony, Kennedy Centre Ceremony, mall opening and supermarket ribbon cutting should his schedule permit. But it took a long time for the public consciousness to rid itself of immediately shouting out, “Doogie Howser!” every time Harris’ face appeared onscreen.
After the show ended in 1993, Harris toiled away in meaningless supporting roles in silly fare like Undercover Brother and Starship Troopers. In fact, the only way Harris managed to rid himself of his child actor baggage was to play against everything he was in real life. An open homosexual, Harris experienced a popularity surge playing womanizing Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother.
When America realized the charisma they’d been ignoring for over a decade, he was welcomed back with open arms, to the point where he had to decline an offer to replace David Letterman when the host retired.
6. Fred Savage
While Winnie Cooper wound up being a brilliant mathematician, Kevin Arnold remained on the fringes of Hollywood. During The Wonder Years, Fred Savage appeared in several films, most notably the father-dad switch comedy Vice Versa alongside Judge Reinhold and Little Monsters with Howie Mandel. When she show ended in 1993, however, the only work Savage could find was voice actor roles and the occasional guest appearance – typically one that somehow referenced his childhood stardom.
Like Billingsley, Savage began working behind the scenes. He began producing and directing in 1999 and since has directed episodes of over a dozen television shows including the much-loved cult favourite Party Down.
5. Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke made his debut alongside River Phoenix in the Joe Dante sci-fi film Explorers. It wasn’t until Dead Poet’s Society, however, that he began to receive critical acclaim. This acclaim carried him through the early 90s, with notable performances in Reality Bites and Alive.
Today, Hawke may be seen as somewhat pretentious, particularly in his collaborations with director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight). Recently, however, he’s shown to be game for a number of genre films, lending excellent performances in what otherwise might be considered schlock. His performances in Sinister and The Purge elevated both films from their genre trappings.
4. Martin Starr
Judd Apatow may be an awkward director, often overstuffing premises that would have worked well as 90 minute comedies to bloated, two and a half hour ordeals. But he does have a knack as a talent wrangler, which explains why he has so much trouble leaving his comic actors’ improvisation on the cutting room floor.
For Freaks and Geeks, the half-season wonder that was cancelled despite three Emmy nominations, Apatow and creator Paul Feig assembled a cast of young talent that included Seth Rogen, James Franco, Linda Cardellini and Jason Segel. For the second group of geeks, he found a gangly young actor named Martin Starr, whose only role had been as a comatose child in Stephen Frears’ 1992 comedy Hero.
Starr owned the role, embracing Bill Haverchuck’s geeky exterior and love of Dallas with aplomb.
Starr grew up an Apatow kid, appearing in Knocked Up, Superbad and Walk Hard. He also played the neurotic, hard sci-fi aspiring screenwriter in Party Down.
3. John Francis Daley
Bill Haverchuck’s best friend on Freaks and Geeks, Sam Weir, has also gone on to bigger things, though not through his Apatow connection. John Francis Daley started his acting career on Broadway, playing young Tommy in a production of The Who’s Tommy. Post-Geeks, he continued to work his way through television, eventually landing the role of Dr. Lance Sweets on Bones (ask your parents) for nine seasons. Daley asked for his character to be killed off so that he could focus on directing and writing with partner Jonathan Goldstein. Their first produced script was the hit 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses. Since, they wrote the sequel and then rebooted the National Lampoon’s Vacation series with Ed Helms.
2. Mara Wilson
No child actor has put their on-set experiences to better use than Mara Wilson. The cherubic actress appeared in several early 90s films, most notably Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. Though she continued appearing in films until 2000, she officially retired from acting professionally.
“Film acting is not very fun,” she said in an interview. While on-set and during auditions, Wilson witnessed the terror of other stage mothers and the lengths children her age were pushed and abused to perform – which led to her writing an article for Cracked about child actor delinquency.
1. Roddy McDowall
Roddy McDowall is perhaps the most successful child actor of all time, given the length and span of his career and how it developed. He began before he could even speak as a child model, he started acting at the age of nine 1938’s Scruffy and continued appearing in films with ukulele comedian George Formby. After moving to the United States in 1940 during the outbreak of WWII in his native England, he appeared in the Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley, making McDowall a household name.
His career continued steadily in both film and television all the way through to 1968 when he played perhaps his most well known role under heavy prosthetic make-up: the Chimpanzee Cornelius in Planet of the Apes.
In the 70s, he found a home in the horror genre in such fare as The Legend of Hell House. His status as a horror staple was cemented in 1985’s Fright Night in which he played a send up of the Vincent Price/Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing gentleman celebrity.
McDowall also had one of the largest film collections in Hollywood, leading to a raid on his home in 1974 and a piracy investigation. The raid revealed over 160 16 mm prints and more than 1,000 video cassettes long before they were commercially available.
After completing his final role – a voice actor job as Mr. Soil in A Bug’s Life – McDowall passed away peacefully of lung cancer in 1998, leaving behind him a legacy of 264 film and television appearances, a passion project he successfully directed, a legion of fans and countess beloved friendships.
Sources: IMDB, Wikipedia