Saturday, April 10, 2010

Comeback Kids: Child Actor Success Stories

With so many former child actors in trouble these days, Bijou correspondent Victoria Balloon profiles a handful of remarkable success stories about some who managed to survive, and even thrive, beyond the years when they could no longer list “child actor” on their resumes.

People have always been enthralled by showbiz talent in the very young, and movies are the ultimate showcase for young entertainers. Unfortunately, they are also a way for parents with unfulfilled ambitions to live vicariously through their children, who are easy to manipulate.

There's no end to the tales of children who were exploited or who, after a few years in film, faded into an adulthood that was a pitiful effort to relive past glories. But there are those who had early success and faced the difficulties of a failing Hollywood career to come back for a second or even third act, either as actors, advocates, or by completely reinventing themselves.


Jackie Coogan was an actor who began his career in both vaudeville and silent films. He was “discovered” by Charlie Chaplin, who was delighted by Coogan’s uncanny ability to mimic people.

Coogan’s most memorable early role is as Charlie Chaplin's plucky pal in The Kid (1921), but Coogan and Chaplin also appeared together in A Day’s Pleasure (1919) and Nice and Friendly (1922).

A generation before Shirley Temple, Coogan’s name and likeness were attached to candies, trading cards, dolls, and figurines. In 1923 he was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, but by 1927 at the age of 13, Jackie Coogan had already peaked.


In 1935 Coogan was in an auto accident which killed his father, friend and child actor Junior Durkin, producer/director Robert J. Horner, and a local ranch hand. Coogan survived only because he was able to jump from the rumble seat before the car went over the cliff. Coogan’s mother married his agent, Arthur Bernstein.

In 1937 Coogan married starlet Betty Grable. In 1938 when Coogan wanted the money he had made from his childhood films, Bernstein refused, later stating publicly that “Jackie has had all that he is entitled to and more. He isn’t entitled to that money. It belongs to us.” Coogan filed suit for the approximately $4 million he had earned but was only ever awarded $125,000.

However, the lawsuit caused sufficient public outcry that other parents of Hollywood stars rushed to make provisions for their children, and eventually resulted in the creation of the California Child Actor's Bill, sometimes known as the The Coogan Act.


Coogan and Grable divorced in 1940, and during World War II Coogan served in the China-Burma-India Theater as an Army transport glider pilot. He was absent from films for almost 10 years; when he returned, his roles were usually bit parts and bad guys.

It was in television that he began to find work: appearances on The Red Skelton Show (1957-70), as Stoney Crockett in Cowboy G-Men (1952-53), as Sgt. Barnes in McKeever and the Colonel (1962-63), and most notably as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family (1964-66). After The Addams Family Coogan never lacked for work.
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Beginning in 1922 Hal Roach's Our Gang series of shorts (also known as The Little Rascals) was a major showcase for child actors and several of the players made the transition from silent films to talkies. Some did well:


Mary Kornman, daughter of Hal Roach cameraman Gene Kornman, made 44 Our Gang films in the silent era. Unlike most of the gang members, little Mary came from a well-to-do family. Her sweet temper and winsome appearance caused several of the gang members to fight over her, but it was to little Mickey Daniels that she declared her affections.

Mickey Daniels was also recommended to Roach by Gene Kornman. Son of actor Richard Daniels, the two appear together in several Our Gang shorts (Derby Day in 1923 and Mary, Queen of Tots in 1925) and Harold Lloyd films (Dr. Jack in 1922 and Girl Shy in 1924). His red hair, thick freckles, and infectious smile made him a lead character in the shorts.

As teens Kornman and Daniels appeared in a series of 15 shorts called The Boy Friends (1930-32), also produced by Hal Roach. They made public appearances together and reunited with the Our Gang kids on film in Fish Hooky (1933) and Reunion in Rhythm (1937). In both films, Kornman plays a teacher and Daniels a truant officer. (You can see one of their comedy appearances in a Hollywood newsreel at this previous Bijou post.)

Kornman went on to appear in over 30 films, including an uncredited role in 1933’s Flying down to Rio delivering the film’s most risqué line: “What have these South Americans got below the equator that we haven’t?” In 1935 Mary starred in the 12 chapter serial Queen of the Jungle and co-starred with John Wayne in The Desert Trail, but unfortunately, she never got to move beyond B-list movies. She retired from acting in 1940 and by all accounts lived happily with husband (and Hollywood horse trainer) Ralph McCutcheon until her death in 1973.


(A brief digression from our child actor success stories: the freckle-faced looks that got Mickey Daniels roles as a youth were not leading man material, and he quit Hollywood to become a construction worker. He died in 1970, alone at a transient hotel, of cirrhosis of the liver.)

Tommy Bond worked on the Our Gang series from 1931-34 before going back to school. He did periodic roles and voice work for Warner Bros under director Tex Avery; his most remembered role is the speaking voice of "Owl Jolson" in the 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon, I Love to Singa.

He returned to Our Gang as Butch in 1936 and worked on the series until 1940. In later years he appeared in several episodes of The Little Peppers serials and was the first actor to play cub-reporter Jimmy Olsen in the Superman serials, but ultimately he found his place behind the cameras in directing and production during the 1960s and 70s.

Jackie Cooper probably had the longest acting career of the Our Gang alumni. He made only 13 of the shorts, the most popular revolving around his crush on teacher Miss Crabtree, played by June Marlowe. Producer Hal Roach loaned him to Paramount Studios to star in Skippy (1931), and Cooper earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor at age of nine.

In 1931 Hal Roach sold Cooper’s contract to MGM because he believed Cooper would have more success in feature films, and indeed he did.

Some of Cooper’s most memorable roles were starring opposite Wallace Beery, and the two were together for a total of five films including The Champ (1931) and Treasure Island (1934).

But as Cooper aged there were fewer and fewer well-written roles. During World War II he served in the United States Navy, holding the rank of Captain. Though he worked after the war as an actor, he quickly recognized that his future lay behind the camera.

Even as he starred in such television series as The People’s Choice (1955-58) and Hennesey (1961-62), he also served as the producer and director on several episodes of each. He served as the vice president of program development for Columbia Pictures' TV division. By the 1970s his primary career was directing; Cagney & Lacey, Jake and the Fatman, Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files and Mary Tyler Moore are but a few of the series he worked on.

Cooper earned two Emmy Awards for directing — one for M*A*S*H and one for The White Shadow. His most notable acting role from his later career is as Perry White in all four of the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve.

Despite what many would consider a smooth transition from being a child actor to an adult, in the later part of his career as an actor and a director, Cooper disliked working with children and had difficult memories of his acting childhood. Of his three children he said, “No way I’d let them get near the business.”

Mickey Rooney initially went to Hollywood in 1924 for a part in the Our Gang series, but missed out on a role. As Joe Yule, Jr. (his given name) Rooney was already a veteran actor of vaudeville, but his mother hoped to get him into film. Her perseverance paid off in 1927 when Rooney was cast in a now almost forgotten series of films based on comic strip character Mickey McGuire, the town bully from Toonerville Folks.


From the same time period as Our Gang and also featuring a band of rag-tag children, the Mickey McGuire shorts catapulted Mickey Rooney to fame. Rooney was so identified with the role that his mother changed his name to Mickey McGuire until Fontaine Fox, the cartoonist who created the Toonerville Folks strip, sued. Thus Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey McGuire became Mickey Rooney. “Rooney sounded Irish,” his mother said.


Rooney’s popularity as a child actor peaked with the Andy Hardy series and his “backyard musical” song and dance films with Judy Garland. The American public could not get enough of Rooney and Garland’s all-American charm, and for the release of 1939’s Babes in Arms, the two went on a cross-country promotional tour. When Rooney and Garland arrived in New York City, Grand Central Station was mobbed.

The pair eventually made nine films together, six of them between 1938-41 (Rooney and Garland on film are so iconic of classic cinema that the original Matinee at the Bijou theme song included the line “Andy Hardy never had to go hungry,” and the opening incorporated a clip featuring the pair.)

Mickey Rooney’s career was at an all-time high in 1938-40 when the Motion Picture Herald poll voted him the most popular actor two years running, ahead of such stars as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. During this time Rooney made a total of 18 films, including his dramatic role in Boys Town with Spencer Tracy.


During World War II Rooney served for 21 months in the Army with the Armed Forces Network. After the war, due to the lack of roles, the departure of Louis B. Mayer from MGM, and personal problems, his career went into a slump. The work was steady, but the roles weren’t particularly good. Nevertheless, there were some notable films: The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Notable for its controversy was Rooney’s portrayal of the buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

It was his role as retired jockey Henry Dailey in The Black Stallion (1979) and his appearance with Ann Miller in the 1979 Broadway production of the burlesque hit Sugar Babies that bolstered his career and laid the foundation for a successful third act.


Now the younger generation knows Mickey Rooney as the quintessential voice of Santa in Rankin and Bass Christmas classics such as Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) as well as security guard Gus from A Night at the Museum (2006). With the longest career of any actor and perhaps the oldest one alive to have made the transition from silents to sound, Rooney has 5 movies currently filming or in post-production.

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It is rumored that after meeting him on the Warner Bros. lot, Walt Disney, named a certain mouse after Rooney, but for the first Mickey Mouse Club, Walt Disney wasn’t looking for the typical child star of the movies, but rather, “real” children — up to a point.


Paul Petersen was dismissed from the Mouseketeers after three weeks for punching a casting director in the stomach. As an adult he recalled, "I didn't know a kid actor shouldn't act like a kid."


The young Petersen starred in a few films, most notably Houseboat (1958) with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, but it was on The Donna Reed Show that Petersen literally grew up. From 1958–66 he played Jeff Stone, son of Dr. and Mrs. Alex Stone (Carl Betz and Donna Reed).


During this time Petersen became a teen heart-throb; in addition to the show, he made several recordings; My Dad from an episode that aired in 1962 made the Top 10.

However, when The Donna Reed Show ended in 1966, his clean-cut good looks didn’t fit with the growing American counterculture. It was veteran actor and former child star Mickey Rooney who convinced Petersen to quit showbiz and get an education, which he did.

Nevertheless, Petersen fell into a period of despair. Writing helped pull him through, beginning with a non-fiction book on racecar driving, followed by an action-adventure series called The Smuggler. In 1977 he wrote a biographical work about the original Mousketeers: Walt, Mickey and Me.

Following a series of former child star suicides, (Trent Lehman, Tim Hovey, and Rusty Hamer), Petersen founded A Minor Consideration in 1990, a non-profit, tax-deductible foundation formed to give guidance and support to young performers.

From Left: Trent Lehmen (Nanny and the Professor), Rusty Hamer (Make Room for Daddy), and Tim Hovey (The Private War of Major Benjamin)

Petersen is greatly disturbed by the use of minors in today’s reality TV programming. In July 2009, he petitioned a California court to appoint an independent guardian to oversee the earnings of the octuplets born to "octomom" Nadya Suleman. While the case was ultimately settled in favor of Suleman, Petersen was nevertheless pleased that the Court of Appeals ruled that “a person who is not a relative of minors and who has never met them may still file a petition in the California courts seeking to protect minors' financial interests if sufficient facts are alleged.”

The issues that faced these comeback kids are the same today—perhaps even intensified with 24/7 cable channels and the Internet. Some child stars are able to continue acting into adulthood, though often only after overcoming the difficulties arising as the price of fame.

While some have done well, others have not. Writing about the recent death of Corey Haim, Paul Petersen said, “Watching a slow suicide seems to be the true basis for today’s entertainment. The medium itself no longer makes a distinction between celebrity based on accomplishment or notoriety earned through bad behavior.”

Tabloids and check-out lane glossy magazines are filled with the public meltdowns of former child stars unable to deal with fame that fades. For good or ill, American audiences wait and watch to see if these celebrities will be able to construct a second or third act out of their very public childhoods.
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This article just scratches the surface on Child Actors who became famous during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Margaret O’Brien, George “Spanky” Mc Farland, Darla Hood and Deanna Durbin are only a few of the stars Victoria is looking at for a follow-up to this story for publication later this year, as well as a special feature on child star extraordinaire Shirley Temple. Who would you like to hear more about? Leave us a comment and let us know.

If you’re wondering whatever became of someone or looking for photos, there are some wonderful internet resources that have compiled lists of child actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the present. Young Entertainers Directory: Child Stars & Teen Idols, and Young Hollywood Hall of Fame: Child Stars & Teen Idols have photos, studio information and the titles of biographies. Classic Movie Kids has biographical information and some beautiful publicity stills. Possibly the most comprehensive list is at Wikipedia, which lists child actors by nationality.

Jackie Coogan’s performance in The Kid and many of the classic silent and sound Our Gang short subjects are available at Movies Unlimited. There you will also find the Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection of their finest classic MGM musicals, as well as a career-spanning six-disc DVD  Mickey Rooney legacy collection.

While researching images for this article, we ran across this industry ad featuring Jackie Cooper and Mickey Rooney on eBay. There are six copies offered for sale on eBay, but the text is not legible and no further info is provided in the listing. So we have no idea when this photo was taken, who produced it and for what purpose. Should you have any information on this ad, please leave a comment and share it with us.

In 1989, TV’s Entertainment Tonight did a segment on what became of the child actors who achieved fame as members of Hal Roach’s classic Our Gang shorts. You can watch it here on the Bijou Blog screen:

6 comments:

JollyJoan said...

I believe you had the wrong picture and name spelling for Trent Lehman. The picture was of David Doremus who played the older brother on Nanny and the Professor.

Ray Pointer said...

Part of the difficult reality of the business then and more so now is its exploitive nature. And while the child stars of the past blazed trails for future generations, it is appalling that the same exploitive actions continue in spite of the laws enacting starting with the famous "Coogan Act".

While each young performer's story is an individual experience, it would seem that a good balance between reality and a short-lived
career needs to be established through parents and agents. Those former child actors who went on to the successful transition as adults seemed to have had their sights set on the much "bigger picture" than just movies or television. What needs to be realized is the value of this early success and how it can be utilized later in life regardless of which career is taken.

BijouBob said...

Great Thanks JollyJoan for alerting us to our error regarding the Trent Lehman image. We have replaced it with a correct image.

Booksteve said...

A fascinating piece. The odd pic of Cooper and Rooney might possibly be from one of VANITY FAIR's occasional special issues where they get vintage stars to recreate their famous roles in new photographs.

michael said...

You asked what child star I would like to see in a future article? C'mon, how about the one who never got enough credit for the contributions she made? The one who is hardy remembered by anyone today!!!
I wholeheartedly recommend BONITA GRANVILLE for a future piece on this site. Practically born on stage, she made her screen debut at age 9 and was nominated for an Academy Award at the age of 13 for the movie she basically "stole" from the main actors, "These Three" in 1936!
Her memorable roles include 4 Nancy Drew mystery movies in which she starred as Nancy to absolute perfection! "Hitler's Children" and "The Mortal Storm" are film classics! 53 movie acting credits highlight her resume including two "Andy Hardys" with Mickey Rooney. Bonita could do it all, comedy, drama, mystery, you name it! And
her success story didn't end after her acting career was mostly over. She was responsible for producing such great TV classics as "The Lone Ranger" and "Lassie"! She also gave a lot back to the industry and charities she loved too.
Read up on this great lady and I know you'll never want to omit her story from these child star success stories again!

P.S. she made several films with Jackie Cooper whom you have mentioned and was a romantic interest for him for quite a while!

Anonymous said...

The picture of Jackie Cooper and Mickey Rooney was shot for VANITY FAIR several years ago. They did pictures of lots of celebs, many of them dressed up in different outfits. I may still have the magazine (or just the pictures cut out of it) packed away somewhere.