Probably one of Hollywood's biggest Acceptable Targets, the Former Child Star is just what it sounds like: a star of TV or film whose career was at its peak in their formative years. Alas, such an unorthodox childhood can leave its mark on anyone (especially if they were Not Allowed to Grow Up), and it always does in fictional depictions of the Former Child Star. In adulthood, they may be a struggling actor who finds it hard to be taken seriously when everyone remembers them as "that one kid from that one show", if they're remembered at all. And that's if they're lucky: the unlucky ones wind up mourning their glory days in a dead-end job, or (dis)gracing the covers of tabloids after a run-in with the law. Sadly, a case of Truth in Television, as the troubled biographies of some real-life Former Child Stars will show. On the other hand, there are other child actors who grew up well, like Jodie Foster and Bill Mumy, because their parents took care to raise them up right under the circumstances.
While some kids idolize these stars and want to be like—or be—them because of how "glamorous" their lives are, their lives more or less suck 80% of the time. Can you say Blessed with Suck?
No doubt Growing Up Sucks for them...especially if they're treated as though they never did.
Compare White Dwarf Starlet, an older version of this trope.
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Onpu Segawa from Ojamajo Doremi was a wildly popular preteen Idol Singer whose successful career is constantly shown throughout the series. The Light Novel that takes place when the characters are in high school reveal that she now has trouble securing acting roles because she can't break away from her child star image.
"Baby Jane" Hudson, the title character of the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. She was a child star of vaudeville in the 1910s. Decades later, she's a bitter, mentally disturbed alcoholic old woman, who still dresses like a little girl and is unable to accept that nobody even remembers her anymore.
The David Spade film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star is about one of these characters trying to learn about "normal" family life from a typical suburban family in preparation for a role.
Jaleel "Steve Urkel" White played himself in the film Big Fat Liar, briefly showcasing his struggles as an adult actor when everyone remembers him as "that Urkel kid".
This ironically led to a revival in Harris' career.
"Baby" Brent in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. As a baby he was the mascot of the town sardine cannery and has spent his entire life trading on his fame, down to wearing a diaper underneath his clothes.
Life With Mikey starred Michael J. Fox as a former child star turned talent agent.
Although in his case it's even weirder, most of his fame came from him playing a child while he was an adult. These weren't roles he had played since he was a child, his entire career was simply Not Allowed to Grow Up.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Along Came Polly plays with this trope, even featuring a movie poster in the style of The Breakfast Club, and a character meltdown when he tries to direct and play every role in a community theater production.
The Gemma books by Noel Streatfeild are about a teenage Former Child Star who is sent to comprehensive school. She changes her surname so as to be inconspicuous, but finds she doesn't like being a nobody, and ends up becoming (locally) famous again.
Subverted in the X-Wing Series, part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Garik "Face" Loran was a child star who appeared in Imperial propagandist "holodramas" until he realized the levels of cruelty The Empire was capable of. Now he's one part The Atoner, one part Master of Disguise (he's still a fantastic actor), and one part The Ace (though this is mostly an act, and he can be a truly competent pilot when he needs to be). This definition of "child" is a bit flexible and seems to extend to "teen", since a number of women in his squadron had crushes on him when he was starring in holofilms.
His old contemporary and rival Tetran Cowall, on the other hand, stayed Imperial.
Pearl Bright of Jane Lindskold's Breaking The Wall trilogy is a Former Child Star, a contemporary of no less than Shirley Temple herself. However Pearl herself subverts the usual description of this trope by being moderately wealthy thanks to her mother's careful investing of her childhood earnings, maintaining connections throughout Hollywood, and being an octogenarian Bad Ass.
The heroine of Tribute by Nora Roberts starred in a Full House clone when she was a little girl. After struggling with maintaining her fading acting career and doing poorly in college as she grew up, she started a successful business in restoring and selling old houses. Her grandmother was also one, going from a Shirley Temple Expy to one for Marilyn Monroe, complete with a deeply troubled personal life and mysterious untimely death.
Kenneth Valentine of John Varley's The Golden Globe is a seriously messed-up example, although, unlike the classic version, he's trying to hide from his past rather than wishing he could relive his glory days. He's actually a first-rate actor, but he avoids taking major roles because he doesn't want people to make the connection between him and "Sparky" (the role that made him famous as a kid).
Live Action TV
An SCTV segment parodies the trope with the show Oh That Rusty!, which has been running for over 20 years with the same lead actor. He's clearly an adult, and off screen he basically runs the show now, but his character Rusty has never aged. Since Rusty is eight years old, the show recasts the other characters and redesigns the sets to try and hide this.
In the Married... with Children episode, "You Better Shop Around" Jerry Mathers (known for Leave It To Beaver) guest stars, playing himself as a washed-up former child star, who has resorted to judging shopping contests in supermarkets. Bud and Kelly mercilessly mock him for this.
Peter Sellers' 1958 comedy album The Best of Sellers has a song, "I'm So Ashamed", where a pop singer laments his falling out of favor, having not had a hit song in three weeks. It's revealed that the poor guy's almost 9 years old now...
Barenaked Ladies' song "New Kid On The Block" has a line about this: "I'm a New Kid on the Block/I'm 23 and they won't let me grow up."
The Broadway musical Avenue Q features Gary Coleman as a superintendent.
Baby Rose, from the original version of Babes in Arms, moved to New York after she got older and "became passé". Now a gorgeous teenager, she's followed everywhere by a barbershop quartet who sing backup for her, but she has so little money left from her Hollywood days that, when the rest of the cast gets sent to a work farm, she and the quartet get sent there, too.
The Soda Poppers from Telltale Games' episodic Sam And Max Freelance Police adventure games, who were reoccurring characters throughout the first two seasons before revealing themselves to be evil in Episode 205, What's New Beelzebub?.
In Segagaga, Alex Kidd is treated this way, having fallen from being Sega's mascot character to working behind the counter at one of their shops.
Donnie Dupre, of Demo Reel is revealed to be this. Now a lackluster filmmaker, Dupre was formerly known as Jimmy Boyd (an expy of Jake Lloyd), whose mother, a washed-up starlet, committed suicide during the filming of a Christmas movie Dupre was in. Young Dupre attempted to press on with the performance, but the suicide caused him to be unable to give it his all. As a result of the bad performance, Dupre's Hollywood reputation tanked, causing him to develop a grudge against the Hollywood system for the unfairness of the entire ordeal.
The Simpsons' episode "Last Tap Dance In Springfield" has this with Lisa's tap teacher, who was a Shirley Temple-style star and is now a nasty old harridan who hides behind Tastes Like Diabetes mannerisms most of the time. She admits to tapping coded messages for the Allies in WWII and destroying Buddy Ebsen's credit rating, so this two-faced nature was probably always there.
Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture from The Venture Brothers applies to this in a non-acting sense: he was a boy adventurer a la Jonny Quest, but has been met with failure after abject failure in his attempt to "adventure" post-adolescence.
This could also apply to supporting character "Master" Billy Quizboy, who won big on a game show as a kid. Other characters vaguely remember him as a minor celebrity from 20+ years ago.
One of the recurring themes in the show is that this ends up happening to pretty much all "Boy Adventurers" when they grow up. Jonny Quest himself, for example, is now a paranoid junkie. Rusty also attends a therapy session that features a Robin like former sidekick with an eating disorder, an Astro Boy looking robot with anger management problems, and two The Hardy Boys-like former boy detectives who almost certainly killed their father. The whole experience actually leads Rusty to realize that by the standards of his peers he made out pretty good.
Real Life instances:
As a musical example, Britney Spears has fallen on this hard. Though her musical career has rebounded, her personal life and reputation are a massive train wreck, with her remaining in the conservatorship of her father.
The famous child acting duo Corey Feldman and Corey Haim both had meltdowns for adult lives. Eventually it claimed Corey Haim's life. Corey Feldman has survived fairly well, but unfortunately that's all we ever hear of him doing anymore.
Jake Lloyd today seems to be very bitter and cynical about his role as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, but when you have gone through high-school and college with people constantly accusing you of ruining Star Wars, it is pretty hard to not to.
Michael Jackson was ultimately a bigger star as an adult solo act, but didn't completely subvert this trope. The abuse he suffered under his dad's thumb as a child star warped him so badly that once he was able to stand on his own, he became obsessed with finally having a happy childhood in his private life. Thus, most of his adult pursuits and hobbies were juvenile and a way for him to "live as a kid" (i.e., the whole Neverland Ranch), and were a big reason he wound up with the Memetic Molester reputation that ruined his career.
Brad Renfro was 12 when he made his film debut in the critically-acclaimed film The Client, co-starring with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. He won The Hollywood Reporter's Young Star Award in 1995 went on to appear in the 1998 film Apt Pupil and Ghost World. Sadly, he spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse and died from a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
Played tragically straight with River Phoenix. He had a skill for acting far beyond anyone else in his generation, but couldn't cope with the pressures of fame and hated that he was part of a system he despised. in which he was the focus of attention that should have been devoted to causes such as Humanitarian or Animal Rights which he felt strongly about. He turned to drugs and wound up dying of an overdose.
Averted with his brother Joaquin, who's got a pretty good career as an adult.
Although Joaquin played up to the trope with his extended breakdown in the fake-autobiographical I'm Still Here.
The rather sad case of Bobby Driscoll who was Disney's golden boy during the 1940s. Famous for his roles in Song Of The South and Peter Pan he was in several movies but was abruptly let go in the middle of the 1950s. He was ridiculed in school for being a child star and lapsed into obscurity through drugs. He was found dead and the body wasn't identified until a year later.
Other than the Olsen Twins (who have also fallen out in recent times), just about all of the child/teenage actors who starred in Full House have fallen out of the limelight.
Jodie Sweetin in particular stands out as an example of this trope played straight. Facing an inability to find further work and a traumatic social life due to being typecast as Stephanie Tanner, she became an alcoholic and a habitual user of marijuana, cocaine, LSD and most famously, meth. However, she seems to have gotten her life back on track recently, has published a memoir about her drug addiction, and is now seeking a Career Resurrection.
Candace Cameron has since bounced back a bit, now appearing on Make It Or Break It. Not as well-known or massive as Full House was in its time, but still a noteworthy performance.
There is an interesting contrast between the two stars of Guest from the Future. Natalia Guseva acted in a few more movies, but decided to become a scientist instead. Now, she not only works as a biochemist, but also is still involved with the fan community, and is raising a daughter. Meanwhile, Alexei Fomkin had a few more roles, but got into drug problems, which caused him to lose roles and spiral further downward. He quit acting and moved to a village, which seemed to be straightening him out. Sadly, he died in 1996 when his apartment burned.
Robert Blake also starred in Our Gang comedies (as Mickey Gubitosi), then later starred in In Cold Blood and had the title role on the TV series Baretta, and years later was acquitted of his wife's murder, but lost a civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by his children.
For a while, it looked as though Amanda Bynes was shaping up to be an aversion; she had stated that she didn't like drinking or going to clubs and instead preferred to hang out at home with family and friends. That changed in 2012, however, when she was involved in several hit-and-run and reckless driving incidents, and continued into a series of increasingly erratic Twitter posts, including asking Drake to "murder her vagina".
Former Idol Singer Ai Kago joined Morning Musume, one of the most popular Girl Groups in Japan, at age 12, and her popularity flourished when she was selected to join other units under the Hello! Project name. However, as she grew older, she became dissatisfied with her image and started smoking to feel "older", though she was underage at that time. As a result of that (and entering a relationship with a man 10 years her senior), she was kicked out of Hello! Project. While she did try to make a comeback, her career has continued to spiral downwards with numerous scandals including having an affair with a married man and dating a man rumored to have ties with the yakuza.
Real Life aversions:
Elizabeth Taylor, going from a child star in movies like Lassie Come Home to one of the most famous film actresses ever. Her private life, however, was notably less successful: she was notorious for her large number of weddings and divorces, and was treated for alcoholism and prescription drug addiction.
Jodie Foster. First major role was in Taxi Driver as a twelve-year-old child prostitute. Even after the scandal over John Hinckley, she went on to have a very successful career which includes two acting Oscars.
Shirley Temple. She went to be happily married for 50 years until her husband's death, and was an Ambassador for the United States to Czechoslovakia, during the Velvet Revolution. Also, during the 1968 Soviet Crackdown on Czechoslovakia, she led over 700 people to the border and got them through because the guards were fans of her.
Jackie Cooper starred in some Our Gang comedies and was still a successful actor, director, and producer, most famous on screen as Perry White in the Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve.
Bill Mumy of Lost In Space. His parents took care that he grew up properly during his career as a child, including carefully investing his pay, and he became a successful musician (his comedy pop band Barnes & Barnes is responsible for that "Fish Heads" song) and a reasonably busy actor who even got another juicy sci-fi TV role as Lennier in Babylon 5.
His daughter Liliana is also making it well as a cartoon voice actress (most notably as the voice of Panini in Chowder), and even played alongside her dad in the sequel to "It's a Good Life", "It's Still a Good Life", on the second revival of The Twilight Zone.
Dean Stockwell averts this big time, starting as a child star in the 1940s, and continuing to work steadily for the next sixty-five years, being best known as Al on Quantum Leap and Cavil on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.
The child cast of The Wonder Years have all managed to do well as adults: Fred Savage is a director and producer along with occasional acting, Danica McKellar is an author and mathematician when not acting, and Josh Saviano (Paul) is an attorney.
Although Saviano has been the subject of the famous myth that he became Marilyn Manson when he grew up which he has found very amusing
Natalie Wood. Starred in Miracle on 34th Street aged 8, but successfully adapted to 'grown-up' parts in her teens with Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers and is barely remembered as a child star at all. The only significant scandal to happen to her stems from her death (she drowned off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, the exact circumstances remaining unknown to this day).
The main cast of the Harry Potter movies seem to have avoided the worst aspects of child acting. Having begun acting between the ages of nine and eleven, they've shown steady development for over a decade and a total of eight films without any major misbehaviors or prima donna-ism. By all reports, all seem genuinely well-adjusted and mature.
Daniel Radcliffe, apart from his role as the title character, has starred in the stage play Equus and was critically acclaimed for his performance. He has since begun slowly branching out into other film and stage productions.
He did have a spot of trouble on the later films, by his own admission becoming an alcoholic and doing most of the Deathly Hallows production drunk. He then became a teetotaler, so that's no longer an issue.
Rupert Grint's major claim to eccentricity is owning an ice cream truck, saying that if his career after the Harry Potter movies are finished falls through, he can always fall back on a career as an ice cream man. A fairly mild indulgence for a multimillionaire, all things considered.
As for Emma Watson... well, let's face it, there's no way anyone as good looking as her won't get at least a few more major roles in her career. Much like her character, she has done very well in school work and has since decided that, after her work with the movie series is done, she'll take a career break to finish her college degree like Natalie Portman did.
Film critic Leonard Maltin famously said that Watson was in "the early stages of babehood". Now that she's most certainly an adult and effectively an adult actress, she is considered to have reached that milepost.
As a side note, Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, previously directed Home Alone. As he has discussed in interviews, Columbus is unhappy with how Macaulay Culkin turned out and considers this partly his fault. When casting the Potter kids, he was determined to avoid the same mistakes and tried to cast children with stable home lives.
Another aversion: early productions of Oliver! featured Steve Marriott in the titular role. Marriott infuriated his family by choosing music over acting, given that he'd already established success, but went on to be the extremely popular frontman for Small Faces and Humble Pie.
Whit Hertford was a fairly popular child actor and voice actor appearing in works like Jurassic Park, Full House, and Tiny Toon Adventures, he came back into show business having a successful career as an actor, writer, and director.
After a successful career as a child, which included an Oscar for her role in The Piano, Anna Paquin transitioned to adulthood easily, finding her best work on T.V.
Thomas Sangster, from such films as Love Actually and Nanny McPhee, has had success beyond his cute little boy image, in films as diverse as Hitler: The Rise of Evil and Tristan & Isolde. Sangster also played young Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy.
Back in the 1910s, at the Vitagraph film studio, there was a local kid from Brooklyn named Harry Horowitz who enjoyed hanging out there. Harry was charming and a natural ham, and the Vitagraph people began putting him in films, making him a child star. Young Harry would grow up to be one of the most violent and abusive men in the world: Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. But it's an aversion too.
Stefan Brogren has come as close as anyone to being a Real Life version of SCTV's Rusty by playing the role of Archie "Snake" Simpson in every incarnation of the Degrassi franchise since 1987 while taking on an ever larger role behind the camera. His character, however, has aged and progressed from student to teacher to principal of the titular High School, while the show's hiatus coincides with the period the character would've been getting his degree.
Justin Timberlake started off early, as a performer on The New Mickey Mouse Club (other cast members included Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera). After departing from N Sync, he's gone on to have a successful solo music career, and has appeared in films like The Social Network.
Frankie Muniz may still be remembered mostly as Malcolm and Agent Cody Banks, but he went on to achieve decent success as a professional racecar driver and as a musician, is currently engaged and seems to be leading a fulfilling life despite his semi-retirement from Hollywood.
Roddy Mc Dowall started as a child actor, but also had a long career as a character actor, most famously as the regular player in the Planet of the Apes series and was a successful photographer too.
Jenny Agutter had her first film role in East of Sudan at twelve and went on to star as Bobbie in The Railway Children both on film and television, as well as roles in Walkabout and The Snow Goose. She has worked consistently and without trouble ever since, transitioning to adult roles in Logan's Run and An American Werewolf in London and going on to play lead and supporting roles all over film, television, theatre, and radio. She's been married to Johan Tham, a Swedish hotelier, since 1990 and currently stars as Sister Julienne on Call The Midwife.
Once famous as a child actor in Sweden and the son of a famous actor, Alexander Skarsgård gave up acting for quite a while until returning a decade later and becoming famous for roles on True Blood and Generation Kill.
At one point, Drew Barrymore was the epitome of the bad end of this trope; at the age of 15, she already went through smoking cigarettes and pot, drinking, doing cocaine, attempting suicide, and staying in rehab twice. However, she eventually sobered up and became a successful adult actress.
Something similar can be said of Wil Wheaton and his role as Wesley. But he grew up pretty well of it.
Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett are subversions as well, now much better known for their indie rock band Rilo Kiley then their pasts as child actors.
Jackie Coogan starred with Charlie Chaplin as The Kid, sued his parents for squandering his film earnings before he became an adult (which led to the California Child Actor's Bill, AKA the Coogan Act), and much later became known as TV's Uncle Fester.
Mayim Bialik of Blossom famously went to school and got a PhD in Neuroscience, becoming Dr. Mayim Bialik. She had quit acting for some time and decided to ease back into the business by auditioning for some random roles. One of those roles happened to be for a show that celebrated higher education and she got the part of neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory.
Anna Chmlusky of My Girl fame took a break in 1998 to concentrate on her studies. Seven years later, she returned to acting, eventually getting a role on Veep in 2012.
Ironically played with in the life of Mickey Dolenz. He was the child star of Circus Boy for several years, after which his parents took him out of show business entirely to avert this trope. By all accounts, it worked... far better than when he gained and lost fame AGAIN as one of The Monkees.
Tero Niva, a very promising Finnish young actor, instead chose to become a software engineer rather than a professional actor.
Similar to Ostrum, Canadian child star Joey Cramer only appeared in three films, one of which was Flight of the Navigator in which he starred as the titular navigator. After those three roles, he seemingly disappeared. Some fans of those 3 movies found he now makes a comfortable living working at a sporting-goods store in the Canadian province of British Columbia.