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The Cuteness Quotient: Dramatic Stories from Child Stars

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • August 12, 2020

When it comes to the magic of show business, the performances of young actors and musicians can't be overlooked. They make us laugh, they pull at our heartstrings; they are often the most natural of performers, guileless and genuine. But for many of these kids, the experience of being a commodity can be traumatic. They suffer harsh criticism, painful rejection, and even behind-the-scenes abuse. Often, the subsequent road to adulthood is a rocky one.

A new HBO documentary called Showbiz Kids offers an inside look into the experiences of child stars, the highs and lows, the rewards and pitfalls, and the lasting impacts on their lives. Created by director and former child actor Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), the film reveals the stories of several kids who grew up in the spotlight, such as Todd Bridges (Diff'rent Strokes), Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda), and Baby Peggy, one of the very first kids featured onscreen.

The OG Child Stars

Diana Serra Cary, known as Baby Peggy, appeared in upwards of 150 short silent films during the 1920s, when she was between the ages of three and five. Her earnings totaled more than $1.5 million (the equivalent of $22 million today), but her parents squandered it all and she eventually left Hollywood broke. Her autobiography, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy, shares her story. She died in February, at age 101, shortly after being interviewed for the documentary.

A decade later Shirley Temple sang and danced her way into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. Her bouncing curls and winsome dimples became a source of hope and optimism during the years of the depression. About her, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly said, "It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles." Her autobiography, Child Star, details her experiences in Hollywood and beyond.

Trauma, Abuse, and Emotional Pain

In his memoir, Killing Willis, Television star Todd Bridges shares his experiences as one of the first African-American children featured on shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Bridges found stardom as a young teenager on Diff'rent Strokes. When the show ended, Bridges was overwhelmed by the off-camera traumas he had faced and turned to drugs as an escape. After getting clean in the early '90s, he has returned to acting.

Corey Feldman became a star in the '80s, appearing in such films as Stand By Me and The Goonies. A child star by ten, his success carried into his teen years as one half of the wildly popular duo "The Two Coreys" with his friend Corey Haim. In Coreyography, Feldman reveals behind-the-scenes stories from his life including physical, drug, and sexual abuse, a dysfunctional family life, and the sad loss of many of his close friends in the business, including Haim and Stand by Me costar River Phoenix.

Coming Out on the Other Side

As the tenth child in a world-famous family, Janet Jackson was born to stardom, making her television debut when she was ten years old. Criticized for her weight, she fell into self-destructive patterns. In True You, she addresses the rumors that have swirled around her for most of her life, shines an intimate light on her family, and reveals stories from her career. She also shares the lessons she's learned for better mental, physical, and emotional health.

The daughter of actors Ryan O'Neal and Joanna Moore, Tatum O'Neal was only ten when she became the youngest Oscar winner in history for her performance in the film classic Paper Moon. But behind the glittering facade of Tatum's life lay heartbreak, abandonment, abuse, and neglect. As she grew into adulthood, she began a perilous slide into self-destruction. In A Paper Life she shares her struggle for survival and, ultimately, redemption.

How many of us grew up watching the kids on TV and in the movies and wished we were famous too? These stories may make us think again. Clearly it was not an easy way to grow up (but it's still pretty fascinating to read about).

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