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Dead end kids

Or, how Hollywood eats its child actors

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Anissa Jones
  • Anissa Jones

The tagline of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, opening this weekend, is: "50 million people used to watch him on TV. Now he washes their cars." Well, it wouldn't be the worst thing to ever happen to a former child star.

Though a fictional creation, the case of Dickie Roberts (played by David Spade) illustrates the Faustian nature of child stardom. To seemingly have it all at such a tender age -- fame, adulation, fan clubs, private teachers, perfumed letters from adoring 12-year-old girls, and of course more money to throw around than most grown-ups -- makes child stars the envy of millions. Yet all too often it ends badly. When puberty strikes, when TV children grow up and move out of the family home into their own unsuccessful spin-off sitcoms, when the last blush of youth has left their oft-pinched cheeks, many former child stars find themselves cast adrift on a sea of booze, pills, debt and depression.

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star features cameos from a number of real-life former child stars, including Willie Aames (Eight Is Enough), Emmanuel Lewis (Webster), Maureen McCormick (The Brady Bunch) and Danny Bonaduce (The Partridge Family). Pathetic as it sounds, for these former stars to have stuck around long enough to make ironic guest appearances as themselves in a David Spade comedy actually puts them among the lucky ones.

Dana Plato with her costars from Diffrent Strokes
  • Dana Plato with her costars from Diffrent Strokes

Kind of.

Anissa Jones (1958-1976) This adorable blond moppet charmed the dickens out of Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) and Uncle Bill ( Brian Keith) as Buffy on the popular '60s family comedy Family Affair. Things got a little less charming when the show ended after six seasons; her only post-Family Affair credit is for a 1969 film called The Trouble with Girls. Bounced between divorced parents, Jones soon turned to drugs -- and turned up dead on Aug. 28, 1976, in her Oceanside, Calif. bedroom, her blood a potent cocktail of barbiturates, PCP, methaqualone and cocaine. She was 18 (a year older than Savannah Smiles star Bridgette Andersen, who overdosed on heroin in 1997). A subsequent autopsy ruled Jones' death as a suicide; her ashes were scattered over the Pacific four days later.

Incidentally, not all reported former child star deaths are real: The untimely demise of Adam Rich (who played bowl-cut Nicholas Bradford on TV's Eight Is Enough) was actually a media hoax in which Rich, a recovering substance abuser himself, willingly took part. While we're on the subject, Mikey the Life Cereal Kid did not die of injuries sustained by drinking soda and eating Pop Rocks, and -- urban legend notwithstanding -- Susan "Cindy Brady" Olsen ("the youngest one in curls") did not appear in a pornographic movie.

Dana Plato (1964-1999) Post child-stardom has been uncommonly cruel to the kids of Diff'rent Strokes, the popular 1978-1984 sitcom starring Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman as adopted siblings Willis and Arnold Jackson to Dana Plato's Kimberly Drummond, dutiful, down-to-earth daughter of Park Avenue millionaire Conrad Bain. Bridges has had numerous run-ins with the law (acquitted in 1990 after allegedly shooting a crack dealer), while current California gubernatorial candidate Coleman -- whose squandered earnings from Diff'rent Strokes have been estimated at $18 million (he blames his parents) -- went from being America's wise-cracking pint-sized sweetheart to making $7 an hour as a movie set security guard. Unable to pay the $400 fine incurred by a punch-up with an autograph seeker, Coleman was forced to sell off personal effects in an online auction -- size four bowling shoes ($107.50), afro picks ($61), even a spatula ($41). His subsequent career is noteworthy only for its noteworthinesslessness ... or perhaps you're a devotee of unheralded classics such as Like Father, Like Santa and The Curse of Monkey Island?

Heather ORourke
  • Heather ORourke

Dana Plato's post-Diff'rent Strokes career is even more depressing. After two widely publicized arrests (one for holding up a video store and another for forging a Valium prescription) and an unsuccessful 1989 comeback attempt as a Playboy centerfold, the increasingly unstable Plato finally reached the end of her tether on May 8, 1999. She overdosed on prescription painkillers in a motor home parked in the driveway of her fiance's parents' Oklahoma home; a coroner's inquest later ruled it a suicide. Just the day before, the noticeably distraught actress had described herself as "never ... happier" during an interview on the Howard Stern show. Her most recent film work had been for something called The Hostage, apparently released to resounding indifference in 1998, but it's Plato's eager-to-please performance in 1997 soft-core oddity Different Strokes that fans will find hardest to forget.

Heather O'Rourke (1974-1988) Some child actors, alas, don't live long enough to blow their earnings on pennywhistles and MoonPies before drifting along into drugs and bargain-basement pornography. Heather O'Rourke began acting at age 5 and got her big break as Carol Anne Freeling, the blond daughter of a family troubled by restless spirits in the Poltergeist movies -- you know, "They're here!" O'Rourke failed her first screen test for Poltergeist, laughing at a stuffed animal she was supposed to be terrified of, but was championed for the role by director Steven Spielberg, who first spied the wee sprite eating lunch at the MGM commissary with her mother and sister.

In early 1988, midway through the filming of Poltergeist III, O'Rourke began to suffer flu-like symptoms. A visit to a specialist proved inconclusive, but on the night of Jan. 30 she reportedly crawled into bed with her parents complaining of severe abdominal pains. The next morning, O'Rourke fainted as she was preparing to set out for school and was flown by helicopter to a hospital emergency room. She died on the operating table on the afternoon of Feb. 1. Cause of death: cardiopulmonary arrest as a complication of intestinal blockage. Spielberg dedicated her final film to her memory -- after replacing her with a towheaded stand-in, Ed Wood-style, and rewriting the ending of the film to accommodate her untimely departure.

To Hollywood's more superstitious circles, O'Rourke's untimely death suggested a Poltergeist curse that had already come home to roost with the demise, a little over five years earlier, of co-star Dominique Dunne. Dunne, daughter of novelist/journalist Dominick Dunne, sister of actress Griffin Dunne and niece of writer Joan Didion, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, David Sweeney, while rehearsing a scene from the TV miniseries V with a co-star in her Hollywood home. Sweeney, a chef at the chi-chi Tinseltown beanery Ma Maison, was later reported to be distraught when Dunne broke off their relationship on Oct. 10, 1982. Well, apparently he was distraught -- that same night, he drove to Dunne's house, dragged her outside and strangled her, not-quite fatally but pretty damned close. The brain-dead Dunne was supposedly removed from life support five days later (although according to some accounts the hospital strenuously denies this); her remains are interred near those of Poltergeist co-star O'Rourke. Sweeney, who was 26 at the time, was sentenced to six years in prison for assault and unintentional manslaughter. He was released after two and a half.

Sal Mineo
  • Sal Mineo

Sal Mineo (1939-1976) Things hadn't been going as well as Sal Mineo might have hoped, but at least he was still working. By the early '70s, he'd managed to land a few roles here and there (most notably, as Dr. Milo in Escape from the Planet of the Apes), but nothing like the bumper crop of plums that landed in his lap over 20 years earlier. In 1955, the year of his 16th birthday, he'd starred in Six Bridges to Cross with Tony Curtis and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean -- not bad for the Bronx street tough whose parents had given him the choice, at age 10, between juvenile detention and professional acting school. By 1976, his prospects had dimmed somewhat, but he was still enjoying a few successful theatrical runs, directing and starring in productions like Fortune and Men's Eyes. Mineo was in Los Angeles preparing to open a play called P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, with Keir Dullea, when he was stabbed to death by a stranger outside his home on the evening of Feb. 12. His assailant, Lionel Ray Williams, was convicted and sentences to life in prison three years later.

Criminal violence has cut short the lives of a number of other child and young adult stars. Judith Barsi, who appeared as Bean in the 1987 Tom Hulce movie Slamdance and delighted audiences as the voice of Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven had just turned 10 when she was shot and killed, along with her mother Maria, on July 27, 1988. The killer -- her father, Joszef Barsi -- then turned the gun on himself.

Merlin Santana, who played Rudy Huxtable's friend Stanley on The Cosby Show, was shot and killed in the passenger seat of a car in Los Angeles in November 2002. Rebecca Shaeffer, star of My Sister Sam, was gunned down in 1989 by an obsessive fan who had gained entrance to her apartment disguised as a flower deliveryman. She was 21.

Carl Switzer, who played the tousled Alfalfa in the popular Our Gang comedies, was shot and killed in Van Nuys, Calif. by a hunting buddy on Jan. 21, 1959, in a dispute over $50. According to defendant Bud Stiltz, Switzer had threatened him with a knife (which, Stiltz testified, the freckled former boon companion of Spanky and Darla conveniently managed to fold up after Stiltz dropped him with a fatal shot to the stomach). The judge dismissed the charges, ruling Switzer's premature (and probably very painful) death a justifiable homicide. According to witnesses, Spanky's bosom pal's last words were "I'm going to kill you, [expletive deleted]." Earmuffs, Darla, earmuffs! A successful dog breeder and hunting guide (though by all reports an abysmal failure at everything else), Switzer's life was to some extent a classic example of child stardom gone awry. And it apparently ran in the family: Nine years later his brother Harold, also a failed actor, killed his girlfriend and then himself.

Interestingly (in a conspiracy kind of way), Sal Mineo was the second of the three young principal actors in Rebel Without a Cause to die under tragic circumstances. James Dean's death came first, of course -- in his custom Porsche Spyder on Sept. 30, 1955. Five years after Mineo's stabbing, on Nov. 29, 1981, Natalie Wood drowned off California's Santa Catalina Island while trying to board a dinghy, the Prince Valiant, belonging to the yacht she shared with her husband Robert Wagner (ironically, Wood suffered from a lifelong fear of water). Their deaths, and those of a few other cast and crew members, gave rise to rumors of a curse surrounding Rebel Without a Cause.

It should go without saying that untimely deaths are the exception for child actors rather than the rule. A few, at least, have the good sense to quit while they are ahead -- Danny Lloyd, for example, whose sole film credit is for the clairvoyant Danny in The Shining. Lloyd is now rumored to be either a Colorado science teacher or a Wal-Mart employee in Pekin, Ill. But the lion's share of his youthful colleagues -- past, present and future -- simply fade into fitful obscurity whether they like it or not.

Except for those "fortunate" few who manage to land cameos in David Spade movies. And occasionally run for office.

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