“People view child actors the same way that girls treat their Barbie dolls” (Mara Wilson, former child actress, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)).” A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” (a Chinese proverb). “Childhood experiences are very important to lifelong outcomes…“ (Andrew S. Garner, MD).
We all know past childhood or teenage horrors/troubles of such celebrities as Judy Garland, Macaulay Culkin, River Phoenix or Lindsay Lohan. We also know the examples of successful transitions from child actors to adult stars, such as the Harry Potter cast. The point is that the cinema industry has learnt much about the treatment of child actors, but it has also done so at a considerable cost, including in terms of human lives. In this post, I would like to highlight three child actors (some alive and some already dead) who were essentially let down by Hollywood, and their cases were really such that more effort and support should have been given to see these child actors’ transition to adult actors or adults with other careers – especially since so much was done by Hollywood to elevate them to their “star” status from their very young ages. Studios often became the children’s second home in the examples below, and since the children relied so much on that early expectation of praise and success (and money was made out of them), these children and then teenagers had to be helped later to deal with their expected career declines. There are those who blame the pushy parents, and I am not saying that personal factors or choices did not play a role in the cases below, but I also believe that no one should have forgotten that the actors below were also mere children, much more sensitive to their environment, praise and criticism than adults, and, thus, later, needing much more support and reassurance in their careers.
I. Bobby Driscoll (1937 – 1968)
“I really feared people…the other kids did not accept me. I tried desperately to be one of the gang. When they rejected me, I fought back, becoming belligerent and cocky and was afraid all the time. I have found that memories were not very useful. I was carried on a silver cushion and then dropped into a garbage can” (Bobby Driscoll).
Bobby Driscoll is one of the most heart-breaking examples of Hollywood’s callousness and indifference to the plight of their former child actors, who they once loved and worshipped so much, giving every award possible to, and instilling into them so much early hope and success reassurance. The most shocking thing about the case of Bobby Driscoll is the marked difference between the unbelievable success, recognition and stardom which he enjoyed as a child actor, and the complete indifference to the fact that this once Winner of an Academy Award then met with the obscurity and loneliness that most people would never know and cannot even imagine, with Driscoll sliding into extreme poverty and drug-use as an adult.
Bobby Driscoll was not an average child actor landing small roles, he was the epitome of success at MGM, that elevated him to a real star shortly after Driscoll finished his first film at the age of 6 – Lost Angel (1943). At the age of 9, Driscoll was chosen by Walt Disney Studios as a lead actor in very popular live actions films Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and Treasure Island (1950). Bobby Driscoll was also Peter Pan, serving as a model for all the sketches of this character in the famous Disney cartoon (1953), and providing his voice for the main character too. An Academy Award was given to Driscoll in 1950, when he was 13 years old, for the Best Juvenile Performance (see his claiming of the award in this short video). By 1951, at the age of just 14, Driscoll was cast in more than 17! well-known films, among which was The Window (1949), which The New York Times claimed was so successful because of Driscoll’s performance – “the striking force and terrifying impact of this [movie] is chiefly due to Bobby’s brilliant acting”.
Fortunes for the young actor turned in 1953 when Disney decided that they no longer see him as a likeable character and that he is only suited for the role of “bullies” (Wikipedia). Driscoll’s contract with Disney was cancelled in 1953 and the studios stated that it was because of the boy’s puberty acne. When Driscoll enteres a normal school shortly after, he was bullied there, as well as ridiculed for his previous roles. He only finished school when he was transferred back to the Hollywood Professional School. In the late 1950s, drugs and prison sentences were already ruling the actor’s life, and after numerous minor roles on TV, in 1961 there were no acting jobs available to him. At that point, he turned to artistic work in New York, until abandoning this also some years before his death. In 1968, Bobby Driscoll was found dead, broke and alone in an abandoned building in East Village. He has just turned 31 years old and the cause of death was heart failure from prolonged drug use. To make matters worse, his death was not reported anywhere until 1972 when reporters started investigating the lives of the Song of the South stars.
It is shocking how Hollywood can forget one of their most golden and promising stars, especially the one who contributed so much to the most popular films of the decade. It seems that the “fault” of Driscoll was that he simply grew up and became suddenly completely unwanted. It is unbelievable how in Driscoll’s last years there was not one single option or avenue of support left for this actor who was once so beloved by so many.
II. Jonathan Brandis (1976 – 2003)
Jonathan Brandis began his professional career at the age of 4 as a child model, and, shortly after, was cast in numerous commercials. His TV debut came when he was only 6 years of age in a TV series One Life to Life. At the age of 14, Brandis got his leading role in The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter and also had a role in the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It, alongside Tim Curry. Later, he also starred with Chuck Norris in Sidekicks.
At the age of 17, Brandis landed his role in Steven Spielberg’s series seaQuest DSV, and it is this role that made him a heartthrob and a recognisable teenager. However, seaQuest DSV was cancelled in 1996, and after some TV roles, his roles were mainly in supporting categories from then on. He thought that his another break would come after Hart’s War (2002), where he starred alongside Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, but his role in that film was substantially reduced, and a later pilot 111 Gramercy Park was ignored. Feeling depressed about where his acting career was going, Brandis committed suicide by hanging in Los Angeles in 2003 at the age of only 27.
Brandis may not have made the acting contribution that Driscoll made, but there is still this feeling that he deserved more support to cope with what he was going through when his acting career prospects declined. It is easy for us to say that there were so many lifetime options available for Brandis, but my point is – Are we really good judges of that? – Have we walked in his shoes? – Have we been acting in films and on TV since the age of 4? How can we know what it is really like, and how does it really feel when acting on films and TV has been a person’s life since the time he was able to make his first intelligible sounds?
III. Jake Lloyd (1989 – )
Jake Lloyd landed his first role at the age of 7 in 1996 in one episode of ER, and then starred in minor roles in films Unhook the Stars (1996) and Jingle All the Way (1996). He then landed the coveted role of young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) at the age of 10. This was a very big film and a big role for Jake Lloyd whose cute Anakin became memorable. In my opinion, the shocking thing was that Lloyd was nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award (the Razzie) for the Worst Performance of the year in the category of a Supporting Actor. A question arises – what is the point of nominating a 10-year-old child, who still looks up to adults to know how good he is at acting, for the Worst Supporting Acting Award, publicly shaming him in the process to the whole world since the Award is known internationally? He may be an actor with three other TV/film appearances already behind him, but he remains an impressionable and sensitive child who tried his best on the set, inwardly craving praise from adults, and was chosen so lovingly by George Lucas among so many others for this role. The Golden Raspberry Foundation, that give such awards, claims that its awards “encourage well-known film-makers and top notch performers to own to their bad”. The question then becomes: how can a 10-year old child “own to his bad” in this manner?
After Star Wars, Lloyd was bullied at school, and seemed to have trouble integrating successfully into society because in the 2010s he had troubles with the law, and, in 2016, was transferred from jail to psychiatric facilities, being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Although all cases of child actors are different and I am not claiming to know the Jake Lloyd case thoroughly, one may still wonder whether Lloyd really did receive all the help and especially psychological support he needed following the premier of such a big film as Star Wars, where he was almost in one of the leading roles. The fact that he was only ten years old and already his performance was deemed among the worst of the year was certainty not something a child should have to confront. One cannot help but wonder whether Jake Lloyd was really there once “to provide a cute face for the movie”, and certainly never was wanted by anyone again after that performance of his. And, what about maybe thinking, as a child, that you are blamed for contributing to the failure of one important movie in America’s most beloved sci-fi franchise?
Everyone knows that film-making is a tough business and no one denies the primary role of parents in their children’s lives. However, one question also emerges – if you are six years old and you are told by everyone at film studios that you are the best and cutest actor, lavished with attention, how can you then, after say seven years, deal with the fact that you are no longer wanted by absolutely anyone in the only field you know so much about, and not even by those people who admired you in the past and who you grew up to trust? How can you be discarded like old clothes when you do not feel any different inside? Children are different from adults, and it has been shown that childhood memories and the consequences of those impressions last the whole of a person’s life. If companies were ripping immense monetary profits from some young actors, encouraging them in every possible way so they would act more, they must also then face to their responsibilities and made sure that these people are provided with sufficient (even psychological) support and options to enable them to deal with their adult transitions in the industry. This is a basic issue of humanity and compassion after the companies have already made much money from the participation of these very vulnerable and impressionable “little people” that children always are.