Former child stars explained why it was so complicated growing up famous
"Parents of a child actor must be prepared to devote 100 percent of their time to the child."
There's a scene in The Andy Griffith Show episode "The Keeper of the Flame" where Ron Howard looks up at Andy Griffith during a rare moment where Opie’s getting a scolding and says, "I didn't start any fire, paw. I didn't."
You can practically hear the tears in Howard's voice.
"I think mighty highly of little Ronny Howard," Griffith told the Associated Press in 1960. "My big worry is that he may steal the show from me, he's that good."
When The Andy Griffith Show premiered, some of the earliest child actors were just starting to break their silence on what it was like to be a kid growing up as an actor. Some of them were worried about the new class of child stars like Ronny.
Perhaps the most vocal in 1960 was Jackie Cooper, who became known as one of the first child stars to become a first-class actor. His experience as a child star was way different from Ronny Howard’s respectful reputation onset when he was playing Opie.
"I started in this business as a child star," Cooper told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1960. "Few people realize what that can do to you. I was allowed to run wild. I did just about anything I wanted, and the director and cameramen would try and catch it. Often, I was being paid more than the director. As a result, he would be afraid to clamp down on me, for fear I might complain to my mother, and she might have him fired."
However much the director might have feared his mom, Cooper developed a theory that the reason why he turned out OK despite growing up as a wild child star was because of how involved his mother was.
"Parents of a child actor must be prepared to devote 100 percent of their time to the child," he told The Charlotte News in 1960. "They must guarantee that he will develop and maintain a normal set of values."
Cooper said this kind of attention was rare.
"It's a tremendous load for parents," Cooper said. "Few fathers or mothers are willing to devote themselves entirely to managing the career of their child, as my mother did."
Luckily for Howard, his parents were that involved. Heck, his dad Rance even came to set with him to coach and direct him, and he appeared on the show.
For actor Dean Stockwell, who had appeared in 22 movies by the age of 15, he told the UPI in 1960 that it took him a while to reflect on how his experience as a child star had shaped him.
"The difficulty is that the child actor exists in the sort of limbo between childhood and maturity," Stockwell said. "He belongs to neither. Adults take him too seriously. Other children are too awed or too truculent, and he can find friends in neither group. He has too much responsibility, too soon."
Stockwell said the issue for child stars like him and Cooper was coping with their own egos once they outgrow the kiddie roles.
"A child sensitive enough to be an actor feels the pressure on a movie set and turns to his ego to carry him through," Stockwell said. "But then he physically grows out of the status and becomes that amusing figure — the former child star. His ego is shattered, and he hasn't the philosophy or experience to cope with life."
"Child actors can certainly grow up and be nice normal people, but they must be prepared to face the day when they are no longer needed or wanted, the day their voice is unsuitable, their looks changed, their face no different from hundreds of other young faces," Cooper told The Charlotte News. "The day arrives for all child actors."
Cooper once said that unlike Howard, when he was a child actor, he didn't feel he had a special talent.
"I wasn't great," Cooper told the UPI in 1960. "I was just an attentive kid who could take direction. That's all most child actors are. It was the directors who made me a star."
On The Andy Griffith Show, little Ronny Howard definitely had the benefit of working with great directors, as well as a patient costar in Andy Griffith.
That's not true of all child stars. One of the most famous quotes about child actors came from the comedian W.C. Fields, known for his contempt for children. He claimed, "There is only one thing in the world more horrible than playing in a picture with a child actor, and that is playing with two child actors."
Howard also became one of the biggest child stars during the Sixties when there were more rules for kids onset, so they couldn't be as wild as Cooper was, and at least in Howard's case, there were fewer opportunities for parents to get directors fired.
"I would think that the life of a child actor is even more difficult today than it was when I was young," Cooper opined in 1960.
That wasn't the case for Howard, thankfully, who, like Cooper, had very supportive parents and ended up becoming a first-class actor and then went further, becoming a major Hollywood director.
In 1960, Griffith predicted the young star’s rise when he told The Bristol Daily Courier to look out for Ronny Howard. By the time he was six years old, the kid just acted beyond his years, Griffith said.
"We figure that Ronny goes home at night and has a drink and a cigar and jokes with his wife about how he put it over on us again that day makin' us think he's six," Griffith joked. "We figure he's got to be 35."
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Two of Ron's kids act - Paige Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard. Bryce is following in her dad's footsteps and doing some directing, too. Those kids turned out well. It really does depend on the family.
The case of the Howard family was the entire family enjoyed acting. So, it wasn't like Rance lived vicariously through his son's careers. In fact, just tonight, I saw a rerun of Happy Days that had a cameo of Rance at the remarriage of Howard and Marion. Nothing but love and respect for the entire Howard family for their contributions to our American television palette.
The problem in the case of child actor (and their progress) is the parent/guardian HAS to understand the business. And have access to honest opinion. It's almost as though the parents need managing just as much as the children. Like they should have a profession of "career managers" and probably do. But parents would think they know best for their child. Unfortunately they're the ones who can't see their kid objectively anymore. And pile that on with ambition.
But have to know, that the parents of Olympians are just as obsessed, and supporting their kid's obsession, and who have to spend hours and finances to keep that athlete going! It's just that this subject/topic made for an interesting story!
(Count me as a fellow cynic).
California Child Actor's Bill
"As a child star, Coogan earned an estimated $3 to $4 million ($44 to $59 million in 2021 dollars). When he turned 21 in October 1935, his fortune was believed to be well intact. His assets had been conservatively managed by his father, who had died in a car accident five months earlier.
However, Coogan found that the entire amount had been spent by his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, on fur coats, diamonds and other jewelry, and expensive cars. Bernstein had been a financial advisor for the family and married Coogan's mother in late 1936. Coogan's mother and stepfather claimed Jackie enjoyed himself and simply thought he was playing before the camera. She insisted, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything", and claimed he "was a bad boy". Coogan sued them in 1938, but after his legal expenses, he received just $126,000 of the $250,000 remaining of his earnings. When he fell on hard times and asked Charlie Chaplin for assistance, Chaplin handed him $1,000 without hesitating.
The legal battle focused attention on child actors and resulted in the 1939 enactment of the California Child Actor's Bill, often referred to as the "Coogan Law" or the "Coogan Act". It required that a child actor's employer set aside 15% of the earnings in a trust (called a Coogan account), and specified the actor's schooling, work hours, and time off."