By Stacy Jenel Smith and Emily-Fortune Feimster
The headlines about Corey Haim continue after his death: The city of Toronto pays for his funeral because his financially strapped mother cannot afford it. Haim’s mother says she was informed he died of pulmonary congestion and had an enlarged heart, yet toxicology results have yet to be announced by the coroner’s office – and surely his long, torturous history with drug abuse has something to do with it. Haim’s mother says he was there helping her as she undergoes chemotherapy treatment for her cancer. “He was a good boy,” she says.
This is hardly the ending fans would have expected back when Haim and his best pal Corey Feldman hit a stratospheric level of fame as vampire-fighting teens in “The Lost Boys.” But the years after his 80s fan frenzy heyday saw Haim addicted to crack, enduring bankruptcy, a drug-induced stroke, 15 stints in rehab and industry peers dropping him due to his drug use. Even Feldman finally had to turn away after Haim’s mini-comeback with their “The Two Coreys” reality show crumbled under the weight of his addiction to prescription pills.
The passing of Haim has given other former juvenile performers pause. His course, they know, could have been theirs.
One-time “Brady Bunch” sweetheart Maureen McCormick is among those who went to hell and back after becoming a star. The actress beat addiction to Quaaludes and cocaine – addiction severe enough to have traded sex for drugs, she wrote in her autobiography – to find happiness as a wife, mother and author.
Drew Barrymore’s victory over the addictions she acquired as a child star whose life spun out of control is well known.
Jaimee Foxworth, Mackenzie Phillips, Todd Bridges and Jodie Sweetin are also among the many who have lived traumatic lives and fought drug problems.
Yet certainly, things don’t always go that way.
Fred Savage, who has a very busy behind-the-cameras career as a director in addition to his acting work, has said that he’s sick of being asked how he turned out so normal.
“That really upsets me,” added the Stanford grad, who also pointed out that of his former “Wonder Years” cast mates, Josh Saviano went on to Yale, Jason Hervey had his own production company and was a family man with three kids, and Danica McKellar is successful not only as an actress, but as a theoretical mathematician. In fact, the actress remembered as Winnie Cooper was a math star at UCLA — and has authored three books geared toward enticing young people, especially girls, into viewing math her way (“Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math” and the upcoming “Hot X: Algebra Exposed”). Proving that “smart is sexy” as she says, she’s done a photo layout in which she’s garbed in skimpy black lingerie and stiletto heels. Not the usual idea of a brainiac.
Why are the child stars from one show so well-adjusted and successful – like “The Wonder Years” – while others crash, like “Different Strokes”?
The latter show’s Dana Plato had a wasted adult life that included soft core porn, arrests for armed robbery and forgery, and a drug overdose death at 34. It had Todd Bridges, who was swamped in drug abuse and trouble with the law until managing to clean up and get his act together again. (He went on to a recurring role on “Everyone Hates Chris” and serving as an anti-drug advocate.) And it had Gary Coleman, whose troubles have included bankruptcy, suing his parents and former manager for misappropriation of his trust fund, and being cited for disorderly conduct while engaging in a heated argument with a woman.
“It all starts with family,” declares producer Todd J. Greenwald, whose show credits include “Saved by the Bell,” “Hannah Montana” and “The Wizards of Waverly Place.”
The sense of a juvenile performer having a stable and supportive family “is definitely a factor” for him in casting, says Greenwald, although it’s “not the final say.”
Grown-up child stars who’ve become successful as adults frequently point to having had the right mom and dad as the primary reason for their staying grounded.
For instance, recalled Ron Howard, “I had parents who acted like parents, who didn’t depend on baby sitters on the set, who saw to it that I never lost touch with my peers…There was always time for the kid things.”
And Ben Savage, the “Boy Meets World” star and younger brother of Fred, explained, “Our parents never wanted us to become lost in the limelight of Hollywood. That’s why I think they emphasized the importance of school.”
On the other side of that coin, of course, there are such notoriously terrible parents as opportunistic ex-con Michael Lohan, the father of Lindsay, who’ll squeeze whatever personal benefit he can out of her fame at whatever the cost to his daughter, a gifted actress who has all but ruined her career with her self-destructive behavior. The best thing that can be said of Lindsay’s mother, Dina, is that she’s better than the father.
Or the awful mother and father of faded pop star Aaron Carter, or nightmare stage father Kit Culkin – Macaulay’s dad – or arguably abusive Jackson family patriarch Joe Jackson, or Jaid Barrymore, Drew’s where-was-she? mother…the list goes on and on.
But there’s more than just the juvenile actors’ home lives to blame – or applaud – for their adult outcomes. Certainly they are influenced by what goes on in their work environments as well.
Corey Haim reportedly started drinking beer while on the set of “Lucas” at age 14 and tried marijuana while making “The Lost Boys” – he and Feldman got close during production, in fact, because they were excluded from the “adult” parties that were going on every night on the picture and found their own fun. In his youth, Haim’s cast mates included the notoriously drug-bedeviled Robert Downey, Jr., Gary Busey, and Charlie Sheen. Some role models.
Then there are the handlers who’ll say yes to anything a star client wants, if the client is successful enough – even when the client is minor. And there are hangers-on that find their way into the lives of celebrities, partake of the spoils of their successes, party with them, and sometimes help them spend their money on drugs. Sometimes the hangers-on are even worse than fair weather friends.
“A lot of people in these performers’ lives, they can’t do it so they want to kill it kind of thing,” notes actress Bijou Phillips. “Of course, ultimately, everyone has to be responsible for themselves, but there are shady people out there who want to harm. I’ve seen a lot of that with my family — the vultures, the users trying to look cool who are destructive,” adds Phillips, daughter of the late John Phillips and half-sister of Mackenzie.
Ricky Schroder, who is among the small group of former child actors who transitioned into a successful adult career, tells us he was fortunate to get through it all fairly unscathed.
“There’s not a lot of us who started that young and are still in it. There’s a lot of luck involved,” notes Schroder, who rose to fame in Jon Voight’s remake of the big-screen tear-jerker, “The Champ,” and in the sitcom “Silver Spoons.”
“The number one thing I did that helped me get where I’m at today is that I truly love what I do. I love acting, writing and directing, and being on set. To put up with what you have to put up with in this business, the hills and valleys, you have to love it or else you’ll throw the towel in. It’s one of the reasons I’m still here,” says the actor, who found success later on in life with “NYPD Blue.”
Though he’s certainly aware of the pitfalls that child actors face, Schroder says he would never discourage his own children from acting. “I’m supportive of them and I want them to do what they want and hopefully make a living at it. I’ll help them if they want help,” he adds. “I have a couple of kids who think they want to do it, but I don’t know if they really, really want to do it. In the first month when they can’t pay rent and they’re hungry, it’s not so fun then.”
Ultimately, whether a child performer grows into a healthy adulthood or plummets into a morass of disappointment is, of course, an individual matter.
Consider the paths of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. On paper, it would appear that Britney had the advantage as a child from a stable two-parent home, an elementary school teacher and a building contractor. Christina’s parents spilt when she was seven, and, as she has made clear, hers was a household of domestic violence at the hands of her father. The two stars began their career lives the same way, as fresh-scrubbed cuties on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club.” Each went on to pop stardom, each shattered her girl-next-door image with sexy videos and stage routines. At one point, it appeared Christina would out-raunch Britney.
However, at 29 Christina seems fairly grounded. She has a four-year-old marriage (to music marketing executive Jordan Bratman), a two-year-old son and a grown-up career.
Britney’s life has been a drama diva high wire act with no safety net — her 28 years blighted with drinking and drugging, awful romantic choices, a 55-hour marriage and a bad two-year one, and such self-destructive and bizarre behavior that she lost physical custody of her two young sons and for a time was forbidden visitation. Between her lost periods, she has been, and is now, a superstar to the maximum. Here’s hoping she finds happiness and a modicum of peace.