When Michael Jackson sings about his lost childhood and the trauma of growing up in show business, Luke Halpin understands. He's spent much of the past three decades trying to emerge from the shadow of a dolphin.
"I'm a . . . question in 'Trivial Pursuit'," says Mr. Halpin, the teen-age star of "Flipper" who got his start as a 7-year-old appearing in live theater in New York. "How would you like being a trivia question?"
Mr. Halpin, now 48, is one of scores of former child stars struggling to cope with the burden of having grown up as a celebrity -- a problem Mr. Jackson highlights in "Childhood," a song from his just-released album "HIStory."
While few have reached the heights scaled by Mr. Jackson, or remained in the public eye as long, former child stars can relate to pressures he's dealt with: demanding parents, the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight, adults who treat you more like property than people, a business that expects you to act like a kid but bear the responsibilities of an adult.
They can understand it when a megastar like Michael Jackson, who's been an entertainer since age 12, sings: "It's been my fate to compensate, for the Childhood/I've never known." They can sympathize with the singer's drawing, included with the album, of a child, microphone in hand, cowering in a corner.
But most of them have had to deal with a pressure Mr. Jackson has never known. What happens when the spotlight shuts down? For the lucky few, there's another career to start. But for many, it means years of trying to work their way back into an industry that once held so much promise.
"That's part of the problem with being a kid actor," says Mr. Halpin, who works as a crew member for movie companies shooting in Florida. "When your show's over, nobody informs you that your career's over, too."
Paul Petersen has spent the past five years trying to help people like Luke Halpin, while also trying to ensure that children entering the entertainment field today have a better understanding of just what they're getting into.
A child actor who got his first job before the camera when he was 7, Mr. Petersen was an original Mouseketeer and, most famously, Donna Reed's son Jeff for eight seasons on "The Donna Reed Show." He even had a recording career, placing two songs on the Billboard charts, including the Top-10 hit "My Dad."
His reaction to the singer's plea for understanding?
"I am deeply sympathetic to his situation," says Mr. Petersen, founder of a support group for child actors, A Minor Consideration, that in five years has grown to include some 200 members. "That doesn't mean I support his lifestyle. But I and others in A Minor Consideration understand."
Children, he says, are not adults, and need to be treated accordingly. Forcing them to be the family breadwinner, as many child stars are, is unfair. Failing to make sure they realize how fleeting fame can be is a major mistake. Conning them into thinking they can spend their lives in a profession where less than 10 percent of professional actors even make a living wage can have tragic results.
Rusty Hamer, Danny Thomas' son on "Make Room For Daddy," put a bullet through his brain at age 42. Trent Lehman, Butch on "Nanny and the Professor," hanged himself from a schoolyard fence at age 20. Anissa Jones, the rosy-cheeked Buffy on "Family Affair," died of a massive drug overdose in 1976, one of the worst the L.A. coroner had ever seen.
Not all child stars, of course, realize so tragic an end. But all face similar pressures, even when your celebrity has continued pretty much unabated since you were 12.
Worst of all worlds
Michael Jackson's situation "is probably the worst of all possible worlds," says Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University at Los Angeles. "Everything that shouldn't have happened did.
"His father was his manager; he was pulled out of school and educated on the road; all his siblings were involved, and became jealous; there was pressure not to pull back; the family fortune ultimately became dependent on Michael. The pressure was phenomenal, and it's amazing that he's not locked up somewhere in a mental hospital."
The problems child actors face are daunting. Throughout Hollywood history, fortunes earned as a youngster have been squandered by thoughtless parents and guardians. Spend your formative years in front of a camera, and it's hard to imagine doing anything else as an adult -- even though the ranks of child stars who successfully make the transition to adult actor are woefully thin. Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell, old-timers like Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, that's about it.
"Fourteen hundred kids join the Screen Actors Guild every year, 7 percent of the membership, and I'll bet you only know the names of maybe 20," Mr. Petersen says. "You tell me what those odds are like."
Marc Copage, who played Diahann Carroll's young son on "Julia," one of the first television series to feature an African-American as the title character, says child stardom forced him to become an adult way too early. His father, a frustrated actor himself, would write speeches for him, go over his line readings, tell him how to react in certain situations.
"I can't fault my father for having done that, but on the other hand, it maybe is more pressure than a 7- or 8-year old needs then," says Mr. Copage, now 32 and living in Arcadia, Calif. "I guess they should just be a kid, and not worry about a speech that they need to say to an audience."
Johnnie Whitaker, who played the freckle-faced Jody on "Family Affair," didn't realize how addicted he had become to the spotlight. He got out of show business at age 17, shortly after Anissa Jones' death.
His friend's suicide "scared me, or shocked me, into becoming a regular 17-year-old, which is what happened," says Mr. Whitaker, who signed with his first agent at age 3. "I went full-time to high school, told my agent I didn't want to work anymore.
"The aftermath of celebrity is a very difficult thing to deal with," says Mr. Whitaker, now 34 and struggling to get back in front of the camera. "I had a certain celebrity status that not everybody did. It's difficult to grow up and, by the time that I was 18, have PTC that sort of taken out from under my feet."
Addressing the problem
Hollywood has begin to address the concerns of child actors in earnest. Dr. Jean Russell, a North Hollywood chiropractor who played Margaret on "Dennis the Menace," chairs a Screen Actors Guild-committee trying to hammer out guidelines for children who want to get into the business.
She praises the acting profession for teaching kids a good work ethic, for giving them fantastic opportunities to travel and experience other cultures. But parents need to be careful of what they demand of their children. And kids need to understand there is life after acting.
"I met a young child actress today, she's 10 years old, she's been in the business for three years, and she told me that she wants to be an attorney when she grows up," says Dr. Russell, 44. "I think that was an astonishingly good sign."
Unlike many child stars whose fame was based on being cute, Mr. Jackson has undeniable talent. That may explain why he's succeeded at remaining in the entertainment business where so many other child stars have been relegated to the talk shows and celebrity autograph conventions.
"I think there's a huge difference between kids who get in the business because they're cute or pretty, and kids who get in the business because they love the competition and they've got talent," says Andrea McArdle, who 19 years ago at age 12 was the original "Annie" on Broadway. She's remained active in theater ever since, and has a starring role in a coming Broadway revival of "State Fair."
Not everyone is convinced being a child actor is so fraught with peril.
Butch Patrick, who even at age 42 is still enjoying the fame he achieved as Eddie Munster in the mid-1960s, says his only regret is being off the set the day the Beatles showed up. And Brandon Cruz, 33, who played opposite Bill Bixby on "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," insists he enjoyed being a child celebrity.
"There were no negatives," he says.