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The term child actor or child actress is generally applied to a child acting on stage or in motion pictures or television, but also to an adult who began their acting career as a child. To avoid confusion, the latter is also called a former child actor. Closely associated is teenage actor or teen actor, an actor who reached popularity as a teenager.
Many child actors find themselves struggling to adapt as they become adults. Lindsay Lohan and Macaulay Culkin are two particular famous child actors who eventually experienced much difficulty with the fame they acquired at a young age. Many child actors also become successful adult actors as well, a prime example of this being Jodie Foster, whose career includes such films like the 1976 film Taxi Driver, the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and the 2007 film The Brave One.
In the United States, the activities of child actors are regulated by the governing labor union, if any, and state laws. Some projects film in remote locations specifically to evade regulations intended to protect the child. Longer work hours or risky stunts prohibited in California, for example, might be permitted to a project filming in British Columbia. US federal law "specifically exempted minors working the Entertainment Business from all provisions of the Child Labor Laws." Any regulation of child actors is governed by disparate state law.
Due to the large presence of the entertainment industry in California, it has some of the most explicit laws protecting child actors. Being a minor, a child actor must secure an entertainment work permit before accepting any paid performing work. Compulsory education laws mandate that the education of the child actor not be disrupted while the child is working, whether the child actor is enrolled in public school, private school or even home school. The child does his/her schoolwork under the supervision of a studio teacher while on the set.
Ownership of earnings
Before the 1930s, many child actors never got to see the money they earned because they were not in charge of this money. Jackie Coogan earned millions of dollars from working as a child actor only to see most of it squandered by his parents. In 1939, California weighed in on this controversy and enacted the Coogan Bill which requires a portion of the earnings of a child to be preserved in a special savings account called a blocked trust. A trust that is not actively monitored can also be problematic however as in the case of Gary Coleman who after working from 1974, later sued his adoptive parents and former business advisor for $3.8 million over misappropriation of his trust fund.
Some people[who?] also criticize the parents of child actors for allowing their children to work, believing that more "normal" activities should be the staple during the childhood years. Others[who?] observe that competition is present in all areas of a child's life—from sports to student newspaper to orchestra and band—and believe that the work ethic instilled or the talent developed accrues to the child's benefit.
The child actor may experience unique and negative pressures when working under tight production schedules. Large projects which depend for their success on the ability of the child to deliver an effective performance add to the pressure.
In many cases, the failure to retain stardom and success and exposure at a young age has caused many child actors to lead adult lives plagued by legal troubles, bankruptcy and drug abuse.
Examples include the cast members of the American sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, which starred child actors Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman, and Dana Plato. Plato went on to pose for Playboy magazine and was featured in several softcore pornography films. She was arrested twice for armed robbery and forging prescriptions, and died in May 1999 from an overdose of prescription medication, deemed suicide. Coleman famously sued his parents for misuse of his trust fund and, although awarded over $1,000,000, filed for bankruptcy in 1999. After many charges of assault throughout the next years, Coleman died in May 2010. Bridges was plagued with many legal troubles as well as an addiction to cocaine. After breaking this habit, he traveled across the U.S., touring schools and warning about the dangers of drug abuse. He has since made several cameo appearances on multiple television programs.
The popular television sitcom Full House made child stars out of Jodie Sweetin and the Olsen twins. After the show, Sweetin went on to develop an addiction to methamphetamine, as well as alcoholism. She later overcame this and wrote a memoir describing her experiences. Mary-Kate Olsen and Tracey Gold (Growing Pains) developed eating disorders, for which they were treated with intensive rehab. Anissa Jones, of Family Affair fame, overdosed on August 28, 1976 at age 18.
Jonathan Brandis, who appeared in a number of films as a child and teenager, committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 27 due to reasons possibly related to his lack of continued success into adulthood. Likewise, Sawyer Sweeten, a child actor who portrayed Geoffrey Barone on the American sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, took his life in 2015 at the age of 19 after a period of depression.
Drew Barrymore was notorious for her illegal and public antics beginning shortly after her first role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Barrymore admits to smoking cigarettes at age nine, drinking alcohol by the time she was eleven, smoking marijuana at the age of twelve, and snorting cocaine at the age of thirteen. At the age of fourteen, she attempted suicide.
Another popular example today of child actors with post-success troubles would be Lindsay Lohan. Famous for her starring roles in The Parent Trap (1998), Freaky Friday (2003), Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), Mean Girls (2004), Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), Just My Luck (2006) and Georgia Rule (2007), Lohan has since run into much trouble with the law. In May 2007, Lohan was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI.) Lohan entered the Promises Treatment Center rehabilitation facility where she stayed for 45 days. In July of that year, less than two weeks out of rehab, Lohan was arrested a second time on charges of possession of cocaine, driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. In August, Lohan pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine use and driving under the influence and was sentenced to an alcohol education program, community service, one day in jail, and was given three years probation. The same month Lohan entered the Cirque Lodge Treatment Center in Sundance, Utah for a third stint at rehabilitation, staying for three months until her discharge in October. In November Lohan served 84 minutes in jail. A sheriff spokesman cited overcrowding and the nonviolent nature of the crime as reasons for the reduced sentence.
In 1990, actor and writer Paul Petersen founded a support group for child actors, "A Minor Consideration", following the suicide of another former child star, Rusty Hamer. The group seeks to improve working conditions for child actors and to assist in the transition to adult life, whether in acting or other professions.
There are many instances of troubled adult lives due to the stressful environment to which child actors are subjected. It is common to see a child actor grow up in front of the camera, whether in films, television shows or both. However, it is not uncommon to see child actors continue their careers throughout as actors or in a different professional field.
Jodie Foster, who started to act at the age of 3, became the most quintessential child actor during the 1970s with roles in films like Tom Sawyer (1973) Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Bugsy Malone (1976), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), and Freaky Friday (1977). She garnered her first Academy Award nomination at the age of 14 and later took a sabbatical from films to attend Yale University. She made a successful transition to adult roles, winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress before the age of 30, and starring in numerous successful and acclaimed films like; The Accused (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Nell (1994), Maverick (1994), Contact (1997), and The Brave One (2007). Thus, establishing herself as one of the most accomplished actresses of all-time. She has also ventured into direction, with her directing credits including films like Little Man Tate (1991) and Money Monster (2016) and television shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror.
Now adults, the cast of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint) were all featured in each of the eight installments of the movie franchise, and continue to act in feature films and theater in their late twenties and early thirties.
Dakota Fanning, who rose to prominence after her breakthrough performance at age seven in the 2001 film I Am Sam. Her performance earned her a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award at age eight in 2002, making her the youngest nominee in history. She later appeared in the mega productions of Hollywood in such acclaimed blockbuster films as Man on Fire, War of the Worlds, Charlotte's Web, Hounddog, The Secret Life of Bees, Coraline, The Runaways, The Motel Life, and the franchise The Twilight Saga. Fanning's younger sister, Elle Fanning is also a child and teen actress who has starred in many film roles since before she turned 3.
Miranda Cosgrove, known mainly for her role on Drake & Josh as a child gained more attention in her role as a teenager in the show iCarly. Since the end of the show she has been featured in other roles, including as the voice of Margo in Despicable Me and its sequel, Despicable Me 2. Once she was of age she decided to pursue a college degree in film at the University of Southern California.
Shirley Temple became a public figure and diplomat beginning in the 1960s. Some of her duties included representing the United Nations, and becoming a US ambassador in countries such as Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
Mary-Kate Olsen was treated for an eating disorder, deemed anorexia, but her twin sister remained less troubled. In an article with the magazine Marie Claire, Mary-Kate expressed the bittersweet nature of the twins' childhood. "I look at old photos of me, and I don't feel connected to them at all," she said. "I would never wish my upbringing on anyone... but I wouldn't take it back for the world." The twins now have continued success in the fashion industry with an estimated net worth of approximately $100 million.
Drew Barrymore started acting at three years of age. During her childhood she battled with drugs, but today she continues to act in films. Natalie Portman took a small break in acting to get a bachelor's degree in Psychology from Harvard University before continuing her career as an actress. Rider Strong, known as “Shawn Hunter” in Boy Meets World, was educated at Columbia University and now runs a successful blog and published a graphic novel. Neil Patrick Harris got his acting start in Doogie Howser, M.D. He continues to act in television, films and theater.
Jonathan Lipnicki, known mostly for the Stuart Little films, now successfully competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Sara Gilbert is known for her role on Roseanne and is now successful as a talk show host on The Talk. Also from Rosanne, Michael Fishman continued to work in film, but behind the scenes and has since been nominated for an Emmy in the work he did in Sports Science.  Kirsten Dunst and Lacey Chabert both made the transition from a child actress to an adult actress with a rough patch including depression. After a stay in a rehabilitation center, Dunst was able to recover and continue her career. She proves that the pressures of growing up under the spotlight may not come without repercussions.
Roddy McDowall, who had a long and distinguished career including as the regular star of the Planet of the Apes series; Micky Dolenz, who started his career as a child star in the 1950s, grew up to be a musician of the successful 1960s pop group The Monkees, which had its own successful television show; Ron Howard, who, in addition to being the star of both of the long running The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days television series, became an Oscar-winning director in adulthood; Elijah Wood, who continued his career successfully into adulthood playing Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings film series and starring as Ryan Newman in the T.V. series Wilfred. Other child actors who have continued their careers into adulthood include Rose Marie, Hayley Mills, Ann Jillian, Johnny Whitaker, Kathy Garver, Tim Matheson, Bonnie Franklin, Melissa Gilbert, Danielle Brisebois, Erika Eleniak, Max Pomeranc, Christina Ricci, Shelley Fabares, Candace Cameron Bure, Karron Graves, Gaby Hoffmann, Hilary Duff, Molly Ringwald, Stacy Ferguson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lisa Whelchel, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Soleil Moon Frye, Melissa Joan Hart, Dean Stockwell, Fred Savage, Neil Patrick Harris, Michelle Chia, Shawn Lee, Joshua Ang, Aloysius Pang, and other Academy Award winners and nominees include; Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Helen Hunt, Irene Cara, Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank, Christian Bale, Saoirse Ronan, Brie Larson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Many actors' careers are short-lived and this is also true of child actors. Peter Ostrum, for example, is now a successful large-animal veterinarian after a starring role in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Shirley Temple became a public figure and diplomat. Jenny Lewis, formerly of Troop Beverly Hills, is a well-known indie rock musician.
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- Miranda Cosgrove
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