A golf-clap is in order for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The road to stardom is littered with has-beens, and by has-beens, we mean kid-stars—tykes who got the money, fame, and power before they even had a chance to use it to make bad decisions. Staying above the D-list for an actor as they get older and lose their bankable cuteness isn’t an exact science. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be, whether it’s drugs (River Phoenix), over-saturation (Macaulay Culkin), or just plain bad luck (Jonathan Brandis). With 500 Days of Summer destined to be a subversive rom-com classic, and Inception still dominating the box office, Levitt has officially circumvented the acting Gods and earned himself a place at the A-list, grown-up roundtable.
But he’s not alone. Going from kid-star to just star is far from impossible. It’s been done before. Before we continue, though, let’s verify something: getting your own reality show, losing a lot of weight, or clinging to the spotlight based on your own ironic craziness doesn’t count. That means Danny Bonaduce, Corey Feldman, Melissa Joan Hart, and Valerie Bertinelli are still lame. Here are ten former child-stars who, in one way or another, refused to let the man get them/keep them down.
10. Shia Labeouf
Then: Louis from Even Stevens
Now: Transformers I-III, Indiana Jones (probably not something to be proud of, but still)
Still something of a fresh-faced boy-wonder, but at age 24, it’s safe to say Labeouf is over the hump. Labeouf was somewhat fortunate in that he was popular in his formative years, but not popular to the point where he had to extend himself and risk over-saturation. He really didn’t break into the mainstream until after he had hair on his balls.
Then: Everybody’s favorite daughter on Who’s The Boss?
Now: The hottest baseball fan you know
Milano was catapulted into fame during the mid-80s as the preteen counterpart to Tony Danza. She was (and still is) also pretty enough to be some dude’s illegal fantasy. That’s two elements right there that had all the trappings of a Lohanesque debacle. But alas, she abstained, and worked her way toward professional respectability with roles on Melrose Place and Charmed.
Dunst, like our next entry, benefitted nicely from getting nominated for an Academy Award for Interview With A Vampire. But Academy Awards don’t always grant child-stars exemption status from eventual loserdom (just ask Tatum O’Neal). Dunst navigated the perilous waters in a wise and time-tested manner—balancing the bubble gum (Bring It On) with the artsy independent (The Virgin Suicides).
7. Anna Paquin
Then: Second-youngest Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress for The Piano
Now: Sookie Stackhouse, supernatural telepath on True Blood
If anybody should pen an instruction manual on how to grow up on-screen, it’s Paquin. She decided to take the low-key approach by agreeing to supporting roles in critically lauded projects like Almost Famous, X-Men, and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee to build up some momentum before finally being rewarded with HBO’s True Blood.
6. IIan Mitchell-Smith
Then: Wyatt from Weird Science
Now: College lecturer
This is a curious case, indeed. Remember Wyatt, from Weird Science? The guy who wasn’t Anthony Michael Hall? That’s IIan Mitchell-Smith, who played a nerd…and grew up to be a professional nerd. After dawdling a few more years in Hollywood after Weird Science, Smith decided to give up acting and get a degree in medieval literature. He’s now an assistant professor who teaches English at Cal State Long Beach. Eat it, Brat Pack.
5. Ron Howard
Then: Opie from The Andy Griffith Show
The art of being a child star stretches far, far back into history. Like, when TV was black and white. Howard introduced himself to JFK-era America as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, and kept his rosy-cheeked act going all the way into colorized Happy Days. Something of a trendsetter, Howard was one of the first actors to try his hand at directing, and kick ass at it. Without him, we wouldn’t have a cache of awesome movies. Then again, also wouldn’t have everybody from Danny Devito (Duplex) to Nicholas Cage (Sonny) thinking they could do the same thing.
Then: Doogie Howser
Now: Barney Stinson
A true revolutionary—former child star who bounced around doing some theater, some low-budget made-for-TV movies, and an awesome cameo on Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle until he became the straw that stirs the How I Met Your Mother drink as Barney Stinson, and he did it all while being totally gay. Oh, and in case you forgot the definition of sweet, sweet irony, here’s a clip of little NPH giving his friend Vinnie advice on how to deal with having a gay roommate.
3. Kurt Russell
Then: Corn-fed Disney poster boy
Now: Guy who kills things with his car
Anybody under the age of 40 would probably have a hard time imagineing that the same guy who was once Snake Plissken and Stuntman Mike was also one of disney’s biggest stars back in the day. Russell found exactly the right director (John Carpenter) to extrapolate his inner badass and make everybody forget about the mouse ears.
2. Jodie Foster
Now: Two-time oscar-winner; Hannibal Lecter’s unholy obsession in The Silence of the Lambs
Foster inadvertently took the aura of child stardom to disturbing new heights when John Hinckley, Jr., figuring that flowers, cards, and stalking just weren’t doing the trick, tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress her after seeing her in Taxi Driver. That’s heavy stuff. Shirley Temple never had to worrry about Roosevelt catching one in the chest because some lonely dude thought she absolutely killed it in Curly Top.
Then: Little sister from E.T.
World famous at age 5. Rehab at age 13. Lordy, it wasn’t easy for Barrymore to get there, but she somehow did. Would she be in a diner somewhere in West Texas serving coffee & pie if camera phones and this little thing called the internet had existed back in the 80’s? Fortunately for her, the world will never know.
That’s it. That’s the list…until somebody proves me wrong and reveals I’m an idiot. In which case, we have a nice comment section to vent your frustration on anything missed. Happy hunting.