Child Actors

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Child Actors


Child performers have had important roles in cinema history, from the baby daughter of Auguste Lumière being fed by her pioneering father in an 1895 actuality film to eleven-year-old Haley Joel Osment earning an Oscar® nomination for his dynamic acting in The Sixth Sense (1999). Sometimes children are showcased in films that are directed toward child audiences, but their most notable appearances tend to be in films for adults—films that reflect on childhood from an older and wiser view or that explore the relationships between children and adults. Curiously, however, very few child actors are able to maintain their success and visibility as they grow into adulthood, quite possibly because audiences have difficulty accepting child stars' physical and mental changes when they grow into adults themselves. This has resulted in many child actors gaining fame at a young age, only to fade into obscurity as they mature.


Throughout early film history, children were central to some movies, such as the title characters in Jack and the Beanstalk (Edwin S. Porter, 1902) and The Adventures of Dollie (D.W. Griffith, 1908), and in such parables as The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912). Yet as the Hollywood star system developed in the 1910s, many children's roles were filled by established adult actors like Mary Pickford (1892–1979), who played the title role of a ten-year-old in The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) at the age of twenty-four. In 1919, Lillian Gish (1893–1993) played the role of a childlike waif in Broken Blossoms (1919) at twenty-three, and her adult co-star in that film, Richard Barthelmess (1895–1963), played the role of a boy in Tol'able David (1921) at twenty-six. This convention, which may have been due to Hollywood's grueling work schedule in those days and would have been prohibitive for real children, made the emergence of authentic child stars seem unlikely.

Yet in 1921, an adult performer, Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), introduced the first actor to become famous in films as a child—Jackie Coogan (1914–1984). Chaplin cast Coogan as a seven-year-old in The Kid (1921), a tender story in which Chaplin's popular tramp character adopts an orphaned boy. Coogan's performance was remarkably emotional and assured, quickly earning him further roles in films like Oliver Twist (1922), Daddy (1923), and A Boy of Flanders (1924). His success soon made him the youngest person in history to earn a million dollars, most of which his parents squandered over the course of his youth. Such exploitation of child actors led to the California legislature passing the Coogan Act in 1939, which was intended to protect acting children's assets.

Following Coogan's lead, many child stars emerged in the 1920s, and like Coogan, few of them retained their stardom beyond the decade. One of the youngest and most popular was an actress billed as Baby Peggy (b. 1918), who started making short comedies at only twenty months old. Peggy thrived in features like Captain January (1923) and The Darling of New York (1924), but she gave up film acting, and her screen name, in 1926. When she returned for a few movie roles as a teenager in the 1930s, she went by her real name, Peggy Montgomery, and retired from the business altogether in 1938.

Less remembered child stars of the time included Ben Alexander (1911–1969), a popular juvenile performer of the 1910s and 1920s, who hit the high point of his career with a prominent role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), when he was nineteen; his career went into sharp decline thereafter. Anne Shirley (1918–1993) also had an initially prolific career, having started acting in 1922 at the age of five, and later making such classics as Anne of Green Gables (1934) and Stella Dallas (1937), for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®. Yet she too left show biz not long thereafter, retiring at the age of twenty-six.

Perhaps the most surprising decline befell Jackie Cooper (b. 1922), who got his start in the late 1920s as a member of the enduring Our Gang series and achieved widespread fame by the age of nine in Skippy (1931), for which he was the first child ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar®. His next film, The Champ (1931), showed his tear-jerking skills to even greater effect, but by the time he made The Devil Is a Sissy (1936) as an adolescent, his notability was waning. Even though he began an auspicious series of films about teenager Henry Aldrich with What a Life (1939) and Life with Henry (1941), the series continued without him in 1942, when Cooper left to fight in World War II. When he returned, he was greeted with indifference, never regaining the fame he had as a child.

The most popular child star of the 1930s, and perhaps the most popular ever, was Shirley Temple (b. 1928). Temple's success obviously motivated Hollywood to promote child stars even more. Unlike Temple, some managed to hang onto their fame, or at least their careers, as adults. For example, Frankie Darro (1917–1976) started in child roles in the 1920s and gained greater visibility as an adolescent performer in such films as Wild Boys of the Road (1933). While he never became a major star, he did make many films as an adult, his small frame and boyish looks allowing him to continue playing teenage roles in films like Junior Prom (1946), when he was almost thirty. In fact, teenage movie characters slowly became more common than their younger counterparts during the 1930s, with performers like Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), Judy Garland (1922–1969), and Mickey Rooney (b. 1920) making a significant impact.

While not as popular as Temple, Jane Withers (b. 1926) was another eminent child star in the pre-World War II era, and actually had her breakthrough role starring opposite Temple in Bright Eyes (1934). Withers showcased a wit and range that made her stand out from her peers, yet she too had difficulty moving beyond youthful roles and was rarely seen in movies after her teens. And as if the lessons of Baby Peggy had not been learned, the studios introduced two more characters with similar nicknames in the 1930s: Baby LeRoy (1932–2001) and Baby Sandy (b. 1938). LeRoy really was a baby, starring with W. C. Fields in many films starting at the age of one, and retiring from the screen at the uniquely young age of three. Sandy was highlighted in films as an infant just before World War II, but took the cue from her predecessor and retired in 1942, at four.


The war changed many cultural attitudes, both in the United States and abroad, and afterward children were viewed as less carefree and more conflicted. Perhaps the actor best exemplifying this change was Roddy McDowall (1928–1998), who started making films in Britain at the age of eight and became a star with his first Hollywood film, How Green Was My Valley (1941), when he was thirteen. McDowall's performance as a boy in a Welsh mining town was imbued with tender torment, and he brought that same sensitivity to his subsequent films, such as My Friend Flicka (1943). Another impressive actor of the war years was Margaret O'Brien (b. 1937), who began acting when she was four and found stardom the next year as the title character of Journey for Margaret (1942), a film about an English girl orphaned during the war. O'Brien appeared in eight films over the next two years, including Lost Angel (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), earning her a special Academy Award® as the "outstanding child actress of 1944." Her output nonetheless slowed thereafter, although she won praise in the prominent role of Beth in Little Women (1949). Unlike McDowall, whose further acting work was prodigious, O'Brien had few notable roles after the early 1950s.

The child actor who can best make the claim for avoiding the curse of obscurity is Elizabeth Taylor (b. 1932), whose fame only increased as she aged beyond adolescence. Taylor started in movies in 1942 at the age of ten, with a striking beauty and endearing pathos that made her a sensation in Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944). She moved into teenage roles with ease, and unlike most other child stars, Taylor moved into adult roles while still in her teens, getting married at eighteen in Father of the Bride (1950) and having a child the next year in the sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951). Her success grew even greater over the next two decades, making her one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.

Another success story is that of Natalie Wood (1938–1981), whose performance as a skeptical child doubting the existence of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was further evidence of the hardening attitudes behind children's roles after the war. She continued in many minor films through the rest of her childhood and found her foremost roles later playing teenagers. Still, for every Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood, there were numerous fading child stars like Bobby Driscoll (1937–1968), notable in Song of the South (1946) and Treasure Island (1950) but out of work by his early twenties, then dead at thirty-one, and Claude Jarman, Jr. (b. 1934), who won a special Academy Award® at the age of twelve for his very first film, The Yearling (1946), made a few movies as a teen, and finished acting for the big screen at twenty-two.


Children's roles in American movies over the following decades became less prominent as cultural attention shifted to teenagers, and Hollywood followed accordingly. Only a handful of significant child performers emerged in these years, and most enjoyed only one significant role as a child. Patty McCormack (b. 1945) was one such case: she was astonishing as the evil little girl in The Bad Seed (1956), then drifted into hipster teen roles in the 1960s.

Similar cases in this period included Brandon de Wilde (1942–1972), who won acclaim as an eleven-year-old in Shane (1953), one of the rare westerns with a meaningful child's role, then struggled to regain his stature as a teenager, with only one further hit, Hud (1963). At the age of sixteen, Patty Duke (b. 1946) played Helen Keller as a child in The Miracle Worker (1962), earning her the first Oscar® won in competition by a minor. Despite the successful television show she starred in afterward, her subsequent career was inconsistent and troubled. Linda Blair (b. 1959) startled audiences at the age of twelve in The Exorcist (1973), in a performance that was unimaginably demanding and disturbing and for which she was nominated for an Academy Award®. Thereafter, her roles and her movies were of little interest. Surprisingly, Tatum O'Neal (b. 1963) beat out Blair for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar® in 1973 at only the age of ten, having starred with her father in Paper Moon (1973), thereby becoming the youngest person ever to win an Oscar® in competition. Despite this enormous vote of confidence for her, O'Neal did not do another film until she was a teenager, when she had some success in The Bad News Bears (1976) and Little Darlings (1980). Her roles since then have been few and far between.

b. Santa Monica, California, 23 April 1928

Shirley Temple was an inspiring presence in American cinema of the 1930s. She first appeared on screen in 1932 as a three-year-old toddler in the risqué "Baby Burlesks" short subjects and continued acting in over fifty films thereafter. Her ability to warm audiences with her charismatic and ambitious spirit during the Depression set a standard for child performers that has never been equaled.

At first she appeared in many features and shorts with minor or uncredited roles. She then found sudden fame in 1934, when she was just six. Her first significant appearance that year was in Stand Up and Cheer!, which was followed by features where she took a central role: Little Miss Marker, Baby Take a Bow, Now and Forever, and Bright Eyes. By the end of the year, Temple had demonstrated acting, singing, and dancing skills that were remarkable for a youngster. She not only worked well with some of the biggest adult stars of the era, but could carry a picture on her own.

The film industry quickly capitalized on Temple's talent. Twentieth Century Fox signed her to a long-term contract, and she was given a special Academy Award® in 1935 for "her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934," becoming the youngest person ever to win an Oscar®. In many ways the award was premature, because Temple went on to become the number-one box-office draw in 1935 and remained at the top through 1938. In her film roles she exhibited not only an impressive vitality but also an insight into people and society that was unprecedented for children in film. Her four screen pairings with the African American actor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson crossed implicit racial boundaries of the era. Her major films during this time included The Little Colonel, Curly Top, The Littlest Rebel (all 1935), Poor Little Rich Girl, Captain January (both 1936), Heidi (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), and The Little Princess (1939).

The level of fame that Temple attained as a child would nonetheless ebb as she entered her adolescence. She finished her last film under her Fox contract at the age of twelve (Young People, 1940) and made her teenage debut in Miss Annie Rooney in 1942, which showed that Temple could acceptably play roles beyond her childish charms. Still, her star faded, and she became a supporting player in movies like I'll Be Seeing You (1944), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and Fort Apache (1948). She regained brief prominence as teen heroine Corliss Archer, but in 1949 A Kiss for Corliss was her final film.

Temple was then twenty-one, divorced from her first husband, and clearly unable to maintain the stardom she had once enjoyed. As a new generation of child performers attempted to follow her lead, Temple left the film business and later became a diplomat, working for the US State Department and becoming a United Nations ambassador. She once again gained great public support as a breast cancer survivor in the 1970s and in 1988 achieved publishing success with her autobiography.


Little Miss Marker (1934), Bright Eyes (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Dimples (1936), Heidi (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), The Little Princess (1939)


Basinger, Jeanine. Shirley Temple. New York: Pyramid Publications, 1975.

David, Lester, and Irene David. The Shirley Temple Story. New York: Putnam, 1983.

Hammontree, Patsy Guy. Shirley Temple Black: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Temple, Shirley. Child Star: An Autobiography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Temple, Shirley, and the editors of Look. My Young Life. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1945.

Timothy Shary

At least two child stars of this era did maintain their pre-adult notoriety over multiple films. One was British starlet Hayley Mills (b. 1946), who began acting in movies at thirteen, often playing characters younger than herself and winning raves in her first three films: Tiger Bay (1959), made in her homeland, and Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961), her first US features. She continued with child and teen roles that were generally less memorable, although she acts occasionally in film and television roles to this day. Even more fortunate in the long run was Ron Howard (b. 1954), a five-yearold at the time of his film debut, The Journey (1959), and a star as a result of playing Opie on television's The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. Despite his duties for television, he continued in films like The Music Man (1962) and The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), then found even greater fame as a teenager in American Graffiti (1973) and on the television series Happy Days. His career was further advanced as a film director, and he has primarily focused on directing since the 1980s.

Yet the most major child star of the 1970s, and one whose prominence only grew with time, was Jodie Foster (b. 1962). After numerous appearances in film and television starting at the age of seven, her breakthrough came in the 1974 hit Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore when she was eleven. She continued in roles that showcased her acting skills, as was most evident in the films she made in 1976 alone. First she was a disarming child prostitute in Taxi Driver, earning her first Academy Award® nomination; next she played a gangster's moll in a film with an all-juvenile cast, Bugsy Malone; then she returned to a more typical child's role in Disney's Freaky Friday. Foster dropped out of films for the next few years and resisted acting in movies as a high schooler, save her ensemble role in Foxes (1980). After a few more films, she won her first of two Oscars® for The Accused (1988), and later turned to producing and directing in her own right.

The 1980s offered a minimal assortment of roles for child actors, because teen films once again took on a prominence that had not been seen since the 1950s. Most young actors in the 1980s actually debuted in features as teens, such as Brooke Shields, Tom Cruise, Kristy McNichol, Molly Ringwald, and Winona Ryder. The few prominent child actors tended to have only one or two films to call their own, such as nine-year-old Ricky Schroder in The Champ (1979), who then moved on to television roles as an adolescent, and eleven-yearold Henry Thomas, who was unforgettable in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and then could not find another strong role for over a decade. One of Thomas's co-stars in E.T., Drew Barrymore, had some success in her subsequent children's roles in Firestarter (1984) and Cat's Eye (1985), but her greater fame came with her later adult roles.


Meanwhile, child actors in a number of international films after the war were becoming well known, even if they did not enjoy the ongoing publicity that the Hollywood studio system provided. Italian neorealist films, for instance, utilized nonprofessional child performers in films such as Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948), and Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), in which Franco Interlenghi (b. 1931) made his debut and began his lengthy film career. Another nonprofessional, Subir Bannerjee, was extraordinary as the child protagonist in Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), made by Indian director Satyajit Ray (1921–1992), although he did not appear in any notable films thereafter. François Truffaut (1932–1984) was so taken with Jean-Pierre Léaud (b. 1944), who played the French director's childhood doppelgänger Antoine Doinel in Les Quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), that he cast him again in four more films as the same character growing up through the years. Andrei Tarkovsky also found a persuasive child actor, Nikolai Burlyayev, to play the lead in his Russian debut feature, Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, 1962), and the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made effective use of Jörgen Lindström in Tystnaden (The Silence, 1963). Yet most of these films gained their recognition because of the influence of the auteur theory in the 1960s, and few child actors gained any lasting attention outside of US films.

This marginalizing began to change for international child actors starting in the 1980s, when many films about juvenile issues reached wide audiences. Pixote (1981) was one such example from Brazil, in which Fernando Ramos Da Silva played the tragic title character. Oscar® nominations propelled the popularity of other films like the Swedish Mitt liv som hund (My Life as a Dog, 1985), featuring Anton Glanzelius; the French Au revoir les Lindstro enfants (1987), starring Gaspard Manesse; the Danish film Pelle erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror, 1987), with Pelle Hvenegaard in the title role; and the Italian film Cinema Paradiso (1989), in which Salvatore Cascio plays the boyhood role of the adult protagonist. With her impressive performance in The Piano (New Zealand, 1993), Canadian Anna Paquin (b. 1982) became the youngest non-American ever to win an Oscar® for a supporting role. Fame came to other international child stars thereafter, such as Sarah Polley in The Sweet Hereafter (Canada, 1997), Juan José Ballesta in El Bola (Spain, 2000), Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot (Great Britain, 2000), and Marina Golbahari in Osama (Afghanistan, 2003). Then in 2004, another New Zealand film made Academy Awards® history when its star, Keisha Castle-Hughes (b. 1990), became the first child ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar®, after she commanded global acclaim for her lead role in Whale Rider (2002).


To be sure, the American film industry's promotion of child stars in recent years has relied upon their abilities to act within adult contexts, rather than in the child-centered vehicles more common before the 1950s. The same hit-or-miss trends continued for child actors through the 1990s and thereafter, as witnessed by the forgettable lead performances of Michael Oliver in Problem Child (1990), Mason Gamble in Dennis the Menace (1993), Cameron Finley in Leave It to Beaver (1997), and the juvenile casts of Newsies (1992) and The Little Rascals (1994). Meanwhile, some kids did have breakout roles, like Christina Ricci in Mermaids (1990), Jason James Richter in Free Willy (1993), Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Nonetheless, most of these films relied upon the presence of major adult stars, which remains the typical scenario in which child actors continue to be featured.

The only child star of the 1990s who commanded attention on his own was Macaulay Culkin (b. 1980), who rose to immediate prominence as the ten-year-old with the one-boy-show Home Alone (1990), and continued to lure audiences with performances in My Girl (1991), The Good Son (1993), Richie Rich (1994), and the inevitable sequel to Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in 1992. Yet like so many before him, he burned out as an actor before his adolescence and only later returned to acting.

In the second century of cinema, child actors continue to rely upon the marquee value of adult stars in order to propel their careers. After Osment's continued visibility in films like Pay It Forward (2000) and Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) with older co-stars, Dakota Fanning emerged as a similar child lead, who enjoyed the luxury of starring with Oscar® -nominated adults in I Am Sam (2001), Man on Fire (2004), and War of the Worlds (2005), all before she turned twelve. Still, the film industry has rarely been able to build child actors into celebrities since the 1950s, and while charismatic and talented children will always be needed to fill important roles in cinema stories, the record shows that they face obstacles in maintaining their importance as well as their celebrity.

SEE ALSO Acting;Casting;Children's Films


Aylesworth, Thomas G. Hollywood Kids: Child Stars of the Silver Screen from 1903 to the Present. New York: Dutton, 1987.

Sinyard, Neil. Children in the Movies. New York: St. Martin's Press, and London: Batsford, 1992.

Suarès, J. C., ed. Hollywood Kids. Charlottesville, VA: Thomasson-Grant, 1994.

Zierold, Norman J. The Child Stars. New York: Coward-McCann, 1965.

Timothy Shary