Child Stars Have Their Say

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When we hear the term "former child star," what often comes to mind are the tales of sad kids caught up in substance abuse, crime or financial troubles. But many child actors do get on with normal lives once they walk away from the camera. After his show ended, Fred Savage of The Wonder Years graduated from Stanford University.

"Being a child actor isn't for everybody, and it's difficult and it's trying, but it doesn't…increase your propensity to commit crimes."

On the other hand, Danny Bonaduce of The Partridge Family had his share of run-ins with the cops and a drug problem. He doesn't blame stardom.

"A lot of people say…'They canceled my show and nobody wanted me anymore and that's when I wasn't cute anymore. That's when the trouble started.' When I went to rehab, I was the only ex-child star but there were nine dentists."

Melissa Gilbert is the co-producer of the A&E special called Child Stars: Their Story.

One of the reasons she made the documentary was that she wanted to present a balanced picture of the child-star experience.

"There's been an overall portrayal of child stars in the media as sort of messed up, drug addicted, criminals and that seems to be the primary focus, and there's definitely more to the story than that. The other thing that they're always portrayed as is survivors or victims," she said. "There's a middle ground and it's a lot more complex and a lot more personal than the experiences are made out to be."

Gilbert says any time a former child star gets into trouble "the media say, 'another child star has fallen' and that seems to be the primary focus. But there is a lot more to it. Granted, it's not the easiest of experiences, but it definitely is not, you know, a horrendous thing to do to a child," says Gilbert.

"I would say 95% of what happens to the child is the responsibility of the parents," she insisted. "Through the course of interviewing all these people, I realized the ones that were the best adjusted were the ones who had the strongest parenting at home."

Of the former stars Gilbert interviewed, she thinks some of the most well adjusted are Fred Savage and Malcolm Jamal Warner (and she included herself).

"These were people…whose parents insisted they know exactly what was going on with their money, and it was not the end-all be-all of the family. It was just something extra that sort of happened."

She also found out there were more problems if parents acted as managers.

"It blurs the role there, because they then have to work with producers and cooperate with producers which sometimes doesn't benefit the child and it's hard to be a parent and be a manager. Now, there are exceptions to that. My mother, actually, managed to walk that line rather well," said Gilbert.

She says the Little House On The Prairie set was child-friendly.

"Michael Landon insiste that everybody be very careful about what they say and do around us children. School was very much emphasized. I think at one point there was actually a deal made between my mother and Michael that if I got anything below a "C" they would write me out of the show until I got my grades up. That took the focus off the work and on the school which is absolutely appropriate."

Yet Gilbert doesn't want her children to get into acting.

"That's one of the strangest things I learned doing the documentary, that most of the people I interviewed said they would absolutely do it again themselves, but they would never allow their children to do it. And I'm one of them…It's just the way I feel.

"I also can't imagine my kids with that kind of responsibility. They can't remember to make their beds."