Child Actors

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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

Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Allan Dwan, 1938).

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.

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