It came as a shock when it was reported last week that actress Erin Moran died in Indiana, her body unceremoniously removed from a rural trailer park. In the 1970’s, she was one of the most recognizable faces on television. At twelve she played Ron Howard’s little sister Joanie Cunningham on the sitcom Happy Days, the cute girl who “The Fonz” used to call “Shortcake”. The show had a ten-year run after which she starred in a spin-off, Joanie Loves Chachi, which was cancelled quickly. After that, Erin’s life spiraled downhill, and she became another in the long line of show business children whose lives ended tragically.
While not every show business child turns out badly - Shirley Temple, Ron Howard, and Kurt Russell come to mind – there are famous show business children dating from the silent movies of the 1920’s until the present who have stories similar to Erin Moran’s.
When he died at 42, Gary Coleman of Diff’rent Strokes joined the long line of child stars who were victims of drugs, alcohol or dysfunctional relationships after their stardom faded. When Diff’rent Strokes was a hit, Coleman’s salary reached $3 million annually but by 1989 he was embroiled in lawsuits against his parents and former manager. A decade later, he filed for bankruptcy protection and found work as a security guard. His adult life was marred by arrests for disorderly conduct, assault and domestic violence.
By the time he reached adulthood, Coleman was convinced he had been used and discarded by show business. He once said of his years in Hollywood, “I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy. And I don’t even have a worst enemy.” He longed for the simple life he left in Zion, Illinois - another shattered life of a Hollywood child star.
Coleman’s child costars on Different Strokes had their own terrible problems as adults. Todd Bridges was tried and acquitted of charges of attempted murder and Dana Plato died of a drug overdose. They are sad reminders of what happens when, whether pushed too hard by parents or because they themselves became addicted to fame, show business children grow up too quickly.
In his book, “The Last Magic Summer: A Season With My Son”, writer and former NFL star Pete Gent described raising his son as a single parent. Gent cautioned parents about not letting their children grow up too soon. Childhood, as we all discover, passes soon enough as it is. Yet today American society, irrespective of ethnic group or economic status, seems bent on violating Gent’s warning at every turn. Whether in the media, schools, or entertainment outlets, it is virtually demanded of children that they quickly become little adults, with all the attendant risks.
One of the most tragic stories was Brad Renfro. In 1992, Joel Schumacher directed the film adaptation of the John Grisham thriller, The Client. He wanted a certain type of child actor to play the boy trapped between the Mafia and the police, a child who “understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon.” While in Tennessee, Schumacher was directed by the Knoxville Police to a 10 year-old boy with a tough real-life reputation who turned out to be perfect for the role - Brad Renfro. Renfro gave a stellar performance, became a Hollywood star, and was later named one of People Magazine’s “Top 30 Under 30.” By 25, he was dead of a drug overdose.
And Hollywood, despite its occasional denials, plays a significant role in this pernicious societal trend. Former child star Paul Peterson (Jeff Stone on the Donna Reed Show for those of you who care to Google him) has made a career of working with former child stars. A child’s rights activist, he is uncompromising in his criticism of what can happen in Hollywood. Commenting on the travails of Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton he observed, “The transparent message is that no one in Hollywood is serious about anything anymore. Consequences of bad behavior, even criminal conduct, have disappeared from public life. What a message to broadcast to our children. What an insult to those millions of young people working hard to excel in the performing arts while resisting the temptation to cheapen themselves and their chosen career.”
Petersen and others tried unsuccessfully to help Erin Moran. After her death, he wrote on Facebook, “Erin Moran lived and she mattered. Her talent and beauty were on display. Fame won young can be a cruel mistress, often outlasting the person within the purpose. Dearest Erin, you will be remembered by all those with the humility to understand what it means to say, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
Erin Moran lived a reverse Hollywood dream. The cliché is the ambitious child who comes to Hollywood from the hinterlands to become a star. Erin was born in Burbank, close to Hollywood, and became a star - only to flee to Southern Indiana. She wasn’t the first unfortunate child star to succumb to the pressures of fame and she will undoubtedly not be the last.
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