When Early Acting Careers Careen to an End : Advocacy: Paul Petersen of ‘The Donna Reed Show’ has established a support group for former young actors who have faced real-life horror stories.
Last winter, Paul Petersen was awakened by a frantic call. “It was this kid calling from the Roxy,” recalls Petersen, 48, an author and onetime child actor who played Jeff on “The Donna Reed Show” from 1958 through 1966. “He said he saw River Phoenix in one of the nightclub’s bathroom stalls shooting heroin.”
Petersen, who for four years has been organizing support groups for former child stars and the pressure they face in an often indifferent Hollywood, sprang into action.
A few days later, he and a group of other former child actors knocked on the front door of Phoenix’s Los Angeles home and confronted him with the story.
“I told him we’d all been there,” he says. “But he just told us there was no problem.” Phoenix closed the door, cutting off the attempted intervention.
In late October, when Petersen heard of the 23-year-old Phoenix’s heroin and cocaine overdose, he was neither surprised nor especially upset. “At least we’d tried to intervene; we gave him an option,” says Petersen. “I could sleep after hearing about River, but I couldn’t after I heard about Rusty.”
“Rusty” was Rusty Hamer, who played Danny Thomas’ son on “The Danny Thomas Show.” In January, 1990, Hamer, then 42, shot himself to death, ending a life of poverty and depression near New Orleans.
Hamer’s life had been sadly similar to those of many child stars, never living up to those moments of fame bestowed at a young age. Once he grew up, Hollywood was no longer interested. He had no skills, no money and no education. His life spiraled downward through drugs, alcohol and depression.
“What bothers me about Rusty was that I could have helped,” says Petersen, who can still cause pedestrians on his Gardena street to stop and squint their eyes in recognition.
“I didn’t get involved even though the book I was working on at the time--to be called ‘A Minor Consideration'--was about the problems of child actors. The morning I heard, I said to my wife, ‘Rana, it’s time to do something.’ ”
Petersen never finished the book, but he took its title for his nonprofit support and advocacy group. “A Minor Consideration is a support and intervention group for anybody who’s ever been a child actor,” he says. “You don’t have to sign up; if you were a child actor, you’re already a member. And we’re also an advocacy group. There are a lot of laws and practices we’d like to see changed.
“They say children in this industry are protected. Bull----. Hollywood would save Bosnia before the life of a single child actor.”
Contrary to his easygoing small-screen persona, Petersen, he is the first to admit, is not a reasonable advocate of change. He is, he says, “an in-your-face militant” on the subject of children in Hollywood.
His anger is always close to the surface, a result, he says, of seeing no positive changes in a system that treated him and his contemporaries, as well as child actors today, “as nothing more than chattel.”
Growing up in Iowa and Southern California, Petersen was, briefly, one of the original 16 Mousketeers. A number of commercials and a star turn in “Houseboat” with Cary Grant landed him, in 1958, the role of Jeff on “The Donna Reed Show,” a character he would portray for the next eight years.
Petersen’s own crises didn’t happen while he was actually a child star. “Whatever dark period I had came after the show,” he says, though he admits that running around Hollywood with pals Ricky Nelson, Tony Dow (“Leave It to Beaver”), Don Grady (“My Three Sons”) and Johnny Crawford (“The Rifleman”) in fast cars while imbibing large amounts of alcohol was not exactly a normal childhood.
“In 1966, I worked 16 weeks; in 1968, four weeks; and in 1969, I didn’t work at all. By then, I was a complete basket case.”
It was advice from another former child actor that sobered him up. “I was living in Encino in a house I could no longer afford when, one day, Mickey Rooney showed up. He told me that Hollywood wouldn’t hire me again for another 25 years. He told me to go find another life.”
Petersen moved to Connecticut, attended Yale and began a new life as a writer. He has 16 books to his credit, including “Walt, Mickey and Me,” an account of the lives of the original Mousketeers after they turned in their ears, most of which, he says, “were pretty desperate.”
“I had no plan when I started,” he says. “At that time, Danny Bonaduce (“The Partridge Family”) was in jail in Florida on drug charges, Todd Bridges (“Diff’rent Strokes”) was going to court on attempted murder, Gary Coleman (“Diff’rent Strokes”) was about to sue his parents and Jay North (“Dennis the Menace”) was tormented by personal problems.”
The roar of the crowd watching Miami’s two-minute drill against Pittsburgh on “Monday Night Football” is timid compared to the child-actor bull session in Petersen’s small living room.
The subject is financial abuse; horror stories are familiar to all present: Petersen, Lee Aaker (“Rin Tin Tin”), Julia Benjamin (“Hazel”), Beverly Washburn (“Old Yeller”), Bobby Diamond (“Fury”) and Randy Boone (“The Virginian”).
“Shirley Temple Black supported a household of 12, including her mother and father, throughout her career,” recites Petersen. “When she reached the end of her career, do you know what she had? A few thousand dollars and the deed to her dollhouse in the back yard of her parents’ home in Beverly Hills.”
Lee Aaker had $20,000 when he left show business. He said he asked his mother recently what happened to the other hundreds of thousands of dollars. She said she didn’t know.
Beverly Washburn had $250 when she became an adult. “When my mother sold the house she’d bought with my earnings, she gave me $50 to go buy a new pantsuit,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “I know she loved me. I guess she just didn’t know any better.”
California’s Coogan Law was enacted in the 1930s, after child actor Jackie Coogan successfully sued his parents over the mishandling of his earnings. Since then, the law requires that a percentage of the child’s earnings be placed in blocked accounts. That in theory is fine, Petersen says, but more often than not, unscrupulous parents and business managers get the courts to set the terms aside, which can be done if the courts believe a better financial situation is being created for the child.
A case in point is Gary Coleman. His parents and business managers had Coogan Law provisions set aside so they could create a pension fund from Coleman’s earnings. They omitted telling the judge, however, that they were also employees of Coleman’s production company. Later, they dissolved the pension fund. The parents’ pension was $770,000; Coleman’s was $220,000. Last year, Coleman, 25, successfully sued his parents and managers for $3.8 million.
“When I first met him, he was living in a condo in Fox Hills with a single chair and a mattress,” says Petersen. “This is a kid whose career is over, who has no kidneys and is on dialysis 18 hours a week. He made $24 million during his career. Why wasn’t there anyone protecting his interests?”
As devastating as it is to learn you have nothing at the end of your childhood career, everyone in Petersen’s living room agrees that even worse is finding that you are no longer wanted.
Stan Ziegler, a Beverly Hills psychologist who specializes in child actors, says many of his clients have their development arrested when their TV series or movie careers end.
“These kids are treated like royalty,” he says. “Instead of a natural childhood of acne and budding breasts, they are pampered, protected and catered to. Suddenly, that world ends and they are forced to make this adjustment to the real world. Most can’t.”
Ziegler says the most notable current case in point is Michael Jackson. “People spend a lot of time trying to find reasons for his behavior. I think there is no question but that most of his problems stem from being a child star.”
While Petersen would like to see legislation passed providing more protection to child actors, he believes the lion’s share of responsibility should fall to the Screen Actors Guild. “With (a budget of several million dollars), you’d think the guild could provide independent business managers to these kids. You’d think after nine years on ‘Diff’rent Strokes,’ Dana Plato, or Lisa Loring (“Addams Family”) would qualify for drug and alcohol rehab. But they don’t earn enough in residuals to qualify for the medical plan, so they’re out on the street.” Both actresses have had very public problems with drug abuse.
SAG president Barry Gordon, a former child actor himself (among other films, he appeared in “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Cinderfella”), declined to comment.
Petersen also believes it is the responsibility of the guild and producers alike to make sure there is a stable and safe environment for kids to work in. On “Father Knows Best,” he points out, America’s ideal family was headed by an active alcoholic (Robert Young, who has spoken at length about his problem), and the child actors--Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin--all suffered from a variety of personal problems.
Chapin detailed hers (including heroin addiction and a stint as a call girl) in her 1988 autobiography, “Father Does Know Best.”
“Things haven’t changed that much; there are still shows like that on today,” says Petersen. “We call ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ (which is now on the air only in reruns) the series from hell: Dana Plato, arrested for shoplifting, drug abuse; Todd Bridges, arrested for murder; Gary Coleman, suing his parents to get his money. And this town considers it all business as usual.”
Despite the militancy the group voices in demanding change, A Minor Consideration is, at its core, a safe haven for those who have undergone the trauma of childhood fame. Julie Benjamin, who has played lots of small parts, mostly in commercials, does not fall into any of the group’s usual categories. She has never abused drugs or alcohol and has worked steadily since her debut in a commercial at age 5.
Last year, however, while tending a family barbecue in Florida, Benjamin was attacked by a 100-pound Akita and severely mauled. Dozens of stitches, months of recuperation and a divorce later, she is still trying to put her life back together. And she finds the support of people who have been through the grueling spotlight of child stardom somehow can help her.
“These are my brothers and sisters,” she says, gazing around the room. “Sometimes I talk and sometimes I cry, but they always give their shoulders.”