For silver spoon scions, the claims of fame

Times Staff Writer

YOU can't choose your parents too carefully. This useless bit of advice is usually uttered behind the backs of people who have inherited something widely considered desirable -- wealth, talent, charm, superior intelligence or good looks. The cliche is pregnant with the envy and contempt often reserved for those whose genes and circumstances seem to put them at the head of life's race. And in a ridiculous way, it implies that any upwardly mobile zygote would pick Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw or Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe to be its mom and dad, if it could.

It isn't that Gwyneth Paltrow's parents were better than yours, any more than Kiefer Sutherland's, Charlie Sheen's, Breck Eisner's, Alison Eastwood's or Colin Hanks' were. But they have reached the summit of the entertainment mountain, and could make their kids' ascent easier. Or so the assumption goes. For most people, the most cherished of American fantasies, the one that combines riches and renown, is the impossible dream. Small wonder, then, that when an offspring of well-connected parents achieves stardom -- or anything close -- family ties get credit.

Second-generation Hollywood professionals and their civilian siblings -- especially those from tight-knit, loving clans -- aren't asking anyone to cry them a river, but they know the drawbacks as well as the benefits of their heritage. It can take patience to explain to outsiders how things really are, how not getting recognition for your own hard work, perseverance and creativity can make a pedigree feel like a liability. For someone who's trying to step out of the shadows of famous parents, even mentioning the folks can be self-defeating. And the danger of sounding like an ingrate or a whiner looms. The safe route is to avoid anything that might smack of trading on a well-known surname.

For this story, though, a number of children with a comma permanently attached to their names (, daughter of ...) agreed to explore the attitudes and experiences that qualify them for membership in a special clan. Welcome to the tribe.

*

The fraternity

"WHEN your parent is famous, you're part of a fraternity," says Sean Astin, son of Patty Duke and John Astin. "If you're one of the celebrity drivers in the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach and there's another guy who's famous and who's the kid of someone famous, you have more in common with each other than with all the other drivers. When you begin your conversation, you're already four or five levels past where other people begin their interaction. There's an understanding of what your common experience is. If you grew up in L.A., you probably went to the same school." (Astin attended Crossroads in Santa Monica.)

Even talking to someone 20 years his senior, Astin says, there's an ease. "We know the same families, we've driven the same streets, we have the same reference points on the Westside."

Members of the tribe can commiserate about artistic parents who were perpetually childlike, about narcissism as an occupational disease. They can complain about the spoiled, rude monsters with unwieldy senses of entitlement whose behavior is seen as the norm. Many learned early about how precarious finances can be in a notoriously unpredictable business, and the fleeting nature of fame. For better or worse, naivete isn't a tribal trait. There is respect for talent and achievement, but proximity to celebrities behaving badly has a way of discouraging hero worship.

Tribe members can admit to one another that, to a kid, reflected glory can taste sweet, and being perceived as strange, sour. In fundamental ways, they aren't that different from people in other tribes, but for them, intergenerational competition, a young adult's struggle for identity and the long-running need for approval -- the sort of parent-child problems that fill any therapist's day -- play on a jumbo-sized, high-definition screen.

Tribal identity trumps geography, religion, politics, age or race. English is the tribe's first language, but members can rely on a wordless shorthand, and if they divulge feelings about their backgrounds, they're likely to do so among their own kind. Clusters of friendships among tribe members develop, because, they say, "We feel we have similar lives." Joely Fisher counts Mariska Hargitay and Laura Dern among her good friends. Dern is tight with Isabella Rossellini and Cecilia Peck.

Bryce Dallas Howard, the red-headed, freckle-faced actress daughter of director Ron Howard, has become close to Zooey Deschanel (whose mom, Mary Jo, is an actress and father, Caleb, a cinematographer), and studied acting at NYU with Katherine Waterston, Sam Waterston's daughter. "We've been close friends for six years," Howard says, "yet we've barely acknowledged that our fathers are both in this business. There's a bit of an underlying wink, wink amongst all of us. When you grow up, you don't want to talk about it a lot. You want to be normal, so I find that everyone kind of denies it. I've been with Katherine when people asked her if her dad is on 'Law & Order' and she flat out says 'No.' I used to say my dad was an architect. That's so weird, because I'm really proud of him. But you grow up with the habit of doing that.

"So when you meet someone whose parent works in the business, it's like, who's going to talk about it first? I know if I wanted to talk about something about the business with her, she would have a certain depth of knowledge. I could say, 'Oh, it's so annoying. I walked into the room the other day and everyone couldn't stop talking about my dad and it's so clear they didn't even know my name and they were just completely obsessed with meeting him.' And she'll say, 'Oh, yeah. That's happened to me.' "

*

Just like us

EVERY week, US Weekly magazine runs a photo feature under the headline "Stars -- They're Just Like Us!" Candid pictures of celebrities caught doing ordinary things are splattered with breathless captions pointing out that "They hail cabs!" "They drink water!" "They put change in the meter!" But of course, if stars really were just like everyone else, the worship of them and the mania to join their ranks wouldn't be epidemic.

Those who grow up in the industry witness how their parents are not Just Like Us! A child's year has its own rhythm, punctuated by the first day of school, birthdays, Halloween and Christmas. Seasons in a show business household are signified by hiatus, wrap parties and the months-long ramp up to important awards ceremonies. Before they can read, Hollywood kids have absorbed the meaning of a forced call and breaking turnaround.

In his mordantly hilarious novel, "The Chrysanthemum Palace," Bruce Wagner tells the story of three friends born into the lucky sperm club who work as actors while shuffling through adulthood like walking wounded. Yet many of their public encounters go swimmingly, because the trio picked up, from their larger-than-life parents, "the discreet, universal language of VIP."

A novice working in the family business who has acquired such skills has less to adjust to than a Hollywood alien, fewer things to learn. Children of Hollywood travel the world and socialize with interesting grown-ups. It's as if they inhale sophistication with their Cheerios.

Dern, daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, began acting at 11. "Being exposed to a much broader spectrum of experience as a child gives you a deeper understanding of the world and life at an early age," she says. "I've found people whose parents are in the arts have a greater desire for humility. You are kind of aware that you should keep yourself in check because you've watched the ebb and flow of artistic careers. If you gain a lot of success, you know it's just a moment, and it won't necessarily last.

"I've been to magical places when my parents were working on location, and I've also lived in a one-room apartment with my mom and my grandma. There can be a couple of years with no work. There are so many ups and downs."

Being so intimate with the financial uncertainties of the business creates as many spendthrifts as tightwads. "All my siblings are overly panicky about money," Howard says. "It's because when we were kids, we would overhear phone conversations when a movie came out and if it didn't open as big as it was supposed to, we'd think we were going to lose our home or something."

The younger kids are, the less they realize their parents aren't Just Like Us! Their situation parallels that of children with divorced parents, for whom living part time with Mommy and sometimes with Dad isn't good or bad, it's just how things are. Ditto Mom gives me a bath wearing tons of makeup, because she just got home from the set. My father's assistant is always around, like part of the family. Doesn't everybody have one?

There was nothing unusual about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, among other boldfaced names, attending Rebecca Bloom's bat mitzvah party -- they were clients of her father, entertainment attorney Jake Bloom. Now a 31-year-old writer and editor, Rebecca Bloom says, "When you're young, that's just your normal life. When you're older, you get more perspective and you realize not every kid gets to go to Skywalker Ranch."

Jealousy and pity are equally unwelcome to a kid who yearns for the conformity children famously crave. Connie Stevens divorced crooner Eddie Fisher when her two daughters were small. Joely Fisher, whose beauty seems intensified when she holds her infant daughter in her arms during an interview, says: "People still ask me about him, with this look. It's like they're saying, 'I'm sorry. It must be so hard to be you.' " Fisher could always read the thoughts behind another look directed at her and her sister, actress Tricia Leigh Fisher. "Oh, they grew up in show business, they must be so troubled," she says. "Well, yeah. We had the same problems as anyone else, just in a bigger house. When you were 16 and a boy said he loved you and he didn't love you, it felt the same. It hurt."

Classmates don't know what a producer or an art director does and simply equate any job in entertainment with wealth. Tori Spelling, daughter of the late Aaron Spelling and who has been treated as if her family invented nepotism, says, "When I was little, I didn't know the difference between being famous and rich. It all mortified me. I'd be teased if my parents pulled up in a limo. There was no 'Wow, isn't he fabulous and creative and we love his shows.' It was 'Your dad's a producer, you have tons of money.' It was a negative."

*

Whom can you trust?

MEMBERS of this tribe become wise to the ways of users and climbers, and by the time they're adults they've lived for so long with suspicions about the motives of so-called friends that they worry less about who can be trusted than an outsider might think. Most seem secure in the belief that, in time, insincerity floats. It's pretty obvious when an acquaintance is after something, an introduction, for example.

Bloom's prizewinning date from hell was the guy who told her one of the high points of his life was standing next to her father in a men's room, where they were doing what men do standing up in men's rooms. "When you meet someone new, there is an element of, 'Is this person liking me for me, or because he can get closer to my dad, who has power in this business?' " Bloom says. "Usually it's, 'Who knows?' In that case, what he said was a clue that I wasn't going on another date with this guy."

Evan Ross, Diana Ross' 17-year-old son, is a tall, rangy boy with large, dark eyes. He recently began acting in films and has long been intelligently wary of phonies who might gossip about him or dine out on the status his acquaintance can provide. With any cellphone a potential camera, a custodian of a well-known name must be on guard. "In my family, we don't talk about our personal business when someone might be listening," Ross says. "My sister used to tell me that I have to be really mindful of who our mom is when I go out. There were times when I was younger when I'd want to fight someone. I'd think, 'If I got in a fight, how big would it be blown up?' I think about my mom's reputation."

*

Who's the winner?

THE son of a dentist who follows in his father's footsteps might wonder whether he'll ever measure up to his dad, professionally. Perhaps making more money or having a bigger practice would be proof of having bested the old man. Hollywood is full of benchmarks. If you're an actor and your actor-father has two Academy Awards and you have none, are you doomed to feel less accomplished? What if awards go to the offspring, not the parent? Pride in a child's triumphs notwithstanding, does a more successful kid feel guilty for surpassing a parent?

If the problems of competing in a parent's profession loom large enough, the logical reaction would be to spurn that industry. Some Hollywood scions do. Many others (Angelina Jolie, Emilio Estevez, Jennifer Jason Leigh) go as far as using names different from their parents (actors Jon Voight, Martin Sheen and Vic Morrow, respectively).

Why would a marquee name be a burden? Well, along with recognition and the cross of competition, it brings the curse of expectation. It can be hard to shine standing in a shadow. Howard says, "I consider my dad solely a director because that's what he was all my life. I'm lucky. I feel bad for a lot of children of actors because when they start out they're expected to be what their parent is now, in their 50s. That 50-year-old actor grew, over the years. To be fair to their child, you'd have to look at the parent's work at the beginning of their career."

Living up to expectations can be one challenge, living down a reputation is another. When Dern was a child, her father was on the cover of Life magazine under the headline "The Man Who Killed John Wayne." (He had, but only in a movie.) "That didn't go over big," she says. "One kid's dad said I couldn't come over for a play date because of that. To me, my dad was hilarious and lighthearted. He never raised his voice. So I felt a little like I had to defend him, to tell people he's really nice and really funny. As I think back, I never met a kid who had an issue with who my parents were, but I encountered many parents who acted strangely. Once I got politically active in my high school, I remember two parents attacking me for making waves in school. They said I must think I'm so hot because my parents were so-and-so."

Some members of the tribe escape unflattering associations, comparisons and competition by following a less-traveled road. After college, Bloom trained to be a chef. When she changed her mind, writing her first novel, "Girl Anatomy," was a deliberate choice. "One of the reasons I wanted to write books instead of scripts," she says, "is I wanted to try something that no one else in my family had done before, so if I failed or succeeded, it would be on me."

The narrator of Wagner's novel about friends with "fully formed identities as The Children Of" says, "The three of us diabolically chose to scale the Olympian summits of peaks already conquered, staked, claimed and mythologized by the sacred monsters who bore us. Now, why on earth would we embark on a cause so futile and without distinction? Was it cowardice, sloth, delusion? Genes, arrogance, simple perversity? All of the above?" Yes, and more.

The child of a performer witnesses stardom's peculiar alchemy. Joely Fisher says: "I remember people saying, 'I love your mom.' I was standing in the wings, or backstage, or in the audience watching her be magical and have an effect on people. I saw her giving this huge gift, but I also saw her getting a huge gift that made her feel more loved than anything else in her life. So the message I got was, 'I gotta get me some of that.' And I have. I love to be on stage, more than anything in the world."

Whether love like Fisher's is inherited or observed and internalized, it can fuel an aspiring performer's drive. Dern says: "I watched movies of the late '60s and '70s and, artistically, they had a deep influence. I don't know if I would have made the same choices if I hadn't grown up around the passion my parents had for playing authentic and deeply flawed characters. Their artistic passion existed, like another entity in the house. Now I get that I wouldn't be a full parent to my kids without it, any more than my parents would have been."

But what about the child who inherits the name, the looks, the ambition but misses out, somehow, on the elusive package stardom requires? Adam Bellow, son of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, wrote "In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History." "In our society, we have incorporated the values of meritocracy to such an extent that no self-respecting successor wants to underperform," Bellow says. "As a result, nepotistic successors do work harder and perform better in many cases. Where there is a deficiency in talent, they can make up for that with hard work and dedication."

The popular notion that heirs have the luxury of coasting ignores cultural conditioning and their particular psychological imperatives. "Some young people feel driven to pursue their parents' profession in order to make up for deficiencies in their early relationship," Bellow says. "Very accomplished people are often very busy people. These children want to be seen, and sometimes they find the only way they can is to actually work with their parents."

The favors that can be the birthright of Hollywood royalty can be as mysterious as confidence. Howard says that when she studied theater at NYU, "they never gave us a sense of what it would be like to be a working actor other than that it was going to be difficult. That's what they kept telling us -- it's so hard, it's so competitive -- which was kind of disheartening. I felt I had an advantage, coming from a family of two generations of working actors. I knew that even though it is hard, it's possible. It does happen."

*

Send comments to calendar.letters@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°