Iris Burton, a dancer turned Hollywood agent who worked primarily with child actors and helped launch the careers of many young talents, including River Phoenix and Henry Thomas, died Saturday at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was 77.
The immediate cause was pneumonia. Burton also had Alzheimer’s disease, according to movie producer David Permut, a longtime friend.
A professional dancer from an early age, Burton never gave up the entertainment industry. She specialized in child actors from the time she opened her Iris Burton Agency in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Many of her clients had major roles on popular television series, including Adam Rich of “Eight Is Enough,” Kirk Cameron of “Growing Pains” and Candace Cameron of “Full House.”
She is credited with discovering Henry Thomas during an open audition in San Antonio. He was cast as Elliott, a leading role in the 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Burton found brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix and their sisters Summer and Rain singing for spare change in Westwood. She soon represented all four. River Phoenix died in 1993 at age 23.
“Iris had a great nose for talent,” Permut said Wednesday. “In our business, we pride ourselves on discoveries, whether it’s actors, directors or others. Iris made discoveries countless times.”
She was known for her mothering and protective ways with young clients, once claiming that she oversaw everything, including their weight, hair and fingernails.
Her abrupt humor was behind dozens of stories about her style of doing business. Once, during a national search for an actress to play “Annie” in the film version of the Broadway musical, a little girl in a red wig turned up on Burton’s front lawn, Burton recalled in a 1984 interview with People magazine.
The girl burst into her version of “Tomorrow” from the musical. Burton cut her with a blunt critique: “Kid for you there is no tomorrow.”
Born Iris Burstein on Sept. 4, 1930, in New York City, she began her career as a child dancer and went on to perform in Broadway shows using the name Iris Burton.
She moved to Hollywood in the early 1950s and was cast in a number of movies, among them “Top Banana,” a 1954 showbiz comedy starring Phil Silvers. She also danced in “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston, in 1956.
She married actor and director Sidney Miller in the late 1950s, and the couple had one son, Barry Miller, before they divorced. Her son, who became an actor, survives her.
Burton’s dance career slowed down in the 1960s, and she changed course when a Hollywood agent offered her a job.
From the beginning, “Iris gravitated toward child actors,” Permut said. After more than 20 years as an independent agent, Burton formed an alliance with the Endeavor agency in 2001 and continued representing several clients.
A service is planned for 1 p.m. today at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.
Contributions in Burton’s name can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, P.O. Box 51150, Los Angeles, CA, 90051-9706.