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Kirk Cameron grows

Special to The Times

Kirk Cameron didn’t need to reach rock bottom to become a Christian -- no plunge to the depths of despair or debauchery for the former teen idol and star of the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains.” He didn’t awaken one day, surrounded by empty tequila bottles and prostitutes, then fear for his mortal soul and choose God over celebrity.

Instead, the smirking kid who gave us the impishly wholesome Mike Seaver for seven seasons on ABC was, according to his new autobiography, “Still Growing,” just an indifferent atheist from the Valley who realized that becoming an adult meant far more than being a rich and successful young TV star.

Not that he doesn’t continue to work his Hollywood mojo. It’s just that now he does it less for himself than for what he considers a higher purpose. He has starred in a trilogy of movies based on the bestselling Christian apocalyptic “Left Behind” books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Later this year he will appear, gratis, as the only name actor in “Fireproof,” a pro-marriage film made by Sherwood Pictures, a Georgia production company that uses the congregation of Sherwood Baptist Church as its primary, and unpaid, talent.

“I’ve never tried to intentionally re-create Kirk Cameron as this religious guy,” Cameron said recently, sipping iced tea at the Wood Ranch in Agoura Hills, a hangout for him and his wife of 17 years, Chelsea Noble, and their six children (ranging in age from 5 to 11, with four adopted). The 37-year-old actor can still muster the patented Mike Seaver grin -- you know, the one that provoked wincing from his overachieving TV sister, played by Tracey Gold, and affectionate exasperation from his TV parents, Alan Thicke and Joanna Kerns. However, Seaver’s appalling wardrobe of ‘80s staples has been replaced by simple jeans and a zip-neck sweater, and Cameron himself now looks more like an alumnus of a Midwestern college fraternity than a guy who has been acting since age 9.

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He insisted that he undertook “Still Growing” -- published by Ventura-based Regal, which has also brought out inspirational titles from UCLA coaching legend John Wooden -- not to revive a stalled career nor to enlarge the flock of his ministry, the Way of the Master, which he conducts with New Zealander Ray Comfort (among other things, they advocate “intelligent design” and are critical of evolution theory).

“It just seemed like a good time to write a book, due to all the ‘80s nostalgia, the ‘Where are they now?’ stuff,” he explained. “But it was also a good time to tell my story, from ‘Growing Pains’ to coming to faith in God.” He added, modestly, that he “thought it would be a good read for ‘Growing Pains’ fans” as well as for “people of faith that have some convictions they have struggled with.” He wrote the book with the assistance of Lissa Halls Johnson, who also helped Cameron’s mother, Barbara, with her memoir, “A Full House of Growing Pains” (Cameron’s sister Candace was on the TV series “Full House” for eight years).

He took a stand

Part of telling his story includes addressing controversy. As Cameron acknowledges in “Still Growing,” some “Growing Pains” fans continue to believe that he wrecked the show because he refused to cooperate with producers’ plans to make it edgier by introducing what they felt were typical American teenage struggles to Mike Seaver’s life, including safe-for-prime-time sexual adventures. Cameron, who had begun to embrace Christianity by the show’s waning seasons, took a stand against these story lines, leading to conflict with the writers.

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Cameron admits that he was overly fervent back then and has since apologized for his missteps. But he still doesn’t consider his behavior during this period to have been misguided or unprincipled, just a natural outgrowth of a goofy kid’s emergence into an adult morality.

“If I wasn’t on a show where I was shouldering the responsibility of a money-making machine called ‘Growing Pains,’ it would have been OK,” he said of his objections to scenes in which Mike was to be depicted in what Cameron considered to be immoral circumstances.

This wasn’t a classic child-star, prima donna maneuver; he wasn’t asking for a bigger dressing room, a stint in rehab, or for staffers to look the other way while he seduced Tiger Beat groupies between takes. Unlike fellow Christian and “Eight Is Enough” star Willie Aames -- who has published his own memoir “Grace Is Enough” -- Cameron didn’t wander down the path of booze and drugs. Professional and workmanlike with his acting, he said that he was simply sticking up for the audience that “Growing Pains” had built over its run, using his own sacrifice as leverage.

“You’ve got to be willing to work with me while I give up my childhood” was how he characterized his attitude toward the producers. And although he reports in “Still Growing” that he and the producers have buried the hatchet and moved on, the experience still rankles him. “I was trying to not break the level of trust we’d developed with families,” he said. (His assessment of the show’s impact was backed up by Alan Thicke, who compares “Growing Pains” with similar fare such as “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.” "[T]he reason they’re never off the air and always in reruns is that they were the last of a breed of shows that was made for everybody to watch,” he told a celebrity interview website this year.)

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Cameron acknowledges that he could have better prepared his TV “family” for his new moral code, but all that was really happening was that he was leaving his childhood behind and trying to decide what kind of adult he was going to be. The show was called “Growing Pains,” after all.

“It would have been far easier to go with the flow,” he writes. “I would have made a lot more money . . . if I had played the game. It’s not easy to stand up for what you believe. I learned that from a very young age.”

Refuses to categorize

Cameron is a laid-back true believer, but a true believer nonetheless. When his managers advised him to keep his work with the Way of the Master quiet, he couldn’t accept the idea that he would lead a dual Hollywood life: secular actor during the work week, Christian on Sundays. According to an unnamed “famous screenwriter” he quotes in the book, he “sure picked the one unacceptable religion” for an actor.

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Cameron’s teenage spiritual crisis was quick: He felt that something essential was missing in his life, and he did something about it. He clearly has done his best to lead an exemplary adult life -- and he hopes fans and readers pick up on his cautionary message: “If you don’t have personal convictions you will be swept up by the tidal wave of culture, which doesn’t care about you in the end.”


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