Two former teen idols back bill to protect child actors
Three decades ago, they were teen idols. Todd Bridges played Willis on the popular sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes.” Corey Feldman starred in “Gremlins,""The Goonies” and “The Lost Boys.”
The two men held the same dark secret: Each had been molested in his adolescence by men with Hollywood connections, experiences that would lead to downward spirals and years of drug addiction.
Today, they are making a highly public case for California legislation they hope will protect child actors from sexual predators, a problem they say continues to bedevil the entertainment industry.
“We’re not doing enough to protect children, period,” Bridges said.
The bill that the two actors support would require talent managers, photographers and others whose jobs involve unsupervised access to child performers to provide fingerprints and submit to criminal background checks. It also would prohibit registered sex offenders from representing artists who are minors.
“If this bill can help save one child from the pain and consequences of being made a victim, then it is worth every effort,” said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose).
The bill, similar to a measure that died in the state Senate in 2006, was drafted in response to two incidents late last year.
In November, Martin Weiss, a longtime talent manager who specialized in representing young actors, was arrested on suspicion of child molestation. Two weeks later, police arrested Jason James Murphy, a film casting associate working with young actors under the name Jason James. He has been charged with failing to file a name change with authorities alerting them that he had been convicted of child molestation and abduction 15 years ago.
Bridges said the legislation would help shield children from what he described as “a lifetime of shame and anger.”
“I cannot imagine why even one politician would object to it passing,” he said. “Without these types of precautions, Hollywood will continue to attract pedophiles with an unmonitored playing field to commit their inhumane acts.”
“This is a very good idea,” Feldman said. “I think it should have been implemented years ago.”
Feldman began his acting career as a toddler, appearing in a Clio Award-winning McDonald’s commercial at age 3. By the early 1980s, he was his family’s principal breadwinner.
Even as his television and film career gathered momentum, though, he was encountering difficulties at home. He describes a “very tormented childhood” characterized by isolation and verbal and physical abuse. He sought out others — big brother figures and peers — to fill the emotional void.
Fleeing an unstable home environment, Feldman moved in with his father, who became his manager.
When he was 14, he said, a man associated with his father’s child talent business plied him with drugs and alcohol, showed him a pornographic magazine and molested him.
Feldman said he thought the unwanted sexual encounter with his father’s associate was “a one-time occurrence.” But the abuse didn’t stop, he said.
“I didn’t know how to tell him ‘Stop’ or ‘Don’t do it,’ or I couldn’t face it, I was too afraid,” Feldman said early this year, during a break in filming of one of his recent movies, “The M Word.” “So instead I laid there with my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep, and hoped that he would stop.”
It wasn’t until he was 16, he said, that “I was able to actually confront him in broad daylight, awake and aware, and say, ‘If you ever … touch me again, I will kill you.’ ”
Feldman sought legal emancipation from his parents, alleging mental and physical abuse and inappropriate handling of his finances, and at age 15 he took charge of his own life and career. But by this time, he said, he had already become a drug user.
Feldman was arrested twice in 1990, when he was still a teenager, on drug possession charges and entered a residential treatment program, according to court documents. Feldman said he’s been sober the last 20 years.
Having never come forward with the details of his own molestation, Feldman said he elected to talk about his own experiences to offer emotional support to other victims of abuse, including Weiss’ alleged victim. “I’m not doing this for any self-seeking motive,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to support this kid.”
Like Feldman, Bridges came from an unstable household. He feared his physically abusive father who, he has said, “didn’t know how to love me.”
In his autobiography, “Killing Willis,” Bridges described the man who sexually abused him as a musician and gospel singer who claimed to have worked for Michael Jackson’sfamily. The man was introduced to Bridges’ parents by the acclaimed “King of Gospel,” the late Rev. James Cleveland.
At the time, Bridges was 11 and already appearing on television, in episodes of “Police Story” and “Barney Miller.”
The abuse began a year later, when Bridges was 12. He said the man “seduced” him by spending time with him and giving him gifts — and molested him three times over the course of a year.
“He said if it came out, then he wouldn’t be able to be the person he was to me,” Bridges said. “He’d say, ‘Look at all the things I’ve done for you [that] your dad is not doing. I take you where your dad doesn’t take you.’ ”
The assaults left him confused about his sexuality, Bridges said. It wasn’t until Bridges had a sexual encounter with his"Diff’rent Strokes"co-star Dana Plato that he realized he was not gay — and that he had been manipulated.
“I was so angry and so mad,” Bridges said. “He was a grown man. He should not have done that.”
Bridges told his parents what had happened, but his father refused to believe him. His mother, Betty Bridges, said she called police to report the crime but withheld her son’s name, out of fear of attracting publicity. Police declined to investigate.
“I told them, ‘This man molested my child. You stop him from molesting other children,’” Betty Bridges recalled. “They said, ‘It’s your son’s word against his.”’
No charges have ever been brought in connection with Bridges’ alleged abuse, he said.
Bridges said the experience drove him into a spiral of drug addiction that ended Feb. 23, 1993. After he pleaded guilty to drug possession, a judge offered him a choice of prison or rehab. He chose treatment but fought with counselors and wound up spending three days in restraints at a psychiatric hospital. He was 27.
“They strapped me down on all fours and put a diaper on me,” Bridges said. “Here I was, one of the biggest television stars of all time, sitting with a diaper on, a complete drug addict. I remember telling God, ‘I want to be normal. I want to be like everybody else. I want to be happy.’”
Bridges, who secured a recurring role as Monk on the television show “Everybody Hates Chris"and recently completed work on the Adam Sandler film “That’s My Boy,” said he has been sober ever since.
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