Child Stars Who Defied The Odds

We've heard the tragic stories of child actors who were thrust into the spotlight, overwhelmed by the pressures of fame that come with the very adult profession of entertainment. Actors like Dana Plato, Macauley Culkin, and Amanda Bynes, all seemed to fall into a downward spiral, almost rebelling against the attention. And the devastating losses of child actors like River Phoenix, Lee Thompson Young, and Sawyer Sweeten who never got to see their full potential because they died much too young. This is nothing new for Hollywood. From 1966 to 1971, Anissa Jones played Buffy on the hit show "Family Affair." According to Outsider, within six months of turning 18 and gaining access to the money she earned, Jones died of an overdose, a mix of cocaine, PCP, quaaludes, and Seconal.

Of course some child actors simply walk away from the profession, choose another life — like Jonathon Taylor Thomas who left "Home Improvement" to pursue his education and never returned — while others seem to be less in demand when they transition from the adorable kid to someone Hollywood might deem less attractive to audiences. Sometimes the opposite is true, as in the case of Jeff Cohen of "The Goonies," who claims he stopped being cast when he grew "from Chunk to hunk" (via Daily Mail).

And yet, there are individuals who successfully navigate not only the difficulty of being a child in the entertainment business but the transition to adult actor. So, let's take a look at some of Hollywood's biggest stars who defied those odds.

Jason Bateman ended up on the right path thanks to an ultimatum

Jason Bateman is probably one of the most likable actors in Hollywood, and yet his career in terms of being in the public eye is somewhat understated. Known for his television roles in "Ozark" and "Arrested Development," Bateman has been consistently acting since he was 11 years old and appeared in a Golden Grahams commercial. From there, the budding actor got a guest role on "Little House on the Prairie," which he played for 21 episodes.

Throughout the 80s, Bateman had roles on shows like "Silver Spoons" and "Knight Rider," and by 1984, his sister, Justine Bateman started building her own acting resume. During the 90s, alcohol and drugs became a problem, as he shared in a 2009 Details interview. Even marrying Amanda Anka in 2001 wasn't enough to get him on the right track. Until, that is, she gave him an ultimatum, even taking a trip without him. It was the wake up call he needed to enter AA he told the magazine.

Bateman, however, needed to earn his way back into those coveted acting roles. He told The Guardian in 2022, "It was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the 90s, and not getting a lot of great responses." The start of that new beginning was "Arrested Development," which he won a Golden Globe for in 2005. He also won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing in 2019 for "Ozark."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Drew Barrymore had the most intense 'school of hard knocks'

If ever there was a child actor who seemed as if they were headed for tragedy, it was Drew Barrymore. In reality, Barrymore had some of those tragedies throughout her life, but her humility — despite being Hollywood royalty — and positive attitude likely had something to do with her perseverance. The actor, who first appeared onscreen as a baby in a commercial, went on to star in one of the most iconic movies in history: "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." At the age of eight, Barrymore attended the Oscars, and by 10, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for "Irreconcilable Differences."

Sadly, Barrymore ended up in rehab by age 13, and was emancipated the following year. As she revealed on "The Howard Stern Show" in 2019, "This was, you know, school of hard knocks in the most severe way," she said emphatically, adding, "There was no way I was gonna be me without that year and a half." Barrymore likened it to boot camp after having so much freedom, when she partied among adults in clubs. Tearfully, Barrymore told Stern, "I left there the most humble person you could ever imagine."

From there, Barrymore thrived, and Hollywood welcomed her back with open arms. In 2020, with more than 40 years of credits under her belt, Barrymore got her own talk show and was nominated for a daytime Emmy.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Robert Downey Jr. smartened up after serving jail time

It might be hard to picture "Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr. as a little boy, but at the age of five, he was already present on screen, appearing in his first movie: "Pound." It wasn't until his teens and twenties, however, that the actor would become recognizable, appearing in movies like "Tuff Turf," "Weird Science," and "Less Than Zero." In 1992, Downey Jr. came into his own with his widely recognized portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in "Chaplin," garnering a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

It was around this time that his personal life took a nosedive. In 1996, the actor was stopped for speeding and then arrested on suspicion of drug possession as well as possessing a firearm, though it was unloaded, per the Los Angeles Times. Shortly after he was charged, he apparently got into the house of someone who lived nearby, and the occupants found him sleeping in a bed before police came to arrest him once again. A talent agent told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "Two drug arrests in a row? Yes, this can seriously damage your future in this town."

Downey would eventually serve his time in jail in 1999 and then return to Hollywood, garnering roles in both movies and TV. In 2014, he spoke to Vanity Fair about his addiction, his time in prison, and at a treatment facility. "Job one is get out of that cave," he said. "A lot of people do get out but don't change."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Jake Gyllenhaal was born into Hollywood, yet his parents put a focus on education

In 1991, an 11-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal appeared alongside Billy Crystal in "City Slickers." The son of a producer/screenwriter and director, Jake seemed destined for the industry. Despite that, Gyllenhaal's parents wanted their kids to have as normal a childhood as possible, and that foundation likely set him on the right path. In 1992, he was selected for the movie "The Mighty Ducks" but his parents wouldn't let him accept the role. While on "The Howard Stern Show" in 2015, the actor recalled, "I definitely remember crying on the kitchen counter." At the time, his parents wanted him to focus on his education.

After becoming an adult, Gyllenhaal garnered roles in movies like "Donnie Darko," before landing the role of a lifetime in "Brokeback Mountain." Not only did he win an Oscar, he had the opportunity to work with a friend — the late Heath Ledger.

After more than 30 years of acting, Gyllenhaal spoke to Variety magazine in 2022 about "Brokeback Mountain" and his acting journey. "I turned to acting and performance and expression, self-expression, to understand things about myself," he shared. "The act of expression is healing." Listening to Gyllenhaal reminisce about the movies he's done reveals how thoughtful he's been in his choices. "There are these great moments of the size that a movie can be, like the grand nature of making movies that is just so beautiful," he said.

Kurt Russell never fell into the trap of troubled child stars

Kurt Russell is now a legendary Hollywood vet, yet the actor was once a child star. Russell's first role was a 1962 guest spot on "Dennis the Menace" at age 12. He also got to appear in a film with Elvis Presley: "It Happened at the World's Fair." One year later, he would snag a starring role in the television series, "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters." His first movie was Disney's "Follow Me, Boys!" And when the actor played Elvis in a TV movie, he was nominated for a primetime Emmy in 1979.

From action to western, rom-com to sci-fi, Russell seemed to be conquering it all. Not only was Russell making a name for himself in the industry, but he was also respected and liked. Even with his somewhat controversial relationship with Goldie Hawn, Russell showed his constant love and commitment. The couple has been together since 1983 but never married. They share a son, Wyatt, while Russell has a son, Boston, from a previous marriage, and Hawn has two children from a previous marriage: Kate Hudson and Oliver Hudson.

The actor is known to avoid the press but will do an interview to promote a movie, as he told GQ in a 2016 chat. He's also a hard worker on set, yet, he notes, "When the man says, 'That's a wrap,' I'm bolting ... 'Goodnight guys, see you tomorrow — I'm going into my life now.'"

Keshia Knight Pulliam was the youngest actor to be nominated for an Emmy

In 1984, five-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam stole the hearts of Americans as Rudy Huxtable on the hit TV show, "The Cosby Show." In 1986, she became the youngest actor to be nominated for an Emmy for her supporting role on the show. After "The Cosby Show" ended, there was a significant gap in her acting credits as she was attending Spelman College to get her bachelor's degree in Sociology. Throughout the 2000s, Knight Pulliam was steadily working, including scoring a role in 2005's "Beauty Shop" starring Queen Latifah. Shortly after, she was selected for a role on Tyler Perry's "House of Payne," which she would hold until 2022.

Aside from acting, Knight Pulliam seems passionate about whatever she does — and apparently, she's very competitive as well. She's participated in quite a few reality shows including "The Mole," "The Apprentice," and "Fear Factor," which she won in 2015. In 2010, the actor established a nonprofit for kids called Kamp Kizzy. According to their site, the organization aims to "bring youth together to learn from each other and to challenge one another to dream big, think big and accomplish big."

As she shared with Windy City Live in 2021, Knight Pulliam is grateful for the experiences she's had during her career. "The beauty of it is, is that I have had the pleasure of being in so many people's homes and families for so many decades, so I'm grateful."

Sean Astin's mother greatly impacted his career

Sean Astin, another child actor from a high-profile acting family, had his first on screen role in 1981 with "Please Don't Hit Me, Mom," at the age of ten. His mother, acting legend Patty Duke, also starred in it. The interesting thing about Astin is that there's an ongoing debate on social media between generations, where one group remembers him from 1985's "The Goonies," another generation remembers him from "Lord of the Rings," and yet another from "Stranger Things," proving how beloved his characters are. 

Astin has also done quite a bit of voice work, including a stint as Raphael on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Personally, Astin has been just as blessed. He's been married to film producer Christine Harrell since 1992 and the couple has three children.

Astin has forty years of acting under his belt and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. In fact, he had a recurring role in two TV shows in 2022 — "Young Rock" and "Perry Mason" — as well as having several other projects in production. In a 2019 Collider Interviews, Astin spoke about his career and his mother's influence, noting, "What she taught me wasn't something that she said in words, it was the power of her example and she worked incredibly hard ... That work ethic, I think, is what enabled me to develop longevity with my career."

Dakota Fanning credits Tom Cruise for making her 'a better actress'

From the moment Dakota Fanning stepped on screen in 2000 as a patient on the hit TV show "E.R.," it was clear there was something special about her. And in about the span of a year, she appeared in almost a dozen other shows before landing the coveted role in "I Am Sam" opposite Sean Penn. It wasn't long before this young actor was appearing in hit films along with A-list actors like Tom Cruise, Robert De Nero, and Denzel Washington. Even her interviews to promote her movies showed a sweet bubbly child who had an uncharacteristic maturity about her. 

In 2005, when Tom Cruise was interviewed on "Oprah" and Fanning came on the monitor for a remote interview, he was hanging on her every word. Cruise seemed touched when she thanked him, saying, "You made me a better actress. I'll never forget my memories with you." Afterward, Cruise said, "She's lovely ... I just want to protect her." He also said he told Fanning, "I don't care how old you are, you're a great actress."

In 2018 Fanning spoke with Variety, about growing up in Hollywood. "Looking back, I literally can't imagine having any other life or doing anything else other than being an actor. It's become a part of who I feel I am," she said. On staying grounded, she shared, "My mom managed to give me a very table, grounded life, and she went with me everywhere. She was always with me."

Neil Patrick Harris has been a funnyman since the 80s

Actor, singer, and host extraordinaire, Neil Patrick Harris wasn't always the charismatic, witty man he is today — but actually, he kind of was. Even as a gawky kid, there was something about him that had viewers wanting more. His first on screen credit was a feature film with Whoopi Goldberg called "Clara's Heart"—for which he received a Golden Globe nom — and it wasn't long after that he got his own show: "Doogie Howser, M.D." Not only was the storyline unique in that he was a teenaged doctor, but Harris himself looked young for his age. When the show premiered, Doogie was already practicing medicine and was 16 years old, as was Harris. Ironically, the actor himself entered the workforce at a young age, not just as an actor. He shared with Elle in 2022 that he was no more than 10 when he started working at a bookstore.

Harris continued on with a string of mostly charismatic or funny characters, like his much-loved Barney on "How I Met Your Mother." Of course, it was exciting for fans and the actor himself when he snagged the role of creepy ex-boyfriend in "Gone Girl." Harris told The Guardian in 2014, "I was pinching myself at the opportunity." He also shared about his long and varied career, saying, "I've been very fortunate to have lived a myriad of chapters in the last decade."

In his personal life, Harris married his partner, David Burtka, in 2014, and the couple shares two children.

Brooke Shields maintains that her mother was protective of her

Brooke Shields has been in the public eye virtually all her life, starting as a child model and moving into acting around age 10. Some of the projects her mother, Teri Shields, allowed her to take drew criticism over the years, including some nude photos she did for Playboy at age 10, per The Guardian. If that's not all, she also let Brooke snag a role as a pre-teen sex worker in 1978's "Pretty Baby," and then later, a suggestive Calvin Klein ad in 1980. Once she became an adult, Shields continued to act steadily, including getting her own series in 1996, "Suddenly Susan," for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe two years in a row.

In 2021, the actor discussed the Calvin Klein ad with Today, saying she didn't realize at the time that her line, "You want to know what comes in between me and my Calvins? Nothing." was sexually suggestive. What it did, though, was practically make Shields and Calvin Klein household names. And despite the public scrutiny of her mother, Brooke says Teri was protective of her. She told Newsweek in 2022, "She was so protective of me that I did maintain a certain naïveté, which allowed me to find joy in the actual work." In her 2014 memoir, "There Was A Little Girl" Shields shared that the entertainment business is what has kept her sane all these years (via The Guardian).

College football is what 'humbled' Mark-Paul Gosselaar

Zack Morris, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, became a pop fiction icon thanks to "Saved by the Bell," which premiered in 1989, when the actor was 15 years old. Gosselaar had been acting since 1984 at that point, with guest spots on popular TV shows like "Highway to Heaven" and "The Wonder Years." Not only did "Saved By the Bell" and its many spin-offs stay with the actor until 1994, he was also in the reboot in 2020 and 2021. Given that most of his previous roles were charismatic or funny, viewers were surprised — and maybe a little skeptical — when Gosselaar was cast as a detective in "NYPD Blue" in 2001, but he kept the role for four seasons.

While most of Gosselaar's work has been on television, the actor did appear on the big screen a few times, including 2015's "Heist" starring Robert De Niro, and "Precious Cargo," with Bruce Willis, the following year.

In 2021, Gosselaar was interviewed on the "Anna Faris is Unqualified" podcast and revealed that it wasn't until after "Saved by The Bell" that he decided to become a serious actor. In his eyes, he likened his time playing Zack to being in Little League, and after it ended (and he had trouble finding work), he decided to pursue football in college. He said, "It humbled me to the point of where now I understood how important and how much of a blessing it is that we get to do this for a living ... And I still enjoy it."

Alfonso Ribeiro has worked in the industry for over 40 years

Though Alfonso Ribeiro has been a working actor for more than 40 years, long-time fans of his will probably remember him most for two things: his iconic Pepsi commercial in 1984 where he dances with Michael Jackson, and for creating "The Carlton," a dance move he originated on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Even some 30 years later, Ribeiro said on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in 2022, "I typically get asked to do the dance pretty much every day of my life if I go outside." But Ribeiro actually started acting on stage before age 10, and in 1983 he starred on Broadway in "The Tap Dance Kid." Not long after, he landed on the show "Silver Spoons" with fellow child star Ricky Schroder.

While Ribeiro's career mostly focused on TV shows, the actor is also making a name for himself as a host. In 2015 he took over hosting duties on "America's Funniest Home Videos," and after winning the Mirror Ball Trophy on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2014, Ribeiro returned in 2022 to co-host the show with Tyra Banks — while continuing his "AFV" gig.

For his personal life, the actor has no trouble leaving the glitz and glamor for a good-old-fashion RV camping trip with his family. He told "Good Morning America" in a remote interview at his New England campsite, "Every year we kinda decide where we want to go."

Mario Lopez's parents 'instilled a strong work ethic'

These days, Mario Lopez has been doing double duty on "Access Hollywood" and "Access Daily" since 2019 — this coming off a 12-year stint as a co-host on "Extra" starting in 2007. In a 2022 on "Today," Craig Melvin said of the actor, "You've got a podcast, you've got two radio shows as well. I'm not sure exactly when you sleep."

Lopez has been hard at work since he snagged his first acting gig in 1984 at age 11 with a guest spot on "Simon & Simon." Five years later, he landed the role he's most known for: the charismatic, dimpled, and muscled A.C. Slater on "Saved by the Bell," which had a reboot in 2020 and saw Lopez reprising his character. After the first run of "Saved by the Bell," the actor starred in "Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story." From there, he continued getting guest roles in TV shows and movies.

As Lopez shared on "Today," his version of the entertainment business involves his family — wife, Courtney, and their three children. Two of his kids sometimes appear with him on "Access Kids," and Courtney appeared in the 2022 movie, "Steppin' into the Holiday." For pulling it all off and being a family man, Lopez gives his parents much of the credit. He told Yahoo! Life, "They instilled a strong work ethic." And while Lopez wants the same for his kids, he adds, "I would say I always try to come from a place of love."

Jerry O'Connell hated being recognized from his breakout role

11-year-old Jerry O'Connell went from a Duncan Hines cookies commercial to starring in an Oscar-nominated film that helped launch the careers of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman — "Stand by Me." After that, O'Connell would move to television, garnering a handful of guest spots before getting his own show in 1989, "My Secret Identity." The young actor seemed to transition well into adult roles and continued to work on projects for both the small and big screen. In 2002, he had a five-year stint on "Crossing Jordan" and shortly after the last episode aired, O'Connell married actor and former model, Rebecca Romijn.

More recently, O'Donnell voiced the character of Commander Jack Ransom in "Star Trek: Lower Decks." And after several years of being a guest co-host on "The Talk," the show finally made it official in 2021, per Deadline, and signed him as a permanent co-host, following the firing of Sharon Osbourne.

Looking back, O'Connell feels good about his experience, especially that first movie — even though he admits as a young adult he hated being referred to as "the fat kid [from] 'Stand By Me,'" as he shared in a Paramount Plus interview. The actor also shared that early on, he didn't take his acting career seriously, and had no pressure from his parents except for him finishing college — which he did. "I'm really fortunate to have my parents," he added.