DICK MOORE: Gene
Reynolds agrees that we all had trouble growing up. I asked him why.
Gene spoke precisely, weighing his words.
"This business of premature responsibility makes later responsibility
distasteful. People said to us, 'It's wonderful to be a child actor. You grow
up fast, and that's a big advantage over other kids. You become an adult
earlier than most.'
As though this strengthened us. It did not.
Actually, it weakened us, because those adult experiences which normally are
welcome at the RIGHT time of your development become burdensome and loathsome
if encountered too early. That's why often we don't mature, or why we have a
harder time maturing than others.
"Also, we were always at the other end of
a teeter-totter. We were not working with peers but with directors, teachers,
executives, agents, parents. As children, we were always the slaves. All
these people had this goddamn age and experience over us and a certain
children do not have."
Diana Cary, now a settled wife and mother,
feels that she experienced real childhood for the first time through watching
her son playing in his sandbox.
Diana took Mark to visit her parents when he
was nine months old. Her father, then on his deathbed, said, "Look at
that kid's eyes. He's a natural."
Diana's mother came out of the kitchen.
"That's right. Peg, you should put him on television. Think of the
money, the residuals. Why, he could have a college education!"
"I can't do that!" Diana almost
"You're crazy," her mother
countered. "Just because you don't like acting, for some dumb reason,
are you going to deny your son all the advantages you had?"
(Dick Moore): My sister Pat has a daughter,
Kathy. When she was six, my mother
encouraged her to be an actress. Kathy didn't want to.
"But you would make a lot of money to
give to your mother," Mother told her.
"Grandma, if I made a lot of money I would
keep it for myself," Kathy said. Mother, aghast, reported to us that
Kathy was "very mercenary." As the years passed, Mother never
doubted the validity of her perception.
Gene Reynolds feels that had there been no
Shirley Temple, the child star phenomenon would probably not have evolved as
it did. This has always been a business that follows trends. Gene agrees that
the child star era will never come again. It was an age of naivete.
"Audiences had no idea," Gene said,
"of what the children were being put through. The business was very
exploitative, which was kind of denied by everybody."
Was there a common denominator, I asked Jackie
Cooper, in terms of family history or attitude that impelled our parents to
seek that life for us? "Money," he answered. "The Depression.
Wasn't your family poor?"
As a director, Jack Cooper hates to work with
kids. Gene Reynolds tries hard to take pressure off the child, to make the
child feel loved, to make the work a game.
Although the era of the child star may not be
seen again, the "child star problem will continue as long as there is
entertainment," Diana Cary says, "because when you put a small
child on the tube, even eating cornflakes, he's in a strange environment,
with different responsibilities. He has a responsibility to his parents, to
the producer, the director, to the rest of the cast. He is out of context
with his normal time and place. Some children are exceptional and can cope.
We did. We were asked to stimulate feelings we'd never experienced: what it's
like to drown, to see your home on fire, to see your parents dead. A child's
emotions are not equipped to handle that. Something has to give. It's like a
hernia. It doesn't show at first. You don't go lame. You don't go blind. But
years later, down the road, it shows up."
George (Spanky) McFarland briefly pondered my
question: "Everybody's story more or less has the same grain running
through it. The studios took advantage of the ignorance of the parents. The
parents took advantage of the children. But I am glad that I had the
experience, regardless of whether it was good or bad - even if there was no
money. I am proud to say, 'Look what I did at one time,' even though I don't
remember nine-tenths of it."
Some remember their early lives with pleasure.
Bobs Watson considered that "working in films was a beautiful, revered
occupation. I enjoyed all aspects of it. But," Bob feels, "there is
a price to be paid, because the publicity that builds you up also leaves you
stranded. Then what do you do? What happens to your ego? Unless you have
someone who loves you and will help you to get through it, you've got a
Sybil Jason has formed a club for ex-child
stars. She calls it The Survivors. "Do you think there is a jinx on
ex-child stars trying to make a comeback?" Sybil asked me.
Of course there is. One almost never equals
one's first impact. "You can't," reflected Roddy McDowall,
"unless you arrive a decade later at something that appeals to a whole
At Redken Laboratories, where Gloria Jean has
worked for years as spokesperson and chief receptionist, Roddy was shooting
on location. On discovering each other, he and Gloria hugged and posed for
"Roddy, how good it is to see you,"
Gloria greeted him. "How I miss the industry."
Rod lit into her. "Gloria, listen to an
old-timer. Kiss the ground that you're not in the business."
"Why?" she asked, bewildered.
"Because you have to deal with such
rejection. There's so much bitterness. Look at me. I'm an old man,"
"Roddy, you look fantastic."
"I don't mean my outward appearance. . .
.But you have a good life here.
Acting is such a hard, hard row to hoe."
Darryl Hickman, teacher, author, actor,
producer, and director, thinks that being a child actor "is an abnormal
thing to have to struggle with. I don't see how it can be healthy."
Natalie Wood didn't think the work was
difficult. Rather, she thought it "wonderful because it is creative and
can be helpful even as a growing process.
"The constant attention is what is so
difficult. People say, 'Come here, do this, do that, let me take your
picture, get up early, go on this tour, go out with that person, don't go
there, do that, wear that dress.' That's where all the confusion sets in.
"If there were no publicity and acting
was your only job, I don't think anybody would get into very much emotional
If someone asked Natalie for her advice on
becoming an actor, I inquired, what would she say? "I would ask, 'What
about it is going to give you pleasure?' The trappings? Stardom? The money?
Clothes? The billing or to see your picture in the newspaper? If so, forget
it! It'll be a disaster. You'll get into horrible emotional trouble because
you can't get any nourishment out of that end. But if you want to act, fine.
You endure the trappings in order to be able to enjoy the
When parents approach producer Gene Reynolds
for advice, he tells them, "Keep the kid in school. Keep him in a
natural environment. Get off his back." Gene strongly suggests
postponing the professional experience. "Let him go to college for four
years; there's plenty of time." Still, if Gene had a child who
"really wanted to act, who really enjoyed it, who was struck with that
terrible notion," he would try to be a source of encouragement.
One of the big problems with child actors,
Gene believes, "aside from being born into the wrong family, is that for
every child that succeeds, hundreds don't. But those hundreds are still the
products of and living with these driven parents. They are still their
victims." Gene thinks
that "people who push their kids like
that are a little crazy."
One night not long ago, I sat in Sardi's in
New York with Jane Powell, Donald O'Connor, and Donald's wife, Gloria. People
stopped to chat with Donald and Jane, expressing admiration, colored at times
with a twinge of envy. How wonderful to be them, to be recognized, to have
headwaiters thrilled whenever you arrive, their attitude suggested.
What no one knew was that Donald and Jane were
comparing notes about how insecure they often felt. I thought: "Thank
God, it's not just me."
Gloria explained, "Donald's always in the
background. We don't know how to push."
"I know just how you feel," Jane
nodded sympathetically. "All my life, I've felt like a fly on the wall.
Like I never belonged, even at MGM when they told me I was a big star. One
day in the commissary, Clark Gable came over to my table to say hello and I
was so frightened I forgot his name."
Jane continued: "I always felt I had to
explain why I was driving my car through the studio gate. Every day I would
say to the guard, 'They told me I can drive through. Is that okay?' "
"When I was at Universal, making millions
of dollars for the studio, the guards at the gate never knew who I was."
Donald emptied a packet of Sweet'n Low into his iced tea. "I still won't
go backstage to visit friends if they're in a show," he said. "I'll
meet them someplace afterward. Stage doormen never know me. I feel like a
"The last time we went to an opening
night party," Gloria recalled, "the TV cameras were there, along
with the press. Someone was interviewing Donald on TV, when right in the
middle of his answer to a question, the TV camera and the lights suddenly
turned away and focused on Richard
Burton, who had just walked in. Suddenly, Donald
was in the dark and talking to the air. They didn't even wait to hear his
"That's such a terrible feeling,"
Jane said. "You don't know what to do, you don't know where to look.
It's so embarrassing, being out there and suddenly you're all alone. There's
always someone more important."
As Jane, Donald, and Gloria talked, I had an
overwhelming urge to cry. Life on the fast track is the seven o'clock news.
When you're the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another
story breaks, you might as well be dead.
And it doesn't have a thing to do with you.
Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of
unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was
somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a
buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so
indispensable, until the director yells, "Cut!" and I am whisked
into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?