Friday, May 5, 2017

What are the Chances of Happy Days for Child Performers?

News of the death of Erin Moran was upsetting, but not unsurprising. 
She was one of the original cast members of the show, HAPPY DAYS, a program I watched when I was a kid. 
For the last several years, Erin’s difficulty in meeting the challenge of living a “normal” life had been well documented in the media. My immediate response in hearing the news was to think once again of something that many would end up reading in Erin’s obituary — she began acting on HAPPY DAYS when she was only 14 years old. 
The average 14-year-old in 1974 was very different than the average 14-year-old in 2017. The entertainment industry back then was different as well. Pushing children to become on-camera performers was something that had been part of show business tradition for decades. The ramifications on the underage performer’s long term mental stability was not considered a problem worth investigating. More than forty years later, we actually don’t have a lot more insight. What we do know comes off as pretty obvious — those who begin the process of entering the entertainment industry at an early age (16 years or younger), and end up with success as a celebrity, will be more mentally challenged throughout the rest of their life when compared to kids who never pursue a career in the performing arts. 
The average human being goes through a maturation process that lasts beyond age 18. Specifically, aspects of the brain are still being worked out biologically/structurally, even after 18 years old. This probably means that any adult who attempts to achieve success in the entertainment business will be challenged mentally, but those with pre-adult brains are uniquely tested as they make their way through the industry as a performer. 

I grew up with a father who worked in the Entertainment industry his entire life (behind the camera). This exposure probably made me sensitive to seeing the impact a career in front of the camera could have on an individual. Years later, when I began working as a professional screenwriter, I was also raising two daughters. They were nine and six years old when I signed a two picture contract with Walt Disney studio where I would go every day to an office to write the scripts for my projects. Occasionally I would bring my girls with me for part of the day. On one of those days, while walking across the lot, we encountered a casting director working for the studio. She spent several minutes engaged in a lively conversation with both my girls before moving on. The interaction was memorable enough that it led to this casting director calling my office later to ask if I’d be interested in letting both girls audition for parts in a movie she was currently casting for the studio. My reply was instantaneous and curt, as if I was talking to a pornographer asking about the availability of my girls for his latest project. 
“No. No interest at all in my girls auditioning for you. Please don’t raise this question ever again. To me, or to my daughters. Thank you. Good bye.” 

My paranoia about the girls being seduced by the entertainment industry did not change with time. Years later, after I had produced my first movie, I was driving to a warehouse in Santa Monica with my daughters still gripped with the same paranoia that somehow the entertainment business was going to sneak in and steal the future happiness of my girls. We were on our way to take in the photo shoot for a magazine’s cover featuring three of the actresses who starred in the movie I had just produced. My fear was that my daughters would witness all the lux treatment during the photo shoot and it would end up being a siren call to lure them to pursue a career in front of the camera. The only way I could see actually following through with the field trip was to spend the entire time on the freeway prepping them with a realistic counter narrative to what they were about to witness. 
“You’re going to watch three young women being treated like stars. They will be surrounded by people, waiting on them like they were royalty. There will be the most beautiful clothes to wear and fancy food to eat when they want it. So, yes, these women will be the center of attention, but what I’m asking you to do is see beyond the glamour and glitter. I want you to see the future that inevitably lies ahead, beyond the bright lights. Fame for an actress in the movie industry is fleeting at best. Shorter than a star linebacker in the NFL. Then it’s a mad scramble to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life when everyone has been telling you for years that you’re a star. Understand?” 
My oldest girl replied first. 
“Dad, we get it. You don’t want us to become actors.” 
Then my youngest girl chimed in. “Can we go in now.” 
I happily unlocked the car doors, allowing my girls to leave the vehicle and attend the photo session. Neither of my daughters ended up pursuing careers as performers, or even in the entertainment industry. Except for my genes, consistently throwing up road blocks to a potential avenue of fame and fortune might be one of the most profoundly positive impacts I’ve had on my daughters’ lives.   

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