Bye Bye Baby: Former Child Stars Look Back on Retiring Young

7 minute read

When Mara Wilson was welcomed into the 20th Century Fox family, someone told the 5-year-old that they planned to make her the next Shirley Temple.

“I remember feeling enormous pressure because I didn’t want to be Shirley Temple,” said Wilson, now 26. “Shirley Temple was Shirley Temple, and I didn’t ever feel like I could live up to that.”

Temple, who died at age 85 Monday, Feb. 10, set the precedent for all child actors. She was the first, the most successful, and seemingly the happiest. Temple might have entered the Hollywood elite at a young age, but she left it young as well — and unlike many modern young stars, she escaped more or less unscathed.

Although Wilson didn’t reach Shirley Temple levels of fame — and, to our knowledge, didn’t inspire any mocktails — her roles in Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street (“which is funny because I’m Jewish,” she said), and Matilda made her a ’90s icon. But Wilson, too, went into early retirement — fueled in part by her mother’s death during Matilda’s post-production. That was when things stopped being fun and turned into a chore.

“Very slowly I realized, too, that I was getting older,” she said. “And I wasn’t exactly aging gracefully. I was kind of awkward, and I didn’t feel like I really belonged there anymore, and Hollywood didn’t really want me either. So I consider it something of a mutual breakup: I was pretty much over Hollywood, and it was like, ‘Well, you aren’t really cute anymore, so we don’t know what to do with you.’ And it was fine with me.”

Many child actors experience the puberty push-out. Jeff Cohen’s iconic “truffle shuffle” (see below) when he played Chunk in The Goonies might be an audience favorite, but he was left unwanted when he started losing his baby fat.

But Cohen recalled that even Shirley Temple suffered a similar fate when she grew up and her blonde curls turned brown. Temple wrote in her autobiography how her agent Lew Wasserman, a mogul at MCA, pulled the actress into his office and told her that she was through — “washed up.” When Temple began to cry, Wasserman offered her only a tissue and the salty line, “Have one on me.”

“After making the studio enormous amounts of money, her usefulness was at an end. She was discarded,” Cohen told TIME via email. “Such is the nature of many businesses, including show business.”

Luckily, Goonies director Richard Donner gave Cohen an introduction to the business side of Hollywood, rather than a Kleenex. This helped lead Cohen to a career as a high-profile entertainment attorney, with a biography page that asks clients not to hold his “dubious” past as a child actor against him. Cohen admires Temple’s seamless transition into the second chapter of her life.

“Much like the optimistic heroines she played in her films, she did not become embittered,” he said. “She chose to transcend the darkness and build a beautiful and productive life.” Indeed, as has been vividly recalled in the days since her passing, Temple went on to be a mother, a prominent Republican fund-raiser, a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, and a diplomat to Ghana and Czechoslovakia before the fall of Communism.

Ilan Mitchell-Smith, best known for his starring role in Weird Science, found inspiration in Temple’s ability to be so wildly successful at one thing and then deciding that it was no longer for her.

“For her to end up successfully doing a job that was so unrelated, I think it’s kind of a model for what is possible,” said Mitchell-Smith. “I think one of the benefits of winning that lottery when you’re young is that you can have that moment and can still decide,what will I really enjoy and be fulfilled doing. I was always talking to people about history and very old stories — basically it was a result from being a really big Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I just wanted to pursue it as much as I could and maybe teach it.”

He is now an English professor at Cal State Long Beach.

Josh Saviano, who played Paul on the Wonder Years, decided that the end of high school (which coincided with the end of the series) would be his time to step back and reassess if he wanted to act. “I wanted to live a ‘normal’ life for a little bit and see where that led me,” he said. “If during the course of the next four years during school or after school the pull would bring me back in, I would do it. And it just didn’t.”

So Saviano became an intellectual property lawyer, largely dealing with corporate and celebrity branding. “Shirley Temple is one of the people who created her own brand, She took all this notoriety and became a leader for diplomacy and advocacy,” he said. Saviano believes he has managed a similar shift — “although not nearly to the same degree of success,” he said. “But it seems like a proper brand to go from child actor to this protector of brands and talent.”

Of course, not all former child stars feel as satisfied with their transition out of Hollywood. Like Temple, Sheila Kuehl was discovered in a tap-dancing class at Meglin Kiddie Studios. She went on to star in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis between 1959 and 1963.

“I was pretty deeply in the closet, but I had been gay since about the age of 18 — at least that’s when I knew it,” she said. After the president of CBS saw her pilot for a Dobie Gillis spinoff, Kuehl remembers, “He said, ‘I think she’s just a little too butch — let’s not try to sell it.’ I assumed that meant people knew, and my phone just stopped ringing.”

Kuehl found fulfillment as a law school student in the ’70s and became the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature in 1994. After 14 years serving as a state senator and assemblywoman, she is now running for a position in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Many former child actors flirt with the idea of going back to Hollywood. Wilson continued to study theater at NYU, a “home for former child actors” — in which she’d avoid awkward eye contact with Haley Joel Osment or an Olsen twin in the halls, Wilson joked — and currently works at a nonprofit organization called Publicolor when she isn’t writing and doing comedy. “I had two or three flirtations to rekindle the flame, but it never really panned out and I wasn’t sad that it didn’t,” she said.

“Would I be tempted to win the lottery again?” Mitchell-Smith asked. “Like, yeah, that would be great. But the real work of it, of maintaining a professional network, and maintaining an agent who’s working for you, and going out on auditions, and making sure you have expensive haircuts?” He’ll stick to teaching Beowulf.

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