Former child stars reveal sex abuse, emotional trauma of Hollywood
For Todd Bridges, it all started with “Sanford and Son.” Recalling the acerbic comedy about a junk dealer and his offspring, the San Francisco native told The Post: “I wanted to be like Redd Foxx. I wanted to be on television.”
He got what he desired at age 13, starring as big brother Willis Jackson on the class-conscious sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes.” which ran from 1978 to 1986. But like most former child actors profiled in the new documentary “Showbiz Kids,” premiering Tuesday on HBO, he also got more than he bargained for — and not in a good way.
Following commercial work that included the first Parkay margarine commercial, Bridges landed the “Strokes” gig. But he also had to deal with the consequences of money-stealing team members, a sexually aggressive publicist and systemic racism: “I had a gun pulled on my head when I was 12 — an officer told me that my bike was stolen.”
After learning to drive, he added, “I was pulled over every day, for four years, by the same officers. And when I complained, it got worse. I got accused of stealing my own car.”
The odds of Bridges succeeding were daunting — according to the doc, each year some 20,000 children audition for Hollywood acting jobs and 95 percent fail to land a single one — but the likelihood of thriving after growing up on the small-screen was even dicier.
“If you are going to be in showbiz as a child, make sure you have a secondary business as an adult,” said Bridges. Now 55, he went through tough times — including a crack addiction and an arrest for felony assault — before cleaning up and re-launching his career with recurring roles on shows such as “Everybody Hates Chris,” which was created by Chris Rock.
“Acting is a fictional life, and you have to discover real life. I can deal with both. But I prefer real life,” Bridges said.
That might be easy to say once you are an adult, but, as a kid in the limelight, the rigors of the business can be tough — especially if you were not there completely by choice.
More than one performer in the documentary talks about the pressures of living up to their parents’ ambitions of stardom.
Wil Wheaton, who became famous for his role in the hit 1986 film “Stand By Me,” reveals in the doc that he was pushed to center stage by his mother who had her own dreams of fame. “It was never my idea,” he said. “I don’t know a 7-year-old who says they want to go to work.”
Evan Rachel Wood, who starred in the sexually provocative “13” when she “was 14, on the verge of becoming a woman,” talks in the doc about growing up in a small-town acting family. Failing to follow through on her career was barely an option. “It would be disappointing to people if I didn’t want to do this because I was talented,” said Wood, 32. “If I didn’t want to do this, the vibe would have been ‘what a waste.’ I didn’t feel that I could stop because I was good. So I just did it.”
The discomfort of it all can be palpable. “Acting scared the hell out of me, outright,” said Henry Thomas, who’s lovingly remembered for his “E.T.” portrayal of Elliot. “I pissed my pants the first time I was in the spotlight.”
Alex Winter, now 55, who directed “Showbiz Kids,” can relate to the ups and downs his subjects discuss on camera.
Best known for his portrayal of Bill S. Preston, Esq., opposite Keanu Reeves in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” he started out on stage, co-starring at a young age in “The King and I,” “Peter Pan” and other shows on and off Broadway.
“It was a fantasy come to life,” Winter, who does not appear in his documentary (“I would have overtaken the film”), told The Post. “All of the Broadway giants would be backstage every night. It was an amazing memory.”
But, he revealed, it was also a nightmarish time. During a show’s run, Winter, then around 12, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of an adult. That was back in the late 1970s and, as was the norm, he kept quiet. “I didn’t feel safe talking about it for 25 years,” Winter said, adding that the incidents left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. “You keep [the experience] compartmentalized and it either blows apart — drugs, alcohol, suicide — or you get help, process what happened and put the pieces back together.”
Explaining that he spent years working on the latter, Winter added that appearing in 1990’s “Bill & Ted” was actually therapeutic. “My character was so childlike that I was able to tap into an innocent time,”
“People think of Bill and Ted as stoners, but actually they are [like] incredibly innocent 9-year-old kids.”
Trauma for showbiz children is not limited to physical intrusions. Sometimes the damage can be psychological and pretty much invisible to guardians. “Suddenly I felt like a commodity that needed to be monitored and groomed and I had to present myself in a certain way,” Wood recalls in the documentary. “My voice just kept getting quieter and quieter.”
She added: “Nobody asked me how I was doing. My emotional state was equated with how I was doing in my career.” Due to “the way [she] was raised,” Wood now goes far to keep her young son with her ex, former child actor Jamie Bell, out of the public eye and off the Internet: “If he doesn’t want his image out there, I don’t want to put it out there for him,” Wood said of her child.
Some showbiz kids’ parents don’t always have their offspring’s best interests at heart. Imagine having your family make career decisions that could change the course of your entire future — and even ruin it.
That almost happened to Wheaton, who “got put into a s—ty horror film because [producers] threw a bunch of money at [my family] and dangled a trip to Rome.”
He recalled being heartbroken when Roger Ebert trashed his performance in the 1984 rom-com flop “Buddy System.” As he explains in the documentary: “People forget that they are not just talking about an actor; they are talking about a child.”
Mara Wilson, who starred in “Matilda” and alongside Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” in the mid-’90s, got bullied in a particularly cruel fashion. “People Photoshopped me into child porn . . . and called me ugly online; they were mocking me for going through puberty,” said Wilson, now 32, who recalls that she had a special gift as a child actor: the ability to cry on command. “I felt too vulnerable. That is why I disappeared [from acting]. I’ll never be an A-list actor and I am happy with that.”
Having exited center stage around 12, she went to boarding school, studied theater and graduated from NYU, where she focused on playwriting.
These days, Wilson is opting for a lower-impact Hollywood career: She authored the memoir “Where am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame,” and focuses on doing voice-over work.
As for Winter, although he will be appearing in next month’s “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” a time-traveling sequel to the 30-year-old movie that made him a star, he now devotes most of his time to staying behind the camera, creating documentaries on subjects that range from the Silk Road online black market to Frank Zappa.
In making “Showbiz Kids,” Winter said, he uncovered a universality of experience that he had not expected. “It was cathartic,” he explained of directing the doc, which, he added, was made viable by the confessional #MeToo movement. “I didn’t expect to find out that the experiences of Diana [Serra Cary]” — a child star from the 1920s who supported her family and saw her career end after her father angered a studio exec — “would be the same as mine.”
It also confirmed something for the father of three: “I am not putting my kids in the industry.”
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