The Top Seven Child Stars Who Actually Made It

April 20, 2009

Every year we see a whole slew of child actors get pimped out by their parents to the Hollywood industry. We see them in sitcoms, advertisements, and movies, and sometimes they rise to the top...but very few of them stay there. Here’s our look at the actors who survived child stardom and took it to the next level: adulthood.

Source: Warner Bros. Television

7. Sean Astin


Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Who knew Sean Astin would turn into a chubby little hobbit? He spent much of his youth playing the lead kid in hit films like The Goonies and White Water Summer. From childhood he went straight into young man/older kid roles in The War of the Roses, Memphis Belle, and the classic Rudy.

Any other child actor would’ve burnt out after all that time in front of the cameras at such a young age. The fact that he didn’t become a veterinarian or a meth addict shows that Astin had what it took. Of course, about the only role anyone really knows him by is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. But that’s a hell of a lot better than being remembered by a terrible sitcom that gets more depressing with every rerun.

6. Drew Barrymore


Source: Universal Pictures

There was a whole lot of luck that went into the crafting of Drew Barrymore’s life. If she hadn’t been cast in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., she would not have been able to spend the last 27 years after the playing cute, kinda homely, girl-next-door parts. The lessons she learned from E.T. have served her well the rest of her life: smile, bat your eyes, and talk in an adorable seven-year-old’s voice.

Her lack of range notwithstanding, Barrymore has managed not to become anorexic, get too addicted to anything for too long, or flash her vagina to the paparazzi. These things don’t sound impressive but they’re actually all the signs of a child actor who has transitioned successfully to an adult career.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio


Source: Warner Bros. Television

Young DiCaprio, if you’ll recall, began his acting days on the hit sitcom Growing Pains as Luke Brower, the adopted child of the Seaver clan. His time as a child star is one of the most difficult to demarcate. It wasn’t until he was about thirty that he actually started to look his age.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Leonardo was never a huge child star, but rather a bit player in lots of little shows, that helped propel him into adult stardom. He didn’t grow up with assumptions of entitlement, and thus did a better job of keeping his head on his shoulders.

That, or it’s because he played a retarded kid in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and then had the astronomically good fortune to be cast in Titanic, the biggest, most successful bad movie of all time. You be the judge.

4.  Jodie Foster


Source: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jodie Foster did a crap-ton of work as a kid but didn’t really come to the world’s attention until she got her seminal role in Taxi Driver as Iris. Given that Foster was at the tender age of 14 when it came out, the film pretty much assured her a lot of accolades and critical acclaim until she was at least 15 or 16. In all seriousness, this is still one of the most important performances she’s given in her entire career, which just goes to show that just ‘cause you stay in the game for a long time doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get better than when you started.

Foster’s first big “adult” role was The Silence of the Lambs, and from there on out everyone wanted to see more of this slender, sexy actress, even if the searching, confused expression on her face never really changed all that much.

Whatever the secret to Foster’s success, it’s clear that intelligence, avoidance of the tabloids, and her not marrying a slew of movie stars probably didn’t hurt her any. Her career seems pretty cold right now, but the fact that she’s stepped up to the plate as a child and adult means she’s probably in good stead now that middle age is now upon her.

3. Christian Bale


Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Christian Bale is one of those rare actors who has had the sublime luck of having parents eager to pimp him out at a young age combined with the God-given talent to back him up. From his first lead role in a feature, Spielberg’s esteemed Empire of the Sun (which was released when he was only 13), to his teen years, when he showed he still had chops with Swing Kids and Newsies, Bale was primed for adult stardom from the very beginning.

Fortunately for Bale, he didn’t become an all-out movie star until Batman Begins, at which point he was 31. That said, he was still the youngest actor ever to play Batman, so he wasn’t exactly sweating it.

Though Bale is certainly cashing in on his newfound stardom now, you can’t really hold it against the guy. He’s been putting in the blood, sweat, and tears since he was twelve, and he continues to take parts in odd independent films like The Machinist, The New World, and I’m Not There. The man’s clearly not averse to continually improving as an actor and risking his reputation in smaller films.

Even if he and Batman had never crossed paths he’d still have been one of the most important actors of his generation. Thank God he didn’t screw that all up for a sitcom in the ‘90s or a bad stand-up routine.

2. Ron Howard


Source: George Rose/Getty Images

This is an interesting part of the list, because while Ron Howard was certainly a huge child star in his day – starring in everything from Happy Days to M*A*S*H and American Graffiti – his rise to stardom as an adult came from his prowess as a director, not an actor.

Howard has directed a lot of blockbusters in his time. He helmed Cocoon, Willow, Parenthood, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and The Da Vinci Code, to name just a few. And in his spare time he produced and narrated Arrested Development.

Howard is evidence that if you don’t become a drug-addled psychopath because of your time in the trenches as a child star, you can become anything you want.

1. Elizabeth Taylor


Source: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor probably takes the cake in terms of being a child star who transcended her own famous youth to become an internationally famous movie star. As a kid she cut her teeth on films like Lassie Come Home, Courage of Lassie, and Jane Eyre. But her best work was definitely in front of her.

By the time she was only 24, Giant was released (1956), the last film that James Dean starred in. She was acting with the heaviest of the heavy hitters, and she didn’t look back. She starred with Paul Newman in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Burton in 1963’s Cleopatra, and Burton again in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

As a girl it was quickly apparent that she was destined to be one of the most talented actresses of her generation, and she didn’t disappoint. She’s been nominated for a whopping five Oscars, and has won two: Best Actress in 1961 for Butterfield 8, and Best Actress again in 1967 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Yes, it’s true, Taylor hasn’t aged terribly well. Those luscious curves and doe eyes have given way to increased poundage and frightening jowls. But she set the golden standard for child stars that survived their own childhood to make it in the movies, and her legacy is unlikely to be topped any time soon.