Ever since the movies began at the turn of the 20th century, there have been child and juvenile stars, male and female, who have turned out to be walking gold mines for the studios. Some have even been responsible for saving their respective studios from going under. Until around thirty years ago (maybe a bit longer), 90% of the best child actors have undoubtedly been American-born. Whether this was due to superior coaching techniques, a natural flair for movie acting, or simply the result of fierce competition, I am not sure. Maybe, it has been a combination of all three, but there is no doubt in my mind that American kids were decidedly better at it than those from Britain and elsewhere. Of course, there are always exceptions. Freddie Bartholomew and Hayley Mills, for instance, quickly spring to mind.
I shall take a look at as many of these youngsters as I can find, and I shall do so in alphabetical order; not in order of significance or importance to the industry. Mostly, these articles will focus on the young stars of long ago, but the more outstanding ones of recent times will also get a run. Some earlier TV stars will get a mention, but few if any of the current crop. An assessment of the careers of the best child and juvenile movie stars down the ages would not be complete without the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Macaulay Culkin or Elijah Wood from more recent times, so they too will be included.
Here is part one:
Lee Aaker as Corporal Rusty with James Brown
as Lt. Rip Masters in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin
LEE AAKER (1943 – )
Lee Aaker was born in September 1943, in Los Angeles where his mother owned a dance studio. The boy was on TV almost from infancy and in bit parts in movies from the age of eight. His uncredited parts were in some major movies – High Noon, Hans Christian Andersen and The Greatest Show on Earth (all in 1952), Hondo (1953), and The Raid and Destry (1954). He tested for and was promised the part of Van Heflin’s son in Shane (1953), before the role unexpectedly went to Brandon de Wilde. Lee’s big break came when he was cast as Corporal Rusty in the TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-59). Television was in its infancy and just beginning to become part of life in American homes. His face became known nation-wide over the five years the series lasted. Then, just like that, fame and an acting career were over. A few minor appearances as a guest on I Love Lucy, etc, and a brief stint assisting the producer on the Route 66 series in 1962, and he retired from the business altogether to become a carpenter.
W C Fields & Baby LeRoy
BABY LEROY (1932 – 2001)
Born Ronald Le Roy Overacker in Los Angeles in May 1932, Baby LeRoy landed the lead role in Paramount’s The Biscuit Eater at the age of eight in October 1939. Actually, this was supposed to be his comeback film, after a four-year absence from the screen, but things went wrong. Required to swing across a lake holding a rope, the 8 year-old lost his grip and fell into the lake, not once but both times the director attempted the shot. As a result the boy developed a very bad cold, lost his voice and was replaced in the picture. His comeback never materialised and the career of Baby LeRoy officially ended in 1935. It had lasted all of three years (1933-35) and a total of just ten movies. He was only six months old when he debuted in A Bedtime Story (1933). He was, of course, under-age, and unable anyway to sign a contract, but so was his 16 year-old mother. The boy’s grandfather did the signing.
Several of Baby LeRoy’s films starred the irascible W.C. Fields. In Tillie and Gus (1933), a short scene was repeatedly ruined by the baby’s crying until Fields solved the problem. ‘I quietly removed the nipple from Baby LeRoy’s bottle, dropped in a couple of noggins of gin, and returned it to Baby LeRoy’, he said. ‘After sucking on the pacifier for a few minutes, he staggered through the scene like a Barrymore.’ Ronald Le Roy Overacker became a merchant seaman as an adult and passed away at the age of 69 in 2001.
BABY PEGGY (1918 – )
She was born in San Diego in October 1918 and is still living (as of April 2019). In the early 1920s, the only child actor to rival Jackie Coogan’s popularity after he played the title role in Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), was a cute little girl named ‘Baby Peggy’. She was ‘discovered’ at 19 months when her mother visited Century Studios on Sunset Boulevard. Little Peggy-Jean Montgomery would go on to appear in 150 shorts and nine feature films. Her father was a cowboy who supported himself as Tom Mix’s ‘double’. She was not yet four years old when she made her first screen appearance and by the age of 8 her career was over. Peggy entrusted all her money (about $2 million) to her parents and, through bad management and high living, they squandered the lot. In 1996, she released her autobiography, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?’ She moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico after leaving Hollywood.
Drew Barrymore as Gertie in E T – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
DREW BARRYMORE (1975 – )
A great many fans, if asked what was Drew Barrymore’s first movie, would probably answer E T – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), yet that is not so. It was her fourth, but it is the one in which her extraordinary talent became immediately apparent. She played Gertie at the age of six and was simply delightful. I think, like a lot of other people, I fell for Drew hook, line and sinker during the scene in which her brother Elliott tells her not to tell anyone about ET, not even their mum. ‘Why not?’ Gertie asks. ‘Because, uh, grown-ups can’t see him. Only little kids can see him’, Elliott replies. ‘Gimme a break!’ says Gertie, and I instantly fell in love with her.
Drew as an adult
Before E T, she had appeared in two tele-movies and the feature film Altered States (1980). Born in Culver City, California to John Drew Barrymore and Jaid Barrymore in 1975, Drew is the grand-daughter of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello. At seven she became the youngest ever host of Saturday Night Live. It might surprise readers to learn that she auditioned for the role of Carol Ann Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), but missed out to the ill-fated Heather O’Rourke.
In 1990, aged just 14, she completed her autobiography titled Little Girl Lost. Drew’s notoriously troubled childhood has been well-documented. As a young girl she was a regular at Studio 54, partying heavily and meeting men. An alcohol problem saw her placed in rehab at the age of thirteen. A year later she attempted suicide and was put back in rehab. For three months she lived with singer David Crosby and his wife, the idea being to surround her with people who were committed to sobriety. The following year she lodged a successful juvenile petition for emancipation from her parents and moved into her own apartment. Happily, her life has since settled down and she is now a highly professional actress.