Tragedy sells. Every year we hear about more and more child actors who couldn’t hack the rise to fame, had no parental or quality peer support, and finally succumbed to their demons. But not every child star’s career ends in tragedy. Whether they’re an example of universal balance or just got lucky in making better decisions than some of their on-camera peers, there are a handful of child actors who moved on from playing roles as kids to achieving the pinnacle of entertainment industry success. Fortunately for everyone (especially themselves), the following 10 actors managed to avoid the pitfalls of early stardom.
10. Peter Billingsley
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Peter Billingsley could have lived off A Christmas Story residuals for the rest of his life, supported a drug habit that so many former child stars seem to have, and still made occasional appearances at weird conventions to sign autographs… but he had his eye on the prize. Peter had a great career as a child actor. He was The Dirt Bike Kid, for crying out loud! Peter continued to work through his adolescence and always kept his head on his shoulders, taking work when it came. Moving into adulthood, he also began to transition into work on the other side of the camera. Along the way, he became good friends with Jon Favreau, and the two collaborate frequently as producers on projects that Jon directs. Peter has appeared in several films over the past decade, but his focus now is producing big budget film and television.
9. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore is a fascinating tale of Hollywood survival. The fruit of the famed Barrymore family tree, Drew reared herself in many respects, filing for a highly publicized emancipation from her parents, Jaid and John Barrymore. Drew’s battles with substance abuse are also well documented, but she eventually kicked her habits to continue life on the A-List. She planted her flag with an undeniably great performance in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and followed that effort by carrying a story line in Firestarter. She’s still at it today, although she’s moved more to the production side of the business in place of acting. It’s always encouraging to see someone with the strength to break a familial cycle and Drew is the epitome of industry success.
8. Fred Savage
Fred Savage is linked to a few people on this list. Believe it or not, Peter Billingsley was one of Kevin Arnold’s buddies on The Wonder Years, and Fred also starred in 1989’s The Wizard with the lovely, red-headed lass who appears at #7 on this list. Before he scored his iconic role as Kevin Arnold, he played the grandson in Rob Reiner’s fairy tale classic, The Princess Bride. Remember the kid who didn’t like the kissing? Yep, that’s him. He then taught 80s kids how to kiss, opposite Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper), in The Wonder Years. Growing toward adulthood, Fred’s little brother, Ben, grabbed the spotlight in Boy Meets World, and Fred transitioned into television directing. Arguably, there are few people as beloved as Fred Savage in the entertainment industry; he commands respect in front of, and behind, the camera. He’s presently starring opposite Rob Lowe on Fox’s The Grinder.
7. Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis is a true creative. She has been playing make believe for the vast majority of her life, but it is her “current” career as an accomplished musician that has thrust her into the territory of indie goddess. Jenny starred opposite Fred Savage in the aforementioned feature, The Wizard, which is a must-see for every gamer out there! She went on to co-star in several other films and TV series, such as Troop Beverly Hills and The Golden Girls, respectively, always bringing the A+ goods to the table. Now, she’s writing and recording music, selling out venues and attending awards shows like the Grammys. At this point, her music career is rapidly eclipsing her acting career, but she’ll always be known as a child actor who truly made it.
6. Christian Bale
Most movie fans know and recognize Christian Bale as Batman. He was privy to something very special, working on the three Christopher Nolan directed films, and there’s no denying Christian’s chops as an actor. He took one on the chin for his explosion of anger on the set of Terminator: Salvation, but he came out smelling rather rosy after he faulted himself and had a good laugh at his meltdown. Rewinding to the 1980s, we find a more mild-mannered Bale, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of The Sun. The film was released when Christian was 13, and his schoolmates didn’t think much of him being a movie star. He took that one on the chin, too. Christian continued to work through adolescence, highlighted by films such as Swing Kids and Newsies. And now…? With multiple Academy Award nominations (including one this year for his supporting role in The Big Short), he’s pretty much Hollywood royalty.
5. Seth Green
Seth Green doesn’t seem to age. If he struts into a scene freshly shaved, he still looks like he walked off the set of 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait. Seth is now responsible for content production as much as he is acting roles thanks in large part to his work on the stop-motion parody show Robot Chicken, but he has never stopped playing make believe for the camera–even if only in voice–since 1984. Seth is another guy who is beloved throughout the industry. His reputation is one of joyful collaboration, and he’s one of those people who follows the golden rule. Surely he has enjoyed some pretty stellar parties along the way, but he’s too in love with the work and the creative process to destroy any chance of tarnishing his growing legacy. For a guy who only stands at 5’4″, Seth is a larger than life performer.
4. Ethan Hawke
Many people may not realize that Ethan Hawke is another actor who started as a kid. The 45-year-old actor, writer, producer, and director has been doing it for over 30 years. It’s tough to forget his baby-faced turn as Todd Anderson in Dead Poet Society, but he was working even before he set foot in Robin Williams’ classroom, having starred in the 1985 family film Explorers alongside ill-fated fellow child star River Phoenix. Ethan went on to do film after film, collaborating frequently with fellow Texas native Richard Linklater. Ethan is another guy who loves the process, having always offered due diligence to his art and craft, and he’s arguably even more striking in person than he is on screen. He probably should have scored the Oscar for his work in Training Day, but why care when you can just get onto the next role? Hopefully Ethan will get to walk away with Oscar gold one day.
3. Natalie Portman
To set the Natalie Portman discovery story straight, she was not discovered by a casting director, and put into Leon: The Professional. She was discovered by a Revlon cosmetics rep, who suggested she consider modeling, which Natalie did. Modeling ultimately held no interest to her, so she began to pursue acting instead. She participated in plays and musicals at school, and while at summer camp, and was eventually cast in Leon: The Professional. Natalie followed up her preteen work with other stellar performances in films such as Beautiful Girls, Mars Attacks and that one film trilogy where she played the mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker. Natalie has also served as a producer, writer and director, and has an Academy Award win to boot, having won the Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as a tortured ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
2. Ron Howard
Ron Howard was a child actor back when it was nearly impossible to transition to a post-child actor career in Hollywood. Howard was most well known for playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, though he enjoyed a lot of work before joining that cast. Regarding The Andy Griffith Show: Ron is still enjoying residual checks to this day, as the show still runs daily in syndication and remarkably, it holds up very well. As Ron became a teenager and grew into adulthood, he continued to act, but also developed more of an interest in directing feature films. Now, he does both. These days, his acting roles come in the form of playing himself, or some satirical version of himself and most often–with the exception of his recent sea epic, In the Heart of The Sea, which bombed — his features garner steady box office returns. When it comes to child actor success stories, Ron is the king.
1. Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio has enjoyed sustained industry popularity for nearly 20 straight years now. Everything he does garners some gold and Leo was doing it — and doing it well — long before he boarded the RMS Titanic. Because Leo became a teen heartthrob, then a young adult heartthrob, and is now a universal heartthrob, his acting skills are often glossed over, but as anyone who has watched his career closely will tell you: this guy can act. From his earliest work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to his his Oscar-nominated role in this year’s Best Picture nominee The Revenant, DiCaprio has been working for nearly 30 years, and he’s still in peak form. We expect many more years of critically acclaimed success for Leonardo.