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"I hate to say it but kids are pieces of meat. I've never had anything but filet mignon. I've never had hamburger. My kids are the choice meat."
Iris Burton Hollywood children's agent

Some have freckles. Some have lisps. Some are streetwise and wisecracking. Others melt your heart. Child actors—they're adorable, whether squeezing the Charmin or saying "I love you" to an alien from outer space.

But don't let looks deceive. Precious and innocent don't go hand in hand, not in showbiz anyway. These moppets are under great pressure. Voices change. Pimples appear. An inch of growth can kill a career. Gotta make it fast; there's always a new face in the wings—one that's younger or, worse, older but can play younger.

Today's child actors are a savvier, hipper lot than the generations that came before. It's a less innocent world. There's more competition. Less privacy. A different reality. Gone are the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney days when studios controlled their properties. To survive, a child must have supreme confidence in his abilities. Some parents boast that their kids know their financial worth to the penny. "This is a fantasy world," says Hollywood casting director Sheila Manning. "We're turning children into little adults, asking them to do an adult job for adult money. And we expect adult reactions. But they're kids."

What kind of kid can remain smiling after the 25th audition—the average number it takes to land a job? Manning sees it this way: "Kids who work a lot are borderline devils. They have a certain mischief, an impatience. They know who they are and channel that into acting. With kids, talent usually means an outgoing personality, a thick skin to help withstand criticism or rejection, and the ability to follow directions." Says L.A. casting director Mike Fenton, "Most kids who make it are brighter than average. Most of them are high achievers. Usually straight-A students, class officers, athletes or budding scientists. Kids today are visually hip. They see other kids on TV and ask why not me."

The bottom line: "If a kid isn't competitive," says Anne Lavezzi, "he isn't going to survive." Lavezzi should know. She has three offspring in the biz, including Gabriel Damon, 8, of this season's ABC miniseries Call to Glory. Recalling a director who was a screamer, she says, "Although one girl left in tears, Gabe braved the tirade and proved his durability."

Overachiever is a word for redheaded, Oklahoma-bred Danny Cooksey, 9, of Diff'rent Strokes. Observes his mother, Melodie, "I was afraid he would burn out, but the more he does the better he likes it." Danny has few illusions about his future. "Work, work, work," he says. "You gotta do whatcha gotta do."

Ildiko Jaid Barrymore, Drew's mother, says her daughter instinctively knew where the camera was when, at 11 months, she tested opposite a puppy in a dog food commercial. Ildiko believes Drew's talents are inherited. "You can't learn all that Drew knows in one lifetime. There has to be something to it. Why would she be so committed and know what she wants to do at the age of 9?"

Equally celebrated is E.T.'s Henry Thomas, now 13, who is just as dedicated, despite his lack of famous forebears. It was eight years ago when Henry announced he was going to be in the movies. His father, Butch, 49, a hydraulic engineer, told him he'd have to wait. After all, San Antonio is a long way from Hollywood. But Henry was adamant. "We felt sorry for him because he wanted it so badly," says his mother, Carolyn. Henry's low point came at age 8, when he agreed to compromise his artistic standards by trying out for TV commercials.

Then it happened: An open audition was called in San Antonio for a boy to play Sissy Spacek's son in Raggedy Man. At the audition, when it looked as if Henry might not get to read because time was running out, he attached himself to the doorknob of director Jack Fisk's office. Later, as Fisk was explaining the movie's plot to Henry, the youngster administered the coup de grace. He reached over and held the director's hand.

It's easy to say you'd never let your kid risk giving up childhood for a career. But the rewards are tempting. "Never before has there been the opportunity for kids to make the money that they make today," says agent Iris Burton. "We are doing this for a reason: money," admits Diane Schroder, Ricky's mom. "It's not that I like Silver Spoons. I mean, we don't have friends over on Saturday nights to watch it. And I don't like being separated from my husband five days a week. My main goal has always been monetary." New York kids' agent Marcia Goldenberg says that when she asks the under-7 set why they want to be in showbiz, "half of them say because of the money, not because they want to be an actor or actress. It amazes me."

Standard pay for a commercial is $317.40 a day. Then come residuals and sometimes buyouts, where a kid is paid by a sponsor not to appear in other ads. When Manning's son was 5, she cast him in a pork-and-beans spot that ran for five years, eventually helping to pay his way through law school.

For 26 episodes of TV's Family Ties, Tina Yothers, 11, earns $117,000. Minimum pay for a motion picture is $2,500 a week. For E.T., Henry Thomas was paid $45,000. A veteran of four theatrical motion pictures, Schroder's asking price is upwards of $300,000. California has the famous Coogan Act (brought about by Jackie Coogan, who sued his mother and stepfather to obtain the $4 million he earned as a child); the law requires parents to put 30 percent of their kid's income from movies and TV series into a trust, available to the child at age 18. All other earnings are exempt. What happens to most of the kid's money is between him and his parents. Since a child's career is historically brief, Burton advises parents: "Put away for a rainy day. If you don't, plan on buying an umbrella. You'll need it."

Most aspiring stage parents yearn to shoulder such heavy financial responsibilities. But first their kids have got to break into the biz. For some, like Justin Henry, 13, of Kramer vs. Kramer and Sixteen Candles, or Cary Guffey, 12, of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Cross Creek, it was comparatively easy. Hollywood came to them. Both Henry and Guffey were actually plucked from their school classrooms by casting agents. Others, like Soleil Moon Frye, 8, of this season's Punky Brewster on NBC, followed in the footsteps of an older sibling, Meeno Peluce.

But for most, getting started means finding an agent, often the most difficult and important step. "There are more kids on TV and in the films today than ever before," says Manning. Agents are besieged with photos of young hopefuls. "I get 25 pictures a day, of which I'll choose five to meet with; no guarantee of signing," says Marcia Goldenberg, who estimates the number of children in the modeling and acting fields to be "infinitesimal, and out of 1,000 maybe 10 percent get work." Goldenberg warns parents to beware of agents and managers who want money up front or of photographers who want a signed contract. (A list of reputable agents can be obtained by writing the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood.)

Geography is also a factor. Best to live in L.A. or New York, where the work is. Parents must be willing to shlep their child to and from auditions, often called on a moment's notice. It can be costly. A simple black-and-white composite photograph can run $450. Then come singing, dancing and gymnastics lessons, and maybe a dental bridge to hide missing teeth.

But being beautiful isn't always a plus. What's in, says Goldenberg, "is the Norman Rockwell spice-of-life kid, with upturned nose and lots of freckles." The demand for minority kids is increasing, she says. "Sometimes they ask for a WASPy black." Out of 25 signed children, Goldenberg has three blacks, two Hispanics and one Asian. Despite Chinese-born, Vietnam-raised Ke Huy Quan's success in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Asians haven't been flooding the market. "As individuals, they are more withdrawn," says Goldenberg, "though Asians adopted by American parents are good."

"I don't like pretty-pretty children," says agent Burton. "Every mother thinks there's another Shirley Temple out there. I don't want Shirley Temple curls. I want a Mary Smith or a Johnny Jones, an unknown. Six months from now they'll say, 'Get me a Johnny Jones type.' I don't want clones." As for personality, it's "an inner charisma, something behind the eyes," says L.A. agent Mary Grady. "You can't bottle this magic thing," agrees Fenton. "It's either there or it isn't."

During a national search for a lead in the movie version of Annie, Burton was awakened one morning by someone ringing her doorbell. Stepping onto the balcony of her second-story bedroom, she saw a woman on her front lawn who said she'd just driven in from Waco, Texas. Suddenly from behind a bush leapt a little girl in a red wig, red dress and white shoes who burst into Tomorrow. Burton cut her off with a brutal but honest critique: "Kid, for you there Is no tomorrow."

There will always be stage mothers, but they pale in comparison to stage fathers. "They're 100 times worse than stage mothers because the father takes a more hard-line disciplinary approach and reduces a child to tears for blowing a line. It's that Pee Wee League approach to belittling a kid who strikes out," says Chicago agent Chuck Saucier. "Fathers are more possessive," says Goldenberg. "More boastful. They're always there."

Perseverance and determination are a must. Bob Yothers, Tina's father, who has had two other kids before the cameras—Poindexter, 18, and Bumper, 12—manages his kids' careers, thus saving a 15-25 percent manager's commission. Yothers, a former drummer, works full time promoting his kids. Having been unsuccessful in getting a salary increase for Tina on Family Ties, he has produced a master tape of Tina singing pop songs, which he hopes to sell to a record label. A hit record, he admits, will up her ante. When Bumper says he's "co-starring" in the recently released sci-fi film Dreamscape, his father corrects him. "Starring," says Bob. "Starring," says Bumper shrugging.

Although agents claim exploitation of children by parents is rare, there are frightening examples. Manning tells of an 11-year-old star who was being starved by her mother so she wouldn't grow. "She played battered children very well," says Manning, who claims she fed the youngster her first piece of chicken. Manning remembers seeing a father slap his two sons across the face after an audition because they didn't perform well enough to suit him. Then there were the parents who adopted a freckle-faced boy to put in showbiz. He did so well the father was able to quit his job as a housepainter. When the kid turned 15 and the jobs dried up, the parents adopted a 2-year-old who looked just like him. This one, however, fooled them. He wanted no part of the business.

Grady tells of a little girl phoning to check on auditions "because my parents want a pool and want me to help pay for it." Perhaps the most touching scene Grady ever witnessed came after an audition, when she saw a girl comforting her sobbing mother.

Larry and Sue Guffey, Cary's parents, pride themselves on being atypical showbiz parents. The family remains in Atlanta, where Cary was discovered. A veteran of eight films, Cary has never auditioned. His parents have a simple rule: He cannot appear in any film that he could not go see by himself. "We turned down The Shining," says Larry. "We did not like Jack Nicholson because of his association with Roman Polanski. We just didn't want Cary on the set with him." Surprisingly, Cary was allowed to make the campy horror flick Night Shadows. "Sue was dead against it but it provided an opportunity for Cary to die onscreen," Larry rationalizes, "and that's something he has not experienced."

Perhaps it's an impossible question to answer, but how does a kid balance being a celebrity and being a normal, unaffected child? When not working, today's kid stars attend regular schools, where they must maintain at least a C average or their working permit is revoked. But even in school, celebrity causes problems. "Jealousy is the biggest factor," says Bob Yothers. When Tina went to try out for her school play, her teacher forbade her to audition. "You get enough of that in Hollywood," she was told. Tina had to stand apart from the rest of her classmates, made to feel different. At a skating rink, a child who recognized Tina threatened to beat her up.

"Sure, one has to wonder what being in this business does to a kid's childhood," says director Lewis Teague, who filmed Cat's Eye, which will be released in February, with Drew Barrymore. "But given the bad reviews that childhood gets—everyone's mother was too cold or too smothering or too something—it is probably just as well to learn a craft and make some money while you wait to grow up. A better question might be: Should a kid have to go through childhood and miss those precious years in show business?"

Parents are the key to how a child responds to fame. "I want my kids to do whatever they want in life," claims Bob Yothers. "If Tina wants to be a supermarket checker, like she said on The Phil Donahue Show, then I'll go buy her a cash register." Concurs Sondra Frye, Soleil's mother, "My fantasy is that my kids just grow up to be happy, productive, creative, loving human beings. I try to guide them into the higher aspects of their own being."

Meanwhile, back at the agent's office: "Don't call me an agent, honey," says Burton. "I'm a groomer. A talent scout. I watch their weight. Hair. Nails. And most of all I watch their parents. By the time a kid walks through the door, I know if he or she's a winner or a loser. If they jump in or slouch in, if they're biting their nails and rocking back and forth, I don't want 'em. If I don't see the hidden strength, feel the energy, then the magic isn't there. I can smell it like a rat." Next!

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong,
  • Andrea Darvi,
  • Pamela Lansden,
  • Joyce Leviton.