04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
ACCORDING TO ONE OF HOLLY-wood's sadder traditions, the younger and brighter the child star, the harder the inevitable fall. Such a fate might have befallen Justin Henry, the heartbreakingly adorable 7-year-old who became the youngest Academy Award nominee ever for his role as Billy Kramer, the precocious little boy caught in a bitter custody battle in the 1979 hit Kramer vs. Kramer.
Yet instead of growing up to become a poster boy for dysfunction, Henry, now 23, is glowing with warm memories as he embarks on an adult acting career by costarring in Andersonville, a TNT movie—no airdate has been set—about the notorious Civil War prison. Making Kramer, he says of the four months he spent on location in Manhattan, about 30 miles from his home in Rye, N.Y., "was a wonderful, wonderful experience. We became like a family—really tight."
Henry, who auditioned for the role after a casting agent visited his first-grade class in 1978, grew especially close to director Robert Benton and to Dustin Hoffman, who played his father. He even took it in stride when Benton warned him that he probably wouldn't win the 1979 Best Supporting Actor Oscar. "He listened, said 'Okay,' and went off to play," Benton recalls. (Melvyn Douglas won that year for Being There.)
Benton says that he advised Henry and his parents—Michele, a real estate agent, and Cliff, an investment adviser—to turn down countless post-Kramer offers so that Justin could build up "a reservoir of normal human experience to draw on." Which is exactly what he did. Except for appearances in a few films during his mid-teens—including 1984's Sixteen Candles—he put off acting until he graduated from Skidmore College last year with a major in psychology. Since wrapping Andersonville last December, Henry has been living in Venice, Calif., pursuing film roles and thanking the good fortune that kept him from becoming a movietown cliche. "Nothing I've done in acting has been a bad experience," he says. "How many people can say that about their jobs?"