It's not easy to be young, rich and famous. Just ask any child star.
Robert Iler, 16, became the latest young actor to have a brush with the law. The Sopranos actor was arrested on Manhattan's Upper East Side with two other teens on charges of second-degree robbery and marijuana possession.
Iler has pleaded not guilty. But even before his trial begins, there's public speculation of whether he's just another budding celebrity who tasted success a little too soon.
Some call it The Diff'rent Strokes Syndrome. Gary Coleman, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges are certainly textbook examples of kids who just had a hard time growing up in public. Plato committed suicide two years ago in a drug overdose after several brushes with the law.
Bridges also struggled with chemical dependency and has been arrested several times. In 1990, he was acquitted after being accused of shooting a crack dealer.
Coleman, who earned an estimated $18 million from the top-rated sitcom, had been reduced to working as a $7-an-hour movie set security guard a few years ago. Like other former child stars, he blamed his parents for squandering his fortune — and reached adulthood alone and unemployed.
After a widely publicized fistfight with an autograph-seeking fan, Coleman was fined $400. He failed to come up with the money and soon after declared bankruptcy. A Web site later held an auction of his personal items, selling his size-4½ bowling shoes ($107.50), afro picks ($61) and spatula ($41) to keep him financially afloat.
But Joal Ryan, author of Former Child Stars: The Story of America's Least Wanted, warns against making generalizations. "There are so many child stars living normal, happy lives," she says. "How come you don't hear about them? Because it's not news when someone doesn't screw up."
About the same time Coleman was struggling as a security guard, Emmanuel Lewis — another diminutive young actor — was graduating from Clark Atlanta University. Lewis has kept a low profile since Webster wrapped in 1987, a far cry from the mid-1980s, when he took the stage at the American Music Awards as Michael Jackson's newest sidekick.
"On the same day that the Sopranos kid got arrested, 20 other child stars might have been rescuing cats, graduating high school, or just living normal lives," Ryan says. "It's just that normal behavior isn't reported."
Urban Myths and Kid Actors
Child actors have always been a subject of fascination. And their treatment in the press has never been easy. Certainly there have been widespread rumors that are nothing more than urban legends.
Kirk Cameron, who played Mike on Growing Pains, actually had to respond to rumors that he had died in, adding insult to injury, a bowling accident, after the show was canceled in 1992.
"A friend of mine confronted him on that, and you just have to think how bizarre such a life can be — to need to prove that you are alive," says film critic Richard Roeper, author of Hollywood Urban Legends.
Roeper says such wild stories are rampant. Mikey — that kid from the Life cereal commercials — did not die from eating Pop Rocks candy and washing it down with Coke. And Susan Olsen — Cindy from The Brady Bunch — never starred in a porn movie. She merely resembles the star of the 1986 X-rated skin flick Crocodile Blondee.
"It's just too much fun to believe stuff like that happens," Roeper says. "And we just want people to fit into a particular mold."