Another Naughty Hollywood Kid

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."

That doesn't mean that it's easy to handle fast and fleeting fame. Many young stars have struggled with success. For some it has been fatal. For others, it's served painful lessons. Here, then, are some stories that Robert Iler and other young stars might learn from.

Child Actor Traumas

Anissa Jones Highlight: As the pigtailed darling "Buffy" on Family Affair, she was the cutest thing on TV for about six years, beginning in 1966. Low point: Turned to drugs as a teenager. Shuttled between mother and father. Died of an overdose of Quaaludes and barbiturates in 1976 at 18. Her ashes were cast upon the Pacific Ocean.

Danny Bonaducci Highlight: Played the wisecracking, bass-playing redhead on The Partridge Family, one of the most enduring TV hits of the early 1970s. Low point: Multiple arrests for drug and cocaine possession. Convicted of assaulting and robbing a transvestite prostitute in 1991. Recently: Cohosts a morning drive-time radio show, The Jamie & Danny Show, on Los Angeles' KYSR-FM (Star 98.7).

Rusty Hamer Highlight: For 12 years, he played Danny Thomas' bratty son Rusty on The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room for Daddy) — one of the longest running TV shows of its era. Low point: When the show ended in 1965, Hamer's career fizzled. He left Hollywood and battled with depression and alcoholism. He fatally shot himself in the head and died at 43.

Mackenzie Phillips Highlight: Arrived in 1973 with her role in American Graffiti. She then landed a prominent role in the sitcom One Day At a Time. Low point: Arrested in the show's third season for cocaine possession. Left and returned several times. Fell asleep during rehearsals, refused to take drug tests, and reportedly appeared incoherent at points. Recently: Advocating sobriety, she toured with her father's group, The Mamas and the Papas. She later co-starred on the Disney Channel series So Weird.

Drew Barrymore Highlight: At 7, she rocketed to fame as Gertie in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Low point: Entered a rehab clinic at the age of 13 to fight drug and alcohol abuse. In one episode, she swiped her mother's credit card and hopped a plane to the West Coast with the intention of continuing on to Hawaii. She was apprehended by private investigators in Los Angeles and led back to rehab in handcuffs. On the road to recovery, she portrayed Amy Fisher in a TV movie.

Recently: Star of Charlie's Angels. Married to Comedian Tom Green.

Adam Rich Highlight: Rich was the cherubic star of ABC's Eight Is Enough for four years, beginning in 1977. The show consistently ranked at the top of the ratings chart. Low point: Battled alcohol and substance abuse. Participated in a hoax to fake his own death in Might magazine in 1996. He later said he did it to satirize the media capitalizing on celebrity funerals. Recently: Extolled the virtues of his 12-step program to remain sober.

Macaulay Culkin Highlight: His adorable screaming in 1990's Home Alone catapulted him to the top of Hollywood. A few years later, he was earning $8 million a picture, more than Richard Gere. Low point: Battling with his parents over his estate — once estimated at more than $50 million — he became a surly teen. As the highest-paid 10-year-old in Hollywood history, he told reporters, "I don't even get an allowance." Gossip pages recounted stories of public drunkenness. Sued father. Scrawled graffiti in his New York apartment. Dyed hair blue. He told New York magazine last year that Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch is "the only place on earth where I feel absolutely, 100 percent comfortable." Recently: At 20, Culkin mounted a comeback in the theater and has been well received in the new play Madame Melville, in which he plays a 15-year-old American schoolboy in 1960s Paris who's seduced by his 30-year-old literature teacher.

Leif Garrett Highlight: At 15, helped launch the sidewalk surfing craze with the 1977 movie, Skateboard. Scored a top 10 hit with "I Was Made for Dancing." Low point: Garrett drove his Porsche off the highway, and the car plunged down an 80-foot hillside in 1979. A passenger in the car — once a close personal friend — was paralyzed in the accident and filed suit, claiming Garrett was intoxicated. The suit resulted in a multimillion-dollar judgment against him. In recent years, he has been arrested on drug charges, for allegedly possessing cocaine and heroin. Recently: In March, a Los Angeles judge dropped a warrant for his arrest, after he proved he completed a mandatory drug treatment program.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.