Weird News: Ex-Child Stars Unite

It's not easy to be young, rich and famous. Just ask any former child star.

"Any kid can screw up. But if you have money and fame and no privacy, you can really, really screw up," says Corey Feldmen, who first got noticed in the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg cast him in Gremlins and The Goonies.

At 14, Feldman vaulted to the upper echelons of child stardom in Rob Reiner's coming-of-age classic, Stand by Me. But just three years later, he struggled with addiction and a string of heroin-related charges.

Feldman isn't whining about being a former child star. He's singing about it — on his new album. It's called — you guessed it — Former Child Actor. And guess who he's getting to help him promote it?

The invitations have gone out to a veritable dream team of former teen stars — including Barry "Brady Bunch" Williams, Danny "Partridge Family" Bonaduce, Todd "Diff'rent Strokes" Bridges and perennial Tiger Beat cover boy Leif Garrett.

They'll meet Sept. 18 at Tower Records in Hollywood and sing the title song of Feldman's new album. Perhaps when they're done they can do an all-former-star version of "We Are the World."

"Wouldn't it be like a scene straight out of a David Lych movie?" says Feldman.

The Diff’rent Strokes Syndrome

Are child stars destined to lead unhappy lives? Some call it the Diff'rent Strokes syndrome, and certainly Gary Coleman, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges are shining examples of kids who just had a miserable time growing up in public.

Plato had several brushes with the law before she committed suicide in 1999, overdosing on drugs at the age of 34.

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, now 34, earned an estimated $18 million as the star of that top-rated sitcom, but 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 he 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-4 ½ 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 (ECW Press), says child stars are no different than anyone else. "If you take the word 'star' out of the equation, you will see that these child stars are just like most other children," she says.

"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."

In 1997, about the same time Coleman was struggling as a security guard, Emmanuel Lewis — another diminutive young actor — was graduating from Clark Atlanta University with a theater-arts degree.

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.

Hollywood Redemption

Anybody can screw up. Especially when they are young. Hollywood kids, like other kids, sometimes grow out of that troubled phase.

"A lot of people remember those stories about Danny Bonaduce and how he was a show-business bad boy," Ryan says. "These days, he's got a successful radio show."

Even the surviving Diff'rent Strokes kids seem to be doing better. Bridges, 37, is married with a child and preaches clean and sober living. He played a drug dealer in the TV docudrama After Diff'rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped — and sold crack to his on-screen persona.

Bridges recently took on vintage rapper Vanilla Ice in the Fox special Celebrity Boxing and has appeared in soap operas.

Coleman has worked occasionally in recent years, voicing cartoons and doing guest spots on TV. He's remarked that he wants to get into politics. And while he's probably joking, that's what they said about Jesse Ventura. In any event, he's been staying out of trouble.

Feldman to Jackson: ‘You Left Me to Die’

"If you are a child star, you have to have a sense of humor to deal with the past," Feldman says.

As he embarks on a 30-city tour to promote his new album, he expects to be taken seriously as a musician, but understands that his past follows him.

"I know some people show up at a concert to find out what happened to that kid who was in The Goonies," he says. "That's not a bad thing, especially if they listen to the music."

One of Feldman's most talked-about new songs is "Megaloman," in which he blasts another former child star, Michael Jackson, who was once one of his closest friends.

Feldman came to New York last year, at Jackson's invitation, to attend Jackson's 30 anniversary concert. But on Sept. 11, as New Yorkers scrambled to get out of the city, Feldman says Jackson deliberately tried to keep him off his bus, while sending limousines to pick up pals Marlon Brando and Liza Minnelli.

Feldman once described meeting Jackson in 1984 on the set of The Goonies in 1984 as his favorite childhood memory.

At an Oscar show in 1989, Feldman even dressed in Jackson-esque garb, moonwalking to a ditty called "I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner!"

Feldman later rushed to Jackson's defense when the King of Pop was accused of pedophilia. "It's like calling Santa Claus a thief," Feldman told The Times of London in 1993.

Now Feldman sings, "I believed in your words/I believed in your lies/But in September in New York/You left me to die."

Child Actor Traumas

While it's sadly true that early stardom devastated some actors, others clearly learned from their mistakes. Here's a look at some of the most notorious incidents involving young stars:

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 Bonaduce 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: Bonaduce, now 43, took on Barry Williams, formerly of The Brady Bunch in the Fox special, Celebrity Boxing. He wrote an autobiography, Random Acts of Badness, last year and hosts a morning drive-time radio show, The Jamie & Danny Show, in Los Angeles.

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 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: She'll reprise her role in Charlie's Angels next year and will star in an update of the Jane Fonda sci-fi classic Barbarella. Now 27, she divorced her second husband, Tom Green, last year. 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: At 33, he extolled the virtues of his 12-step program. Macaulay Culkin Highlight: Calkin is considered the most powerful child star since Shirley Temple. His adorable screaming in 1990s 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. He sued his father, scrawled graffiti in his New York apartment, and dyed his hair blue. He told New York magazine that Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch is "the only place on earth where I feel absolutely, 100 percent comfortable." Recently: Now 22. Culkin took to the London stage and received good reviews in Madame Melville, in which he played a 15-year-old American schoolboy in 1960s Paris who's seduced by his 30-year-old literature teacher. He will soon appear in the independent film. Party Monster, his first film in nearly a decade.

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