'Harry Potter' and the Curse of Child Stardom

So there's a new "Harry Potter" movie raking in millions of dollars. And there's a new "Harry Potter" book bound to sell out across the world.

But for the faces of the multibillon dollar fantasy franchise, there's a new reality that may trump them both: call it "Harry Potter" and the curse of child stardom.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were not yet teenagers in 2001 when they starred in the first "Potter" film. As "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" hits theaters, they're on the verge of their 18th and 19th birthdays -- prime time to shed their child star status and seek lasting success as adults.

But can audiences see them as anyone other than Harry, Hermione and Ron?

Maybe not. The controversy that ensued in February after Radcliffe starred nude in the London play "Equus" suggested that "Potter" fans can't stomach the star of a children's movie in an adult role.

But that doesn't mean going buff was a bad decision on Radcliffe's part. For young actors playing high-profile roles, stepping away from the norm to do something daring might be an act of pure survival.

"Being in 'Equus' demonstrated the fact that he is something other than Harry Potter," said Bob Thompson, Syracuse University professor of popular culture. "Even while he's still orbiting the 'Harry Potter' universe, he's already taking a practice run at escaping that gravitational pull."

For child stars, doing something entirely different from whatever it is that made them famous is crucial to staying in the business, according to celebrity publicist Michael Levine. Baring all can accomplish that.

"They have to separate themselves from their youthful persona," Levine said. "That's the mission, and I think that's what [Radcliffe] was attempting to do."

Against Odds Magic Can't Combat

For every child star that grows into an adult icon, there's a slew of others that fade into the ether.

Drew Barrymore parlayed her part as the cute kid in Steven Spielberg's "E.T." into a lifetime of covetable roles, despite a highly publicized bout of drug abuse in her teens. But what of her "E.T." co-star, Henry Thomas, the movie's nonalien lead? Though still in the business, his career has consisted of mostly obscure parts in low-profile movies.

What if a kid captivates the industry and scores major recognition? That still may not matter. Macaulay Culkin, who charmed audiences and agents in the 1990s, never got far beyond his stint as the boy with the earsplitting scream from "Home Alone." He's not alone.

"Tatum O'Neal won an Oscar at age 10. She was a major film star for a little moment, but today you probably know her as a burnout," Levine said. "Most people become Tatum O'Neal."

And headlining an iconic film series doesn't guarantee lasting success, for kids or adults. Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the "Star Wars" movies, was heralded as a hunk in the trilogies late-1970s, early-'80s heyday. But he eventually drifted to the outer reaches of stardom, while the actor who played Han Solo ended up orbiting the Hollywood solar system.

"Harrison Ford went on to a very distinguished movie career with a lot of different roles that he played for a long time. Mark Hamill, not so much," Thompson said. "It turns out Harrison Ford had a lot of range -- I'm not sure Hamill did."

More Potter to Overcome

Whatever they do, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint can't put "Potter" behind them just yet. All have signed on to be in the final two movies, due out in 2008 and 2010, with Radcliffe banking a reported $50 million for his starring role -- enough to ensure he never has to act again.

But while Radcliffe has tried to separate himself from the bespectacled boy wizard, Watson and Grint haven't taken other high-profile projects. In 2006, Grint starred in the coming-of-age movie "Driving Lessons." Watson has yet to have a major role outside of J.K. Rowling's realm.

Thompson speculates that while all three may not remain household names forever, some Potter fans will follow them to their future projects.

"The blush can come off that rose," he said. "But my sense is that there will be people who will follow these characters into one or two of their next movie roles not just because they're fans of the characters but because they're fans of the actors."

Sue Upton is one of those fans. The senior editor of "Harry Potter" fan site The-Leaky-Cauldron.org said she won't ignore the actors after the final "Potter" movie hits theaters. In fact, she laments missing Radcliffe in "Equus" and hopes to see him thrive as an adult actor, whatever he is (or isn't) wearing.

"I'm going to follow him. He embodies Harry Potter, but he will not always be just Harry Potter," Upton said. "You have to let him grow up."