Charlie Chaplin with his protege Jackie Coogan in The Kid
Child actors can be defined as actors who began their acting career at a very early age, sometimes even as a baby, and soon come to prominence while still in their early years. The term is also sometimes used to refer to actors in their later lives who began their acting in their childhood years, whether or not they had great popularity in those early years.
There has been much controversy around the use of child actors in movies over the years, and some view it as a form of exploitation. Particularly since there have been instances where the child has never seen any or much of the money earned from their acting. Also some feel the child would lose out on education while filming. Finally, there are those who also feel that the child should be living the life of a "normal" child, playing games or sports, going to a regular school, and making friends, as opposed to being cloistered on a film set and under pressure to perform well.
Appropriately, there are relatively stiffer regulations on the use of child actors in the entertainment industry. However it hasn't always been that way, and even to this day, some regions have more lax laws than others and productions can sometimes seek out those countries or areas. Even within the United States for instance laws are tougher in California than in other states. What regulations there are today took years, even decades to cement and there have been a number of seminal cases which have affected those regulations.
Jackie Coogan was the first child actor who had a leading role in a major film. Charlie Chaplin brought Jackie into the film industry for his 1921 movie The Kid, as well as a number of other movies over the next few years. As a result, not only did Coogan become the first famous child actor, he also became the youngest person in the United States to ever become a millionaire. Yet he saw almost none of the money he earned because his parents squandered the money on lavish items for themselves. This led Coogan to famously sue his parents in 1938 at the age of 23. Then ultimately it led to the creation of the Coogan Law in California, whereby a child actor must have a percentage of their earnings guaranteed to them through a locked-in and protected trust.
Even this law has not been perfect and without its exploitation however. Evident in the case of the actor Gary Coleman. Similar to Coogan, Coleman had parents who operated as manager and "financial advisors" and Coleman ended up having to sue his parents over misappropriation of his trust fund.
Besides the financial regulations surrounding child actors in the film industry, there are also regulations related to education, where a child actor must not have education interrupted by filming. The child has to have access to an on-set tutor or teacher, and also there are limitations on the time and duration a child can spend on camera.
The ongoing success of a child actor, and the possibility of developing into an equally successful adult actor is often a "hit-and-miss" proposition. Some, such as the likes of Drew Barrymore and Jodi Foster, continue onto a successful adult acting career, and others such as the previously mentioned Gary Coleman or Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame, have a less than stellar adult career. As well, some child actors voluntarily leave the business to fade into obscurity, or to become successful in other areas. One of the most successful and well known child actors, who left the film industry early on, but went on to other great endeavors, was Shirley Temple. Temple left the industry at the age of 21, and moved on to the world of politics where she became a diplomat and later an ambassador for the United Nations.
Other notable success stories in the "child-to-adult actor" transition can be noted in the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood. Those who have not done so well, sometimes just fade into the background and leave the industry or become relatives unknown, or sometimes there are those that develop substance abuses or other scandalous behaviour.
Although no studies have proven that there is greater pressure on a child actor than an adult actor, this is another point that has been hotly debated. Examples of child actors who ungracefully fade from popularity can include the likes of Macaulay Culkin, Corey Haim and Tatum O'Neal. All of which developed scandalous behaviour, typically involving drugs, after their skyrocket to fame, and they also did not continue a fruitful acting career after their younger years.
Even if a child actor survives the child-to-adult actor transition however, it is not always without its issues and turmoil. For instance, Drew Barrymore spent her teen years heavily involved in drugs and was in and out of rehab. A situation that has even haunted many actors who began their careers in their adult years.
More recently, some extremely successful child actors can include Dakota Fanning, who has starred in dozens of movies since acting in her first major film, 2001's I Am Sam alongside Sean Penn. Although the jury is still out on Haley Joel Osment since he has not been in any mainstream movies in a few years now, he also has had a successful movie career, albeit possibly short-lived, especially with his award-nominating role in The Sixth Sense. Shia Labeouf is another young actor who has built a tremendous career being in movies, and since only 2003. To date he has had one notable scandal however; in July 2008 he was involved in a two car crash where he was thought to be driving while under the influence of alcohol. Although it was the driver of the other vehicle who ran a red light and was at fault, Labeouf refused a breathalzer and had his license suspended for a year.
As suggested, there is great pressure, no matter your age, on an actor to perform properly and successfully in the film industry. But under the right guidance, and with proper, even-keeled influences in a young actor's life, he or she could have a fruitful and enjoyable acting career, and we can enjoy seeing their work here on CPO.
Here are some lists you might want to take a peek at:This one is self-explanatory:
A short list of current popular, and not so popular actors, and how they got their start:
This is a list of hundreds of actors who either are currently, or were once, considered a child actor: