Top Ten Child Actors of the 80s

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You know the drill, innocent child actor forced by talentless parents into stressful major movie productions leading to alcohol dependency before their 12th birthdays, a costly parental divorce settlement and an untimely fade into obscurity. However before the downward spirals and B movie anonymity sometimes these guy pull in some truly awesome performances and besides the fact is Hollywood needs children because Danny DeVito can’t play ALL the small person roles, it’s just not feasible. Here is a list of my top ten child stars from the era.

1. River Phoenix

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River was a child actor but that label perhaps doesn’t give him enough credit for his huge acting talents. His performance in “Stand by Me” in 1986 was revered universally and a huge Hollywood career was all but guaranteed. He stayed humble and enjoyed spending time with friends and playing with his band between films but we all know how it ended, a speedball fuelled death on the steps of the Viper Room but controversies aside he was without question the finest child actor of the 80s.

2. Gary Coleman

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Gary’s most famous role was also his curse in a way. Whilst he had massive fame, piles of cash and a half decent catchphrase while playing the role of Arnold Jackson in Diff’rent Strokes he never got considered for many roles after the shows demise in the mid 80’s. He did work sporadically throughout the 90s until bankruptcy forced him to take a job as a security guard between acting jobs which he struggled with. He tragically died from complications from a seizure aged 42.

3. Corey Haim

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The Story of Corey Haim could be a Hollywood movie in its own. He was a real charismatic and gifted actor who starred in many awesome 80s movies including “The Lost Boys”, which is perhaps his most famous role. You can’t mention him without his namesake Corey Feldman who starred alongside him in many of these blockbusters. The 90s hit Corey hard and stories of drug and drink dependency surfaced. There was an allegation too of abuse which according to friends was the reason he took solace in drinking and in March 2010 his death of pneumonia (linked to his drinking and pain killer addiction) took few by surprise.

4. Cory Fieldman

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No 80s teen film was complete until this guy showed up, usually in a quirky role. He could do comedy and anyone who saw his performance in Stand By Me would know he had the makings of a fantastic actor. Like Cory Haim he had issues with substances however he was able to gain control of them and stay sober. After the 80s he found it hard to procure great roles in films however he did have some albeit smaller successes.

5. Drew Barrymore

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Drew went from starring in E.T at 7, smoking at 11, marijuana at 12 and cocaine at 13. By 15 she had two unsuccessful stints in rehab and a handful of suicide attempts however she managed to turn things around and her career had resurgence in the 90s with a string of successful films most notably her roles alongside Adam Sandler in “The Wedding singer” and “50 first dates”. Nowadays between films she does humanitarian work for the UN.

6. Fred Savage

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Fred actually earned awards for his performances in “The Wonder Years” helping the program to become a global hit. Unlike many of his peers and despite his name Mr Savage lived a pretty clean and balanced life and although as an actor he never went on to anything as big as his previous show, he has steadily worked since the 80s and has had a pretty successful directing and producing career.

7. Macaulay Culkin

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Macaulay was a child actor which comedy timing which is rare. His scenes with John Candy in Uncle Buck inspired John Hughes to write Home Alone as a vehicle in effect for his career. He was known worldwide even appearing in his friend Michael Jackson’s music videos. Things come crashing down with a family rift with his estranged father and rumours of parental divorce which concluded in him announcing his retirement from acting in his teens. He thankfully didn’t keep his word and has popped up on several TV series and adverts, often mocking his child star status. He is currently performing with his band the comically named “The Pizza Underground”

8. Henry Thomas

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Henrys performance as Elliot in ET was powerhouse. The scene when we has to say goodbye to his friend ET was spectacular and he pulled upon his real life experience of loss ( his dog was killed by another dog right in front of him) to find the emotion necessary. Rather sensibly he went back to school and studied. He later returned to acting and each time he proved what a formidable actor he is.

9. Sean Astin

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Sean’s breakthrough role was in “The Goonies” and since then he had lived a pretty balanced life. He has been married since the 90’s and he has three children. He perhaps received even more acclaim as his performance as Samwise Gamgee in the lord of the rings trilogy in his later career but for most of us 80’s loving people he will always be Mikey.

10. Carrie Henn

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My last entry is a peculiar one, a tale of an actress who turned in a career launching role as “Newt” in Aliens only to decide she didn’t want to act anymore. After Aliens she in effect retired and true to her word hasn’t featured in a single acting role since. She went back to school, gained a degree and became a teacher. Perhaps that is the secret to being a child actor; get out as soon as you can for the best chance of a normal life.


Published by Matt Young in Top 10