That's DR. Blossom to you: A New Child Star Stereotype

From Hollywood to Academia: the New Child Star

Posted Sep 28, 2009

One of the research topics in creativity that has always fascinated me has been creative polymathy - the ability to be creative in more than one domain. The roots of creative polymathy are under debate; some scholars argue that creativity is a general ability. People who are creative in math would also be more likely to be creative in music or art or business, according to this view. More recently, the trend has shifted toward a domain-specific view, which states that creativity in one area (such as advertising) would be unrelated to creativity in another (let's say cooking). According to this angle, creative polymathy would be coincidental - the same way someone might be a fast runner and a good juggler. There are extreme arguments at both ends, although more recently there seems to be a convergence in the middle. I've done a bit of work on this, much of it with my dear friend (and new grandpa!) John Baer.

What I have noticed recently is that many cool examples of creative polymathy (for whatever reason) can be found in grown-up child stars. Once upon a time, kids who "made it" in Hollywood served as examples later in life of the dangers of becoming famous too early. The entire cast of Diff'rent Strokes and anyone named Corey are just the ones that pop into my mind. Drugs, crime, and scandals all feature prominently. The few exceptions tended to be successful actors as adults (such as Jodie Foster and Elizabeth Taylor).

Today, it's a new ballgame. There are, of course, the child stars who are still actors (such as Christian Bale, Jason Bateman, Neil Patrick Harris, and Anna Paquin) or end up behind the cameras (such as Fred Savage, Peter Billingsley, and Ke Huy Quan) but what I find interesting are the other ones. As an academic psychologist, I am (unsurprisingly) interested in people who demonstrate a secondary ability in psychology or general academia. You may have noticed I didn't say "creativity" there; although I believe that creativity plays a strong role in all of the non-acting pursuits I am about to describe, I do acknowledge that it's up for debate.

Danica McKellar ("Winnie" on The Wonder Years) earned her B. S. from UCLA in mathematics, currently writes book promoting math, and has an Erdos number of 4 (it's like the Kevin Bacon game for mathematicians; Harvard-educated Natalie Portman has an Erdos number of 6). Missy Gold ("Katie" on Benson) received her Ph.D. and is now a clinical psychologist in Portland, Maine (under a different name). Although she apparently does not plan on continuing in academia, Mayim Bialik, "Blossom" on Blossom, recently received her Ph.D. from UCLA in Neuroscience. She wrote her dissertation on Prader-Willi Syndrome. Ilan Mitchell-Smith (star of Weird Science) is an English professor at Angelo State University. He received his Ph.D. from Texas A & M and now studies Medieval Literature and chivalry. Danny Lloyd (from the Jack Nicholson film The Shining) is (or recently was) a Biology professor at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, and Peter Ostrum ("Charlie" in the original/good version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is a veterinarian with his DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine). Huckleberry Fox (one of Debra Winger's sons in Terms of Endearment) is an agricultural researcher

Other child actors turned to law or activism. Perhaps the most notable is Paul Peterson (from the Donna Reed Show). He now runs the organization A Minor Consideration, devoted to protecting the rights and interests of child stars. Peterson recently filed a petition to have a guardian appointed to Octomon Nadya Suleman's children. His organization's website is a must-visit if you are interested in the ethical component of child stardom. Another activist is Vanessa Baden ("Kyra" on Keenan and Kel) is now an organizer with the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. There are also several lawyers. Lara Jean Miller (Gimme a Break) was a practicing attorney before returning to show business. Charlie Korsmo (many movies, including Dick Tracy and What About Bob) received his law degree from Yale and is now a visiting professor at Brooklyn Law School. He has previously worked for the Republican Party and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Josh Saviano (Paul on The Wonder Years) is NOT Marilyn Manson, contrary to urban legend - he's more impressively (to me, anyway) an associate lawyer at Morrison Cohen LLP. I must say that I am impressed with how The Wonders Years cast has grown up (the anti-Diff'rent Strokes, really). I've already spoken about McKellar; star Fred Savage went to Stanford and is a television director (he also directed Daddy Day Care, which somehow did not lead to future film work). Older brother Jason Hervey is now a producer and consultant and older sister Olivia d'Abo is still a working actress. Among the actors who played the classmates, many are still actors (most Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi). Danica's younger sister Crystal (also a regular on the show) attended Yale and Harvard and is now a lawyer. Jon Frears is a children's host and consultant, and Scott Nemes (my former classmate at University of Southern California - nice guy) is a successful entrepreneur and filmmaker.

Another group of former child stars are inventory/entrepreneurs or in the computer industry. Alfred Lutter III (Ellen Burstyn's son in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the inspiration for the TV show Alice) runs a technology consulting business, Lutter Consulting, which specializes in internet security and large scale software. Oscar-nominated actress Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl) is an author and the inventor of the popular HipHugger (for carrying babies). Brock Pierce, from the Mighty Ducks movies and Sinbad vehicle First Kid, launched the now-defunct Digital Entertainment Network and then founded Internet Gaming Entertainment.

Is this evidence of some new trend? Not especially. There are still child stars that have serious issues when they grow up - I am quickly reminded of Brad Renfro's struggles with drug addiction and legal problems before his premature death last of an overdose. I loved him in Apt Pupil, Sleepers, and The Client; his death barely made the news. But there is reason to be hopeful - and to celebrate the way that creativity can manifest itself in so many ways. Many of the children who entertained us every week are finding new ways to express their creativity. Perhaps the more scientific questions about the roots of creative polymathy should take a back seat (at least for today - I may want to write about them in the future!) to the celebration of such multi-talented people.

PS: Always looking for more examples!

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About the Author

James C. Kaufman, Ph.D., is a creativity researcher and associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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