There are plenty of child actors who have become huge stars overnight and some have ended very badly. When we talk about child actors, we mainly think of the stars of the movies of the 90s, but these kids would never have become famous without the very first child actors, those who changed the laws. At the very beginning of silent cinema, the roles of children were played by adults to make it easier, but little by little, talented children made their way into the world of cinema.
1. René Dary, the little French genius
René Dary is one of the first cinematographic stars in France but also in the world. The little French boy landed his first role at the age of 3, in 1908, to play the main character in a series, Baby Abelard, which will become very popular. He shoots about 80 episodes in three years but his contract is terminated when he is 8 years old, because his salary is too high. After the war, René Dary made his return to the cinema at the age of 25 and everyone loved him.
After a career as a child in silent cinema, he was a hit in talkies as an adult with around fifty films to his credit.
2. Bobby Connelly, the one who worked tirelessly
Before Bobby Connelly, we had never seen such a determined and passionate child actor. The young American started filming at the age of 3, in 1912, and would never stop. He obtains the first role of a series of short episodes and interprets the main character “Sonny Jim” at only 5 years old. After that, he played in about thirty films in six years; he doesn’t even stop filming after discovering that he has endocarditis, a serious heart disease. In 1922, he fell ill and died of bronchitis at the age of 13 without ever having put his career on hold.
3. Gordon Griffith, the very first Tarzan
Gordon Griffith is one of the first American child actors to become a real star. He landed his first role at the age of 7 in 1914 and then worked for over 50 years in the film industry. As a child, he was the very first actor to play Tom Sawyer et Tarzan on video. He also starred with Charlie Chaplin and experienced the transition from silent to talkies seamlessly. As an adult, he became assistant director and then production manager at Columbia Pictures. The former child actor continued working until his death in 1958.
4. B. Reeves Eason Jr, the little cowboy gone too soon
B. Reeves Eason Jr. is an American boy known as “Universal’s Littlest Cowboy”. His father was a western director and the child starred in adventure films, dramas and westerns from the age of 2.
B. Reeves Eason Jr. did not have time to become a real star since at the age of 6, he was hit by a truck in front of his parents’ house and died. He is one of the very first actors to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, right next to the movie studios.
5. Jackie Coogan, the most famous Kid in the world
Jackie Coogan is the very first child to become world famous thanks to a film, and it’s not just any movie. The child has been playing in the cinema since his first birthday but it was at the age of 7 that he became famous thanks to his role in The Kid alongside Charlie Chaplin. His touching and confident performance quickly lands him new roles like Oliver Twist and movie fans love him. Merchandise featuring his face, from action figures to peanut butter jars, flooded the market and the child earned between $3 and $4 million in his early years.
While he was the youngest person in history to earn a million dollars, his mother and stepfather squandered his entire fortune. It is his story that will lead to the creation of a new law, the Coogan Act, to protect child actors, their work and their income.
6. Baby Peggy, the toddler everyone wants
Real name Peggy Montgomery, Baby Peggy is an American child who became one of the most famous little girls of the 20s. She was not even 2 years old when she landed her first role in 1920 and three years later, there is a collection of derivative objects in his name, including a Baby Peggy doll. Between 1921 and 1924, Peggy starred in 150 shorts, received millions of fan letters, and was paid $1.5 million a year.
At the age of 8, she stopped her career and found it very difficult to break away from her image as a child actress. As an adult, she writes books on the film industry and the living conditions of child actors. She fights for a long time so that child stars are better protected.
7. Jackie Cooper, the abandoned star
Jackie Cooper is a little boy actor who becomes a real star in the 1930s. He begins to play at 7 years old in the series The Little Rascals and rose to fame thanks to his role in the film Skippy in 1931. He was then the very first child to be nominated for the Oscar for best actor. As he becomes a teenager, the public is less and less interested in him and when he returns from the Second World War, no one wants to hire him anymore. He then turned to television for many years and finally returned to fame in 1978 by playing Perry White in the saga Superman.
8. Shirley Temple, Hollywood’s Sweetheart
Shirley Temple is not just any child star: she is the very first child star to be idolized around the world. In the 1930s and 1940s, Shirley was the icon of little girls: there was a children’s magazine about her life and hundreds of derivative objects bearing her image. To give you an idea of her fame, tell yourself that she was invited (at the age of 9) to come and cut the birthday cake of the President of the United States. Unlike many child stars of the 1930s, Shirley did not become addicted to drugs or alcohol and decided to end her film career around the age of 20. She then became involved in politics and was appointed United States delegate to the United Nations. The incredible Shirley also does prevention without fear of controversy: she is the first woman to speak openly about breast cancer.
9. Judy Garland, the teenager destroyed by the studios
Judy Garland is a child actress and singer who rose to worldwide fame at age 16 thanks to her performance in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She had joined the benches of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, like many other child actors, a few years earlier and became the star of the studios. The young actress then chained successful films and was mistreated by producers for years. They impose a drastic diet on her, cigarettes to cut her appetite and even amphetamines to keep her in shape during the endless filming. Judy Garland then becomes a drug addict.
Despite her fragile health, she continued to shoot, but in 1950, MGM terminated her contract. The 28-year-old actress acted in other films, but ended up dying of an overdose 20 years later.
10. Mickey Rooney, the one who played for 90 years
Mickey Rooney won his first role at the age of 6, in 1926, playing the main role in a series, but he only became a star as a teenager thanks to his interpretation of the character Andy Hardy. At this time, he formed a successful duo with his friend, the young actress Judy Garland.
After the war, he struggled to regain the success he enjoyed in his youth, but still became a major actor in American cinema and continued to act until his death (he even starred in Night at the museum 3 at age 95).