Jeff Stone smoking a cigarette?!
During his eight seasons on The Donna Reed Show, he'd have had plenty to answer for.
But two weeks ago, waiting to make a personal appearance at a Nick at Nite promotion in a mall outside Dallas, it's 45-year-old former actor Paul Petersen who's demanding answers about TV Land youth run wild.
Sitting in a mallside pizzeria prior to an autograph session, Petersen fires up a butt, unrecognized by the hundred-odd people lining up to see him. Emphasizing his statements with blasts of smoke, Petersen's conversation provides a jarring contrast to Nick at Nite's wacko wonderland of pithy palominos, jet-set witches and the sort of goofola genetics that spawned "Cousins! Identical cousins!"
"There's been a problem in Hollywood for eighty years and it has to do with kids," says Petersen, who now makes his living writing books and selling replica race-car kits. "These kids don't die, they don't go away and yet they very often get into trouble. The industry has never adequately addressed these problems, and finally, people like me finally said, `Enough!'"
Founder of an activist group called Minor Consideration, Petersen personally got a bellyful last January. That's when his friend Rusty Hamer, Danny Thomas' wisecracking son on Make Room for Daddy, died in Louisiana from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A restaurant cook at the time of his death, the 42-year-old Hamer had reportedly never adjusted to civilian life--even though his series left the air 25 years ago. While obviously too late to do anything to save Rusty Hamer, Petersen did the next best thing. He immediately phoned his pal Jay North and convinced the troubled Dennis the Menace to seek therapy. Pronto.
Good advice. The thankful 37-year-old North would later admit that he'd spent the past two years locked in his apartment, guzzling massive amounts of caffeine while he drew up hit lists of his "enemies" and obsessed on homicidal fantasies gleaned from paperback books about serial murderers. On those rare occasions when he did venture from his apartment, he enjoyed trying to run other drivers off the road or attempting to pick fights at stoplights. As he told one interviewer, "I had reached the point where I said, `I'm either going to kill myself or I'm going to go out and commit horrible, violent acts against other people.'" Appearing with Petersen on an episode of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show last June, a much-more-sedate North revealed a horror story that could have been called "Dennis Is Menaced."
During the four years the show was in production, North claimed he was frequently battered and constantly belittled by an aunt and uncle, his on-set chaperones (since deceased).
North, a towheaded time bomb behind his pasted-on smile, says one of his few pleasures during that period was watching Village of the Damned, a sci-fi flick he saw thirty times one year.
"I wanted to be one of those evil little kids whose eyes glowed because I wanted to control the adults and make them do the horrible things to themselves," confessed North, who averts his eyes when looking at clips from his own show.
During the course of the interview, North's tales were verified by several other actors who worked with him on the Columbia lot, including Petersen, who reported that North often sought sanctuary in the relative normalcy of the Reed set.
"I wish I'd saved the pictures that this youngster, seven, eight, nine years old drew," Petersen told Raphael's audience. "People getting decapitated, shot, stabbing. People on fire."
Right now, however, Petersen's more interested in a setting a fire under the industry that has a notorious habit of reminding its more youthful employees they're only as good as their last birthday.
"We're pushing for legislation, more of an activist role for the Screen Actors Guild, which has been ignoring the problem for years," Petersen tells New Times, noting the group's advisory board includes former child performers Milton Berle, Helen Hayes, and Elizabeth Taylor. "There are a lot of kids who've been hurt by that, who gave up their lives for `entertainment' and nothing comes back to them."
Aren't there already laws that govern a child actor's earnings, working hours, schooling and the like?
Petersen shrugs. Referring to the 1982 helicopter tragedy that took the lives of Vic Morrow and a couple of Vietnamese children during the filming of Twilight Zone--The Movie, he slaps the table. "That case is a perfect example," he says. "And you'll notice that no one went to jail for that, either. What the hell, it was only an actor and two kids who were killed. It didn't matter that they were working illegally.
"These laws are generally not observed," he claims. "Besides, we're not talking about the sort of safeguards that protect you from the real perils. No court protects you from your parents. Courts don't protect you from bad investments.
"I think a recognition of basic facts is in order. When a child gets into show business, he has been sold by his parents. And he has been sold to an industry that doesn't have a good reputation for loyalty."
The former child star who can't cut it in the real world has always been one of Hollywood's more familiar off-screen scenarios.
In 1976, fewer than five years after Family Affair left the airwaves, Anissa Jones succumbed to a pill overdose; friends reported the troubled teen resented frittering away her childhood as the babyish little Buffy. Trent Lehman, Jones' male counterpart on Nanny and the Professor, followed suit a few years later; hooked on drugs and unable to find a job that paid even a fraction of what he'd earned as a child, he hanged himself from a schoolyard fence with a belt.
"Fame is a drug," explains Petersen, who admits that addiction to the spotlight led to a variety of his own personal problems. "It's the most potent narcotic known to man. And it really goes against the grain for a kid to find his sphere of influence shrinking as he grows out of his teens, rather than the other way around. It's highly unnatural.
"Kids who are on long-running television shows don't belong to their parents anymore. They belong to the country and they belong to the industry. So when things go wrong and they have identifiable causes, then the industry shares some complicity. When you're a child actor, people are constantly making choices for you and even though you're not even responsible for these decisions, you're the one who winds up paying the bill."
Just ask Father Knows Best's Lauren Chapin, another Columbia kiddie who ran up a very stiff emotional tab not of her own design. Cast as the dimpled dumpling of the Anderson clan, the on-screen Chapin was TV's quintessential cute kid sister, with nothing more serious on her mind than wondering where her next cookie was coming from.
Off-screen was a far different story, and one that Chapin grimly documented in last year's Father Does Know Best, a sparsely distributed autobiography that makes Oliver Twist look like The Secret Diary of Opie Taylor.
According to Chapin, she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of both her father and an old family friend. Emotional abuse came courtesy of her overbearing mom, an alcoholic stage mother. And whenever Ma Chapin gave the high-sign, little Lauren was supposedly clobbered by her brother Billy, a minor child actor (Night of the Hunter) who reportedly deeply resented his younger sister's fame.
Then, when the six-year-old series was abruptly canceled in 1960, the TV apple of Robert Young's eye really fell on rotten times.
After running through her $18,000 trust fund from the show during a seven-month spending jag in 1962, the washed-up seventeen-year-old turned to prostitution, dressing up as her TV character for the benefit of kinky customers who'd always dreamed of spending an evening with "Kitten Anderson." Later drifting into heroin, Chapin found herself facing a murder charge when she woke up next to a corpse. (The OD'd body belonged to a junkie she'd picked up in a dive the previous evening; the charge was eventually dropped.)
In the book's most harrowing scene, Chapin recounts one crazed last-ditch effort to wrench the syringe from her fist: Squatting in a Hollywood gutter at 3 one morning, the southpaw unsuccessfully attempted to chop off her left hand with a meat cleaver.
Today, Petersen is happy to report that the born-again Chapin is alive and well in Texas. Unfortunately, he says, the same can't be said for a more recent vintage crop of vid kids.
Explaining that professional ethics prevent him from talking about even the industry's most high-profile problem children, Petersen declines to name names. Still, he nods his head wearily as he listens to a reporter reel off the latest litany of screenland kids-on-the-skids. Diff'rent Strokes' Todd Bridges was charged with shooting a man outside a crack house. (He was acquitted.) Phoenix radio deejay Danny Bonaduce, late of The Partridge Family, was sentenced to community-service work after pleading no contest in a cocaine bust in Florida several months ago. And just last week, munchkin-faced Adam Rich of Eight Is Enough was popped for allegedly driving drunk in L.A.
Reflecting back on a season that also produced Drew Barrymore's memoirs of a teenage lush, Petersen manages a wan smile and says, "Yeah, this hasn't been a real good year for kid actors.