Stage mothers of the '90s can't be typecast
By Nancy Randle
SECTION: TEMPOWOMAN; Pg. 3; ZONE: CS
LENGTH: 1384 words
From dimpled Shirley Temple lifting our spirits in "Stand Up and Cheer" to 5-year-old Ricky Schroder melting our hearts in "The Champ," child actors have long blessed the silver screen.
And behind these charming youngsters are stage mothers, a term that invites disapproval, particularly among the uninformed. Like all stereotypes, this one assumes that the motivations of a few excessively aggressive parents apply to the whole.
Many people in the entertainment business believe this
lopsided image is dated. For example, Mary Grady of Los Angeles, in her
32nd year as an agent for
child actors, says she has an easier time with the stars' moms nowadays.
"We have a more intelligent group of mothers," says Grady. "They are more knowledgeable about the business. They know that there is a big batch of competition out there, so they're very appreciative when their kids take off. They trust me more. They used to be more ill at ease."
Agent Judy Savage, who handles child actors exclusively,
including Danica McKellar of "The Wonder Years" television series, speculates
that the damning
image of the Hollywood mother stems from the heyday of the big studios.
(In the '30s, child actor Jackie Coogan sued his parents for frittering away his earnings. The case resulted in a California law, known as the Coogan Act, which protects a portion of child actors' earnings and sets standards for work and school hours.)
"It's a very different business now," Grady says. "There are very few child 'stars.' There are hundreds of working child 'actors.' The increased number of jobs and the increased competition have changed everything."
In Savage's experience, the negative image of "stage mothers" is inaccurate: "It's a small percentage of bad parents who get the publicity."
It is a commmon assumption that show-business mothers are living out their dreams through their kids. Enter Emily Haas, mother to Lukas Haas, the now 14-year-old who gave haunting performances in "Testament," a 1983 movie starring Jane Alexander, and "Witness," a 1985 film by director Peter Weir.
Haas, an effervescent woman from Texas, is a television writer, under four-year contract to Orion Pictures Corp. to produce and write situation-comedy pilots. She says she uses her maiden name, Emily Tracy, professionally, to avoid capitalizing on her son's success.
She and her husband, Berthold Haas, a prominent artist from Germany, manage Lukas' career on the side while continuing their own work. They say they do it because their child has such a passionate need to act.
Lukas, his parents say, was "to the camera born." His mother recalls that when Lukas was still in diapers he tried to climb into the TV set to dance with the performers. When he was older he would drag his mom to antique clothing stores to look for costumes.
"He would scavenge old clothes, and every day he went to school as a different thing," she says. "Once he was a duck. He had a firm sense of himself, but he liked to try on all these personas."
Lukas was discovered at his Montessori school by a Los
Angeles agent. He was 6 when he got his first starring role, in "Testament."
(Lukas played the son
of a woman trying to keep her family together after a nuclear attack.)
Haas says her second task was to save her family from Los Angeles' blandishments.
"That's why we moved to Austin (in 1988)," she says. (Haas
has relatives and friends in the city.) "We have a big rambling house built
in 1922 with lots of
porches and a vegetable garden. We have chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, guinea pigs. It's our anchor."
New stage mothers, including Shawnee Pierce, are also protective of their children.
A year ago, Pierce, 29, a single parent, and her son, then 7, said goodbye to Apache Junction, Ariz., and climbed into their truck to move to Hollywood. They acted on the hunch that all those strangers who kept stopping them on the street and saying Bradley ought to be in the movies were right.
Pierce took Bradley to a therapist specifically to talk about how Bradley would give up his friends and, high on his list of concerns, leave their two dogs behind. But Bradley was game.
"He made the decision," Pierce says. "He's also made the decision to stay (in L.A.). If he wants to leave at any time, we will leave."
During the first two months Pierce had her doubts: "There
was a point when we were surviving on care packages of food from home.
I had to sell the TV."
Bradley landed a McDonald's commercial that eventually led to a guest spot on the television series "Life Goes On" and a recurring role on the "Days of Our
Juggling time is the most difficult part of a stage parent's job, agent Mary Grady says. The parents are always on call. As Grady puts it, "I tell my parents, 'Keep your britches on and your motor running.' "
In the case of Carol Hertford, juggling reaches the level of art. All three of her children act. Brighton, 4, is a regular on "General Hospital," a job she started at the age of 14 weeks. Chelsea, 8, stars in the CBS series "Major Dad." Whitby, 12, is an actor and does voiceovers. He has just completed voiceovers for 65 episodes of the television cartoon show, "Peter Pan."
If no baby-sitter is available, Hertford brings the family along. They spend several hours a day driving together, but she considers that a plus: "A lot of our closeness derives from this time we spend together in the car."
Hertford says that when her husband died in 1989, a combination
of religion and a rigorous work schedule held the family together: "The
('Major Dad') series
gave us a routine. Work was a stablizing force."
Some actors, including former "Silver Spoons" TV star Rick
Schroder, now 21, have managed to parlay successful childhood acting careers
adult ones. An estimated 2 percent of child actors make that transition, according to Grady and Savage.
Schroder's mother, Diane, put in 15-plus years as a stage mother.
But her no-nonsense, aggressive manner can rub some directors
and producers the wrong way, she says. Stage mothers are frequently put
in the position of
taking an unpopular stand to protect their children. "I don't mind being the bad guy," she says.
Diane remains Rick's manager, taking preliminary meetings to save him time, screening scripts, encouraging him to wait for the right parts, conducting negotiations that always contain a "what if" clause (such as, "what if" a movie is sold for overseas or video release?).
"I think he knows after this many years that there are no ulterior motives in what I do," she says.
Mahaila McKellar, mother to Danica McKellar, 16, who plays Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years," and Crystal McKellar, 14, who has a recurring role on the series, says she does not want or need to live off her children's income.
"Though we're divorced, their father and I remain friends,"
she says. "He is very generous with us. He takes care of all of their needs
now and will pay for
their education. Our kids weren't hungry."
Savage, the McKellars' agent, declines to say how much
Danica and Crystal earn. The industry standard for a new child actor on
a network series is $5,000
for a half-hour episode and up to $10,000 for an hour episode, she says: "If the show is a long-running hit, it's not unusual for a child actor to make up to
$500,000 a season."
Each McKellar daughter was allowed to put in another telephone
line and buy a phone and an answering machine. The girls pay their monthly
The rest is invested as a nest egg for after college.
"Danica knows how much she makes, and what we are doing with it," McKellar says. "She is not yet allowed to make decisions about investments, but she is included in all discussions.
"We recently renegotiated her contract for 'The Wonder Years,' and I put her on the phone with the lawyer so that he could explain it all to her. Off the top, a certain amount goes into a trust that none of us can touch. Her father is a very sharp businessman; he helps me invest the rest.
"I never thought we'd be here," she says. "I thought it was like my mother taking me to dance revues, except they might make a little money at it." What does she want most for her children?
"I want them to be happy," she says.
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Emily Haas with Lucas: "He liked to try on all these
PHOTO (color): Starry ride
Behind Danica McKellar of "The Wonder Years" is a stage mother who can't be
typecast. (Published on page 1.)
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