Watching TV as a child, there were moments -- thrilling, glorious moments -- when I would see my own face smiling back from the screen. I'd appear there without warning, always happy, baby teeth and a bowl haircut in the spaces between the programs. This was not some schizophrenic delusion. On Youtube there are clips, grainy snippets rescued from derelict VHS tapes. Here I am playing with a toy. There I am kicking a soccer ball. In one, I'm even helping Bill Cosby sell chocolate pudding. The best commercials were the ones I could share with others. Once, the planets aligned and I even popped up at a friend's birthday party. "That's me!" I shrieked, regrettably, through a faceful of cake, pointing at his TV. "Look!"
My parents were young and not wealthy and were concerned about how to raise the funds for their son's college education. But they were resourceful, and hiring me out as a child actor was the plan they came up with. They got me my first job when I was weeks old. In a yellowed breastfeeding pamphlet somewhere, there is a photo of me as a baby, nursing.
Because my childhood acting experience would leave me damaged (more on that in a bit), I wish I could say I wasn't an eager accomplice to my exploitation. But the truth is I loved every minute of it. The attention, of course, I loved. To appear on television, even for seconds at a time, was a rare, glamorous privilege, and in our suburb it afforded me a local-celebrity status I relished. ("Hey, you're that kid...") I loved trips into Manhattan with my mother to play in my agent's waiting room full of toys and to be fawned over by pretty casting directors. Sometimes my auditions fell in the middle of the school day. Happiness to me was being yanked out of class early so I could, everyone in the room knew, be on television.
Of course, I thought it made me special. And it's possible I rubbed my allotment of fame in other kids' faces, as my mother claims, although that's not the way I remember it. I was just proud to be on TV. Why shouldn't I have been? All my friends seemed to think it was neat, and at no point do I recall the grown-ups in my life warning me to dial back my enthusiasm. Save it for the camera, if anything.
Best of all, I was only just getting started. Keep in mind I had also been selected for my school's gifted program, in which our teachers promised -- in exchange for hard study, working to our potential and most crucially doing everything we were told -- a future so dazzling it could scarcely be imagined. We were assured the sky was the limit, and I had a budding acting career on top of all that. I hardly saw how I could miss.
TV commercials were my bag, and I enjoyed the shoots, which were more like play than work. Occasionally, I was invited to audition (always unsuccessfully) for the meatier fare of movies and TV shows. Because this was show business, there was a lot of rejection involved. It was always framed to me in terms that were impossible to take personally. ("They wanted a boy with freckles.") I didn't let it get under my skin. My turn would come, I was sure. It's not exactly that I expected to one day appear alongside Scott Baio and Ricky Schroder on the cover of Dynamite Magazine. I just didn't see why not.
Of course, there was a very big reason why not: Talent. Nobody informed me I didn't have any. I certainly hadn't been groomed for stardom with acting lessons or the like. I was just a cute kid who could be relied upon to act naturally when the cameras rolled. It never occurred to me why that might not be enough, and I couldn't have understood that my role was roughly that of a glorified prop. After all, it didn't take Laurence Olivier to read my lines. ("Lays Potato Chips: Betcha can't eat just one!") It took cute, and as long as I could make with the cute, my acting career would continue. I wasn't completely in the dark about this; I knew that sooner or later, puberty would come along and disrupt my game. But this, I felt, had been appropriately addressed by the Brady Bunch. When Peter Brady's voice cracked, they all had a laugh about it, made it into a song
and moved on. Why should puberty stop me?
Each morning I'd wake up entangled in my Star Wars sheets, unaware that I was a little less adorable than the day before. The auditions became less frequent. My parents broke it to me gently that I needed to take time off from acting to study for my Bar Mitzvah. I smelled a rat -- Hebrew school wasn't that time consuming -- but it didn't make sense to me that they'd lie about such a thing, and anyway it was out of my hands. I didn't worry. I reasoned that after I'd become a man in the Jewish tradition, I'd just pick up where I left off. Show business could wait.
My parents had lied to me, of course. They were trying to shield me from an unpleasant truth: I was already finished as an actor. That's what was so dangerous about the whole thing. Nobody told me it had to end.
Even worse, the slow demise of my acting career coincided with my drop to the bottom of the schoolyard pecking order. It turned out the qualities that casting directors found irresistible -- small for my age, bright enough to follow directions, painfully eager to please -- were irresistible to bullies, too. Also around this time, my parents were in the throes of launching their own small business and appeared suddenly preoccupied.
I couldn't understand what had gone wrong, and I desperately wanted to change things back the way they were. For at least a year after my Bar Mitzvah, I repeatedly asked my parents if I could resume auditioning. "Oh, honey, I don't know....Maybe." The request must have dismayed them. They didn't have the heart to tell me there were no more auditions to be had, that I couldn't return to acting even if I wanted to. And I very much wanted to. I had lost my thing, the one thing that made me special, without which I felt forgotten at home and school.
To be sure, a lot of my desolation was the ordinary growing-up angst of the Judy Blume set, and I would have experienced it even if I'd never stood in front of a camera. But my early flirtation with celebrity threw it into dreadful relief, and led me to draw some unfortunate connections between my lost fame and my value as a person. To go from first to worst in the space of a couple of formative years was a kind of emotional whiplash that fractured me.
Now that I'm grown I know I get to complain only so much about ancient history, especially when many people would've gladly traded places with me. I'm old enough to rationalize with myself that my worthiness isn't dependent on meeting the unrealistic standard set by my acting years. Nevertheless, I've found a certain measure of my life has been spent trying, and experiencing frustration and self-loathing when I failed. The acting gig put me through college, and I'm grateful for that. But it also colored my life in a way that hasn't always been positive.
Since my acting years, enough former child stars have self-destructed that they've become a cliche and a punchline. We tend to snicker when they get hustled into rehab, anger-management classes or prison. I don't. Because I get it. They were built up by the industry and then discarded, and I suspect that like me, when it was over, they were the last to know. That would be traumatic for anyone, let alone Hollywood's most vulnerable actors. I only ever got a whiff of showbiz from its periphery, and I specifically remember feeling washed up at 14. I can only imagine what it must be like for young actors with real fame to lose.
Not long ago a friend who knew of my past as a child actor came to me for my opinion. She was considering getting her young son into the game and wanted to know what I thought. I didn't warn her against it, but I told her my experience and gave her my advice: Make sure he knows it will end. Manage his expectations. And if he shows signs of believing the special attention makes him somehow better than his peers, it might not be the worst thing if she gently disabuses him of that notion, lest he develop some bad social habits or worse, begin to think it's the reason he is loved. Because when it's over, he's going to need to know he still is.