From Modern Family to soap operas to Shakespeare, fiction has long milked family life for comedy and drama, love and betrayal. It hooks us because we know there’s a grain of truth to it; family can be the one thing that keeps us sane, or the thing that drives us to madness. Just ask some of the actors profiled here — they know all about family drama, because they’ve lived it.
Like the rest of us, actors’ family crises come in all shapes and sizes. Rebellious kids. Controlling parents. Feuding siblings. Money matters. Inheritance fights. But with actors, everything has a larger than life quality. There’s the added publicity, the amounts of money at stake, and the conflict between the public image — the hero, the kindly father figure, the sweet young woman — and the ugly reality the public sometimes gets to glimpse.
For some actors, time heals the wounds, the conflict passes, and unity returns. Other actors have spent their lives in a family divided, sometimes for good reason. When someone sides with your ex in a breakup or steals your money, turning the other cheek isn’t so easy. Here are fifteen actors whose family relationships range from fractured and troubled to irrevocably shattered.
15. Amanda Bynes
There are actors who don’t get along with their parents. And then there’s Amanda Bynes, who chatted with her friends about killing her parents.
In 2014, one of the starlet’s roommates gave the media a tape of what she claimed was a statement by Byrnes. The actress subsequently acknowledged the voice was hers, but said she was “obviously joking.” According to the tape, Byrnes’ parents having control of her money was the issue, a problem that crops up later on this list.
The set-up of the joke included “I haven’t decided how I want to murder him … I don’t believe in murder … He literally like is the worst person” followed by the punchline “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than slitting his throat.” The tape also included Bynes talking of burning down her mother’s house and slitting her throat. As jokes go, it doesn’t seem like a funny one in any context.
14. Jennifer Aniston
Jennifer Aniston’s relationship with her late mother Nancy Dow wasn’t great, but there’s no record of it reaching threaten-to-kill her levels of vitriol, so there’s that.
After her mother’s death, Aniston said she always felt intimidated by the former model’s beauty, and never felt she could measure up. Her mother was extremely critical, and had a capacity for anger and holding grudges that Aniston didn’t understand or sympathize with. They eventually broke contact, which different sources credit to tabloid stories about them or to Dow’s 1999 memoir, From Mother to Daughter to Friends. Whatever the reason, Dow wasn’t invited to Aniston’s wedding to Brad Pitt.
After the divorce, Dow and Aniston reconciled. Later, after Dow’s will left everything to Aniston’s niece, the court battle that followed created new family conflicts.
Christopher Ciccone spent years as his sister Madonna’s trusty sidekick, serving as her personal assistant, her show designer, her right-hand man, her gofer. In 2008, though, he announced he wanted to redefine himself as someone separate from his sister. To do that he wrote Life With My Sister Madonna, a tell-all account portraying Madonna as an attention seeker (who could have guessed?), a cheapskate, and someone who spat out a cough drop into his hand right before going on stage.
Ciccone said he hoped the book would make his sister squirm, and it apparently succeeded. Madonna’s publicist said her boss was shocked by her brother’s book, because it showed her Chris wasn’t the close, loving brother she thought him to be. Then again, Ciccone has implied Madonna got off lightly. He said this year he has more than enough extra anecdotes for a second book showing how “horrifying” his sister is.
12. Julia Roberts/Eric Roberts
When a couple breaks up, their friends and family may choose sides too. That’s what happened to siblings Julia and Eric Roberts: he split from his partner Kelly Cunningham, and Julia sided with Kelly.
At one point, the brother and sister had been a lot closer. When Julia first moved out of their parents’ home, she stayed with her big brother, who’s 12 years her senior. Eric’s substance-abuse issues were one wedge between them, the break-up with Cunningham another. Julia supported Cunningham in the custody fight over the couple’s daughter, and even helped pay for Cunningham’s attorney.
According to widespread media reports, by 2001, the siblings hadn’t spoken in a decade. Eric said it wasn’t anything as dramatic as a feud, they simply argued a lot and finally decided to take a break.
11. Emilio Estevez
In 2011, Emilio Estevez said that he loved his younger brother Charlie Sheen. But he also understood how Michael Corleone in The Godfather II could kill his brother.
The rift between the brothers may have begun back in the late 1980s, at a point when Sheen had the better acting career. His public antics, womanizing, and substance abuse since then haven’t helped. Sheen, for his part, makes fun of his family’s faith in rehab and says he can beat his demons from sheer strength of will. He’s also mocked Estevez in his live stage shows.
Estevez admits to problems with his father Martin Sheen too. When Estevez went with his parents to the Philippines during the shooting of Apocalypse Now, he ran wild and stayed out late, even though breaking the country’s martial-law curfew was a shooting offense. When he asked his parents why they hadn’t reined him in, they said that with four sons, they could live with losing one. Hopefully, like Bynes, they were just making a tasteless joke.
10. Lon Chaney Jr.
Lon Chaney Jr. was one of the stars of the original Dark Universe, the only actor to play Universal’s Wolf Man, Mummy, Frankenstein, and Dracula. Offstage, the man born in 1902 as Creighton Tull Chaney had some dark moments in his own family life.
Creighton was seven when his mother, Cleva attempted suicide. Creighton’s father, Lon Chaney Sr., divorced her and told his son she’d died; mother and son wouldn’t meet again for years. Chaney left his son in foster homes and boarding schools while starting his career, but brought him home after remarrying. Chaney happily let people assume his second wife was his only wife and Creighton’s mother.
Chaney was adamant that his son stay out of the movie industry and pushed him toward business instead. Creighton only became an actor after his father’s death. Ironically, it wasn’t until he switched from his birth name to Lon Chaney Jr. that he found stardom.
9. Tori Spelling
Daughter of the late TV producer Aaron Spelling (Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels) and his wife Candy, Tori Spelling is another actor with mother-daughter issues. Her relationship with her mom was bad, which her father blamed on Candy’s relationship with her own mother. Bad enough, Tori says, that when she became a mother, she was afraid of repeating the pattern.
For her part, Candy says Tori’s decision to cut off contact with her parents contributed to Aaron Spelling’s death.
Then there’s Aaron’s will. Being left “only” $800,000 or so doesn’t sound like a tragedy to most of us, but Aaron Spelling’s estate has been estimated at a half-billion dollars. Tori has said the will resulted from Candy manipulating Aaron, though Tori’s brother says it was planned that way for years.
Media accounts have portrayed Tori and Candy as reconciling, then falling apart again. Recently, Candy hosted a baby shower for Tori’s fifth baby, so presumably they’re in the up part of the cycle.
8. Bing Crosby
Best known now for White Christmas and the Road movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby was a superstar in his day. Bing was loved not only for his acting and singing, but the image of a kind, wise, father figure — an image, some of his kids say, was as phony as a two-dollar bill.
In Going My Own Way, Bing’s son Gary paints an entirely different image, of an abusive father who belittled his kids with nicknames (Gary’s was Big Butt) and had no qualms about beating his sons until they bled. Gary said he was left bloodied when Bing took a belt to him for not losing enough weight.
As often happens when a family member makes charges of abuse, the Crosby clan’s response was mixed. Gary’s twin stands by his account, another brother dismisses Gary as a cry-baby. None of the kids, however, denies Bing being a tougher, stricter, less loving father than his on-screen personality would have you believe.
7. Tatum O’Neal
Tatum O’Neal’s 1973 performance alongside her father Ryan in Paper Moon made her the youngest Oscar winner in history. It also infuriated her father to see her performance get an Oscar while he wasn’t even nominated. Tatum says when the nominees were announced, Ryan hit her, although she later blocked out the memory.
Even before that, Tatum’s family had a trainwreck quality to it. Her mother Joanna Moore was an alcoholic and drug addict who routinely left her child alone and unsupervised, sometimes with men who molested her. Tatum was delighted when her father eventually took custody, but Ryan O’Neal, in his own words, was “a hopeless father.” He says that years later, he met his daughter and didn’t even recognize her, so he had no qualms hitting on her.
6. Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie and father Jon Voight seem to be in agreement that his relationship with Jolie’s mother has been the root of their issues. Voight had an affair, separated from Jolie’s mother, and eventually divorced her. In his daughter’s eyes, he abandoned his children as well. After Voight and Jolie appeared together in Tomb Raider (2001), Voight blamed the divorce for Jolie’s “mental problems.” Jolie’s response was to break off contact with her dad, saying it wasn’t healthy for her to be around him, especially once she became a mother herself.
Although he wasn’t invited to the later Brangelina wedding, press reports say it was Brad Pitt who convinced Jolie to reconcile with her father, which came about in 2010. Since then, the relationship seems to have improved, with Jolie’s kids providing the glue that helps hold them together.
5. Olivia de Havilland/Joan Fontaine
Not talking for ten years? Big whoop. Sibling Hollywood stars Olivia de Havilland (Gone With the Wind) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) gave each other the cold shoulder for decades.
The duo certainly weren’t a perfect set growing up, enduring the typical squabbles and annoyances many sisters suffer. Their squabbling came to a head one night when Fontaine’s efforts to pull her sister into the swimming pool ended up with Fontaine suffering a broken collarbone. Still, all that might have been water under the bridge if they hadn’t both broken into Hollywood.
Fontaine said that when she won a 1942 Oscar for Suspicion, beating out her sister for Best Actress, “all the animus we’d felt toward each other as children — the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone — all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery.” For these sisters, there was no reconciliation. Fontaine, who died in 2013, claimed that when their mother died, de Havilland didn’t invite her to the cremation ceremony.
4. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore of ET, Scream, and Never Been Kissed fame is another actor with heavy mother-daughter drama. Barrymore says she was nine when her mother, Jaid, took her to Studio 54 for dancing and drugs. As Barrymore’s substance abuse grew out of control, Mom committed the teen to a mental institution. Barrymore says the regimented discipline did her a world of good — but once she got out, she filed for emancipation. Still in her teens, she became legally independent of her mother.
Their relationship remains complicated. Barrymore says she helps Jaid financially and can’t be comfortable unless she knows her mother is taken care of. That doesn’t translate to being besties, though: Barrymore said in 2014 that she also can’t deal with having her mother involved in her life.
3. Gary Coleman
The late Gary Coleman’s relationship with his parents was so notorious it made it into the musical Avenue Q: “I’m Gary Coleman from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes/I made a lot of money that got stolen by my folks.”
Diff’rent Strokes made Coleman a child millionaire, but like many underage actors, his parents took care of the money. In Coleman’s opinion, they should have taken more care: in 1989, he sued them and his manager for misappropriating the cash. A judge ruled that his parents and the manager took more than $1 million in excessive payments from Coleman’s earnings; Coleman received a $1.3 millions settlement in 1993.
When Coleman died in 2010, he hadn’t spoken to his parents in twenty years. His father, however, seemed to feel the parents were the injured party — as soon as their son had reached legal adulthood, they’d been “put out to pasture.”
2. Reese Witherspoon
Legally Blonde star Reese Witherspoon’s two teenage children have the same issues with her that countless mothers have faced: she’s their mom. It’s embarrassing that she actually walks around in public in their company. Not to mention she does everything wrong, including her coffee drinking.
“My 11 year old, the other day,” Witherspoon said in 2014, “he’s gotten so embarrassed of me that we were drying in my car and I had my coffee cup there, and he said ‘Ugh, the lipstick on your coffee cup is so embarrassing.’” Only her two year old, she added, still felt it was socially acceptable to be seen with her.
After Witherspoon voiced a pig in the 2016 animated film Sing, she further embarrassed her children by singing her character’s songs where they can hear.
1. Macauley Culkin
Like Gary Coleman, former child star Macauley Culkin’s parents managed his career and his money, splitting a 15 percent commission. When Culkin was at his peak, people negotiating with Culkin’s father, Kit, portrayed the dad as an unreasonable stage father who demanded outrageous deals for his son. The alternative view was that Kit did exactly what he should, fighting to get “Mac” the best contract possible.
Either way, things fell apart in the mid-1990s when Kit and his partner Patricia launched a heated custody fight over their kids — which would also give the winner the management gig and the 15 percent fee. In the end, Kit conceded and Patricia got custody.
At that point, it appears Kit’s relationship with his son came to an end. They stopped talking, and unlike some of the fractured relationships in this list, they didn’t start up again. Years later, a seriously ill Kit said he’d love to see Macauley again, but the adult Macauley was no longer a son to him.
Know of a fractured Hollywood family we didn’t mention? Sound off in the comments.
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