The 1980s produced many memorable cultural phenomena, including fashion statements such as leg warmers and snap bracelets, and innovations in entertainment like moonwalking and Pac-Man. As the decade of bright colors and big hair, it’s definitely not an overstatement to claim that the ’80s introduced a whole lot of iconic characters to the pop cultural lexicon. From Indiana Jones and E.T., to ALF and the Huxtables, the decade produced characters who have been beloved for nearly thirty years now and whose names are frequently referenced in other works.
While many of the faces behind these iconic names went on to have storied careers in the entertainment industry, sometimes, actors and artists can fall through the cracks. In particular, the road to stardom is far less guaranteed for child actors and actresses, who don’t always continue on in the industry after their big name work comes to an end. After all, not everyone can be an Olsen twin.
You’d be surprised just how many child stars are left out of discussions about the great talent of the 1980s, but don’t worry. We’ve gone ahead and put together a list of 15 ’80s Child Stars You Completely Forgot About in order to jog your memory.
15. Keshia Knight Pulliam
For eight seasons from 1984-1992, Rudy Huxtable stole the scene and hearts of viewers everywhere on the undeniably beloved series The Cosby Show. As the youngest member of the Huxtable family, Keshia Knight Pulliam’s Rudy was often given the warmest moments with other cast members, but she was also given plenty of opportunities to show her real comedic talent. Her work earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1986, when Knight Pulliam was only six years old. In fact, the nomination earned her the title of youngest actress to ever be nominated for an Emmy.
Since The Cosby Show ended in 1992, Knight Pulliam has appeared as a series regular in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, in addition to starring roles in assorted TV movies. She also currently runs the non-profit organization Kamp Kizzy, an overnight camp in Atlanta, GA that is devoted to empowering girls aged 11-16.
14. Nancy McKeon
As a show revolving around the goings on of an all girl’s boarding school, it was only natural that The Facts of Life would have a lot of girl vs. girl drama. That drama only increased with the second season introduction of Nancy McKeon’s Jo Polniaczek, a rebellious tomboy who clashed in every way possible with spoiled rich girl Blair Warner. Over the course of eight seasons, Jo and Blair were able to overcome their differences as they grew older, and even became best friends. By the final season, McKeon was one of only four remaining main cast members from the first two seasons.
After The Facts of Life ended in 1988, McKeon has continued to work steadily in TV movies, the 2001-2004 drama series The Division, and the 2009-2011 Disney Channel original series Sonny with a Chance. Perhaps one of the most interesting facts to know, however, is about a role McKeon didn’t get: Monica Geller on Friends.
13. Todd Bridges
Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, the odds are pretty high that you’ve at least heard the iconic catchphrase coined by the series: “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Todd Bridges spent eight years starring as Willis Jackson, the witty and charming older brother of the late Gary Coleman’s Arnold. Even though Willis’ role decreased over the years, he remained a constant foil for Arnold’s character, and even carried on a three season romance with Charlene, a character portrayed by Janet Jackson.
Bridges has been open about the fact that, following Diff’rent Strokes‘ abrupt cancellation, he struggled greatly with substance abuse. However, since getting clean, he has gone on to appear in films such as That’s My Boy and television series like Everybody Hates Chris, on which he had a recurring role.
12. Jonathan Ke Quan
With his role opposite Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling hero in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Jonathan Ke Quan quickly established himself as a talented young comedic star. As Short Round, Quan and Ford established a remarkably witty rapport that added another layer of sharp wit to the adventure flick; Short Round even gets in on some of the action, saving the hero’s life. It’s no surprise then that Quan was chosen to star as Richard “Data” Wang in 1985’s The Goonies, a similarly witty and heroic character who uses his own inventions to save the day.
Quan continued to act occasionally until 2002, but also showed interest in working in entertainment from behind the camera. After graduating from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Quan began working as a stunt coordinator and rigger, working on films such as 2000’s X-Men and 2001’s Jet Li film The One.
11. Ilan Mitchell-Smith
In a decade that produced truly bizarre films, 1985’s Weird Science might just be one of the, well, weirdest of them all. The film follows best friends and nerds Gary and Wyatt, played by Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith respectively, as they strive to create the perfect girl, Frankenstein style. Naturally, the creation of their Franken-dream girl causes pure chaos. While Hall would go on to become part of the iconic group of ’80s stars known as the Brat Pack, Mitchell-Smith would soon retreat from the spotlight in favor of less Hollywood-y pursuits.
After a few other less successful roles, Mitchell-Smith left the acting world in 1991, and decided instead to pursue a career in academia. By 2005, he had received his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degree, and he now teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he serves as the Co-Director at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
10. Tiffany Brissette
While the 1980s certainly had their conventional family and workplace based sitcoms like the ones that are popular nowadays, there’s no denying that the sitcoms of the ’80s took bigger genre risks than current programs do. Take, for example, the 1985-1989 series Small Wonder, centered around Ted Lawson, a robots engineer who designs a robot named V.I.C.I (Voice Input Child Identicant) and then tries to see if the childlike robot can fit in as part of his family. Child actress Tiffany Brissette starred as V.I.C.I., whose name was changed to Vicki for the obvious reasons. Much of the show’s humor stemmed from Vicki having to learn human interaction methods, much like 1978-1982 sitcom predecessor Mork & Mindy.
Two years after Small Wonder ended in 1989, Brissette quit acting and instead decided to pursue psychology. She received her bachelor’s in psychology at Westmont College, and currently works as a nurse in Boulder, Colorado.
9. Soleil Moon Frye
As one of many ’80s sitcoms based on the premise of abandoned or orphaned children finding an unlikely family, Punky Brewster starred Soleil Moon Frye as the titular spunky child. The series ran for four years on NBC and followed the life of the precocious Penelope “Punky” Brewster and her relationship with her foster father, the elderly and often cantankerous building manager Henry Warnimont. Perhaps more than anything else, however, the series is best remembered for Punky’s vibrant (and incredibly ’80s) wardrobe.
Since Punky Brewster went off the air in 1988, Frye has had a lengthy acting career, including three seasons as the outspoken Roxie King on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and two seasons of voice work as Zoey on The Proud Family. Frye now works primarily as a voice actor, but has also made it clear that she’s not afraid to revisit her Punky roots.
8. Tempestt Bledsoe
As the second youngest member of The Cosby Show‘s Huxtable family, Tempestt Bledsoe’s Vanessa Huxtable often found herself in the unenviable position of the trouble-making child. Over the course of eight seasons, Vanessa frequently fought with all of her siblings, secretly traveled to another state for a concert, got incredibly drunk while hanging out with friends, and became engaged to a man ten years her senior that her parents had never even heard of. Even if Vanessa wasn’t always the easiest to like, there’s no denying that Bledsoe’s performance made each and every one of Vanessa’s messy adventures thoroughly entertaining.
After The Cosby Show ended, Bledsoe attended New York University, graduating with a degree in finance. She has since appeared in a starring role in the short-lived sitcom Guys with Kids opposite Anthony Anderson, and even reprised her role as Vanessa in an episode of the sitcom Instant Mom in 2014.
7. Benji Gregory
As a member of a cast where the standout main character is a highly comical alien puppet who wears Hawaiian shirts and is named Gordon Shumway, it’s probably pretty hard to make a name for yourself as a star. However, over the course of ALF‘s four seasons, Benji Gregory’s Brian Tanner becomes the title character’s adorable sidekick and partner in crime, even if Brian is usually the more rational of the two.
While Gregory was a frequent guest star on other ’80s series such as Punky Brewster, The A-Team, and T.J. Hooker, he would go on to quit acting in the early 1990s, instead pursuing his education at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Following his completion of his degree, he enlisted in the Navy, serving as an Aerographer’s Mate in the early 2000s before being medically discharged from service.
6. Danica McKellar
As Winnie Cooper, the dream girl of The Wonder Years‘ main character Kevin Arnold, Danica McKellar won the hearts of young boys everywhere in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Over the course of six seasons, McKellar brought the quintessential girl next door to life in the critically acclaimed and widely beloved series. And even though (24 year old spoiler alert!) Kevin and Winnie don’t end up together after all those years, Winnie Cooper’s sweetness and ultimate unattainability has caused her to stand the test of time as the paradigm of teenage boys’ dreams.
McKellar, however, has long moved past the sweet simplicity of Winnie Cooper. After the series ended in 1993, she attended UCLA and made an impressive name for herself in the mathematics world, even having a theorem partially named after her. While she continues to act on occasion, having appeared in The West Wing and assorted TV movies in particular, she has also published a series of books aimed at increasing youth interest in math.
5. Emmanuel Lewis
If you had to pick someone to earn the title of Most Adorable ’80s Child Star, you would be hard pressed to find someone who deserved the crown more than the absolutely adorable Emmanuel Lewis. For six years, Lewis starred as the unrelentingly sweet Webster Long in Webster, a young orphan who was taken in by the wealthy white couple George and Helen Papadopolis. Over the course of the feelgood sitcom, incredibly emotional issues are explored, including a particularly harrowing episode in season two in which Webster accidentally burns the family’s apartment down and worries that they will hate him.
Much like the previously mentioned Gary Coleman, Lewis is undeniably best known for his small stature. Prior to Webster‘s success, a ten year old Lewis released a song, “City Connection,” that went on to be a big hit in Japan. Since Webster ended, he has had a few guest roles in other sitcoms such as Family Matters and Moesha, and has even appeared as fictionalized versions of himself in assorted series and movies.
4. Barret Oliver
As Bastian Balthazar Bux in The NeverEnding Story, Barret Oliver portrays a boy who literally enters into the art world by means of a journey into a wondrous realm called Fantasia nested within a magical book. While reading along with the story of this struggling world, Bastian realizes that he is being invited to join it, yet he struggles to understand how this can be possible if it’s just a story. However, as it becomes a matter of life and death, Bastian’s belief in magic grows and he allows himself to be sucked into the fantastical world that needs his saving.
While Bastian worked to save the world within a book, Barret Oliver withdrew from the world of acting to instead tell stories in a different medium: photography. In particular, he specializes in older forms of photography, such as the Woodburytype, about which he published a book in 2007.
3. Lukas Haas
Lukas Haas made a name for himself when he starred opposite Harrison Ford in the 1985 film Witness. In the film, Haas stars as Samuel Lapp, an eight year old Amish boy who is the only witness to the gruesome murder of an undercover officer. Ford’s character, Detective Captain John Book, is entrusted with guaranteeing the young boy’s safety when it becomes clear that the situation is incredibly dangerous.
Haas has worked steadily since he was a child, appearing in television series including Touch, Criminal Minds, and 24, as well as hit films like Inception and The Revenant. Haas is also an established drummer and pianist, having previously teamed up with artists such as Macy Gray and My Chemical Romance.
2. Jeff Cohen
While it’s true that the 1985 cult classic film The Goonies produced big stars such as Sean Astin and Josh Brolin, perhaps the most iconic character to come from the film is Jeff Cohen’s Lawrence “Chunk” Cohen. As the clumsy fat kid with a heart of gold, Chunk is the heart of the team and the film, as can be seen when he is held captive by the evil Fratelli family. And, of course, who can forget his famous Truffle Shuffle?
Although Cohen stole the show in The Goonies and made guest appearances in series such as Webster, The Facts of Life, and Family Ties, he ultimately found that, due to puberty, he wasn’t going to have the career in acting some may have expected. He didn’t stray too far from the industry, however: Cohen is now a practicing entertainment lawyer and a co-founding partner at the firm Cohen Gardner LLP based in Beverly Hills.
1. Henry Thomas
As a child star, Henry Thomas won audiences’ hearts everywhere as the compassionate and brave Elliott in the beloved science fiction film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Through the intense bond formed between the young boy and his alien friend, viewers were able to see an impressive range of acting from Thomas, including great comedic timing and profound emotional potential.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Thomas has continued on with a successful acting career, including two Golden Globe nominations and one BAFTA nomination. Over the course of his 37 years in the business, Thomas has appeared in successful films like Legends of the Fall and Gangs of New York; television series including Betrayal, The Mentalist, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; and period drama mini-series like Moby Dick and Sons of Liberty.
What forgotten ’80s child stars did we forget about? Let us know in the comments!
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