The 1980s were a much harder time to become famous if you were a kid. These days, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel have “machines” designed to crank out stars. (Selena Gomez, Shia LaBeouf, and Ariana Grande are just a few of their discoveries.) Back then, the path to fame was a lot harder. It took getting the exact right role and making the most of it. For that reason, ’80s child stars made a lasting impact that today’s pre-fab stars may not be able to maintain over time.
Of course, talent was involved, too. The biggest of the ’80s kid stars had plenty of talent. Sometimes they were versatile, while other times they had one specific thing that they did especially well. Whether or not they were able to maintain their careers after growing up and losing the kid cuteness, these celebrities doubtlessly earned their fans’ adoration during that amazing pop culture decade.
Here are the 13 Biggest Child Stars of the 1980s.
13. Jonathan Ke Quan
Jonathan Ke Quan initially went by the name Ke Huy Quan when he memorably played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in The Goonies. He later altered his moniker to another variation on his full name, which is Jonathan Luke Ke Huy Quan. Whatever he was called, the young Vietnamese actor had charisma aplenty, as evidenced by his ability to hold his own while sharing the screen with Harrison Ford (in one of his two most iconic roles, no less). Parts in the comedy Encino Man and the TV series Head of the Class followed.
Despite his talent, Quan didn’t stick with acting. He graduated high school, then went to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. A longtime student of martial arts instructor Tao-liang Tan, who starred in John Woo’s Hand of Death alongside Jackie Chan, Quan found employment as a stunt choreographer on the original X-Men movie and worked as the assistant to fight choreographer Corey Yuen on the Jet Li thriller The One.
12. Soleil Moon Frye
The TV series Punky Brewster ran for four seasons, fueled by the charm of its plucky young lead, seven-year-old Soleil Moon Frye. While never a ratings smash, the title character amassed enough of a following with kids to keep the show on the air and to spawn an animated spinoff. Frye shared humorous chemistry with her much older co-star, George Gaynes, and the show was known for addressing issues ranging from child welfare to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Through it all, Frye won audience’s hearts with her perky attitude.
After Punky Brewster ended, Frye continued to act on shows ranging from Sabrina the Teenage Witch to Friends, and in movies like Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings. She directed two films of her own, Wild Horses and Sonny Boy. Frye also hosted Home Made Simple on the Oprah Winfrey Network. A married mother of three children, she is a published author, as well as the co-founder of Moonfrye, a website and mobile app offering DIY art and party projects for families.
11. Emmanuel Lewis
You could hardly turn on the TV in the ’80s without seeing Emmanuel Lewis. He was the star of the hit show Webster, which made him a household name and led to repeated talk show appearances. He did tons of commercials, most famously for Burger King, but also for Campbell’s Soup, Life cereal, and Colgate toothpaste, among many others. His round face and wide smile were irresistible, which made him as appealing to adults as he was to other children. Even if he didn’t have the widest range as an actor, Lewis knew how to capitalize on his charms to make viewers grin.
After Webster ended, Lewis failed to find another vehicle so specifically geared to his appeal. Nonetheless, he remained visible, popping up for bit parts in various TV shows like Moesha and as a cast member of the VH1 reality program The Surreal Life – a kind of Real World for fading celebrities. Lewis also appeared in the movie Kickin’ It Old Skool and the David Spade comedy Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. He turned businessman by starting up his own record label, Flex Floss Entertainment.
10. Corey Haim
After breaking out in the acclaimed 1986 coming-of-age story Lucas, Corey Haim went on to become one of the premiere heartthrobs of the decade. He was often teamed onscreen with real-life best friend Corey Feldman. Together, they made The Lost Boys, License to Drive, and Dream a Little Dream. The pictures weren’t great, but the Two Coreys, as they came to be known, clearly had a ball working together. Despite having his face plastered on the cover of every teen magazine, Haim’s career eventually started to suffer to the point where he was largely cast in cheap straight-to-video fare.
He also developed a well-publicized drug problem. By his own admission, Haim got hooked on cocaine and crack. That led to more than a dozen stints in rehab, one of which ultimately resulted in an addiction to prescription meds. Through it all, he continued to strive toward a show-biz comeback; a small part in 2009’s Crank: High Voltage was the pinnacle of those efforts. Sadly, Corey Haim died of pneumonia a year later. His example will endure as a Hollywood cautionary tale about the perils of getting too famous too young.
9. Corey Feldman
The other member of the Two Coreys was Los Angeles-native Corey Feldman, who was a staple in commercials and TV guest spots before scoring roles in the blockbusters Gremlins, The Goonies, and Stand By Me. Those parts quickly established him as one of the most talented and versatile young actors on the scene. Feldman also appeared in Joe Dante’s comedy The ‘Burbs, alongside Tom Hanks. And aside from Haim, he was close personal friends with Michael Jackson. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who traded on cuteness or appeal to teen girls, Feldman had a sarcastic side to his screen persona that was fresh and different. Witty lines of dialogue sounded even funnier because of the offbeat way he would deliver them.
As with many young actors, Feldman’s roles grew less interesting as he got a little older. Still, he’s always worked, whether providing the voice of Donatello in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies or showing up in low-budget genre fare along the lines of Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys. Feldman has also dabbled in music, was married by M.C. Hammer, appeared in a Katy Perry video, and released a memoir. Most recently, he was seen on an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap.
8. Ricky Schroder
Ricky Schroder first got Hollywood’s attention in 1979, with his stellar performance in the tearjerker The Champ – a role for which he won a Golden Globe. Then, in 1992, he landed the lead role of Ricky Stratton, the son of a millionaire, on the sitcom Silver Spoons. (One of his costars was a young actor by the name of Jason Bateman.) The program was a hit, running from 1982 to 1987. Clean cut good looks and an ability to handle both comedy and drama with skill made him a much in-demand young actor.
Unlike some of the people on this list, Schroder was able to successfully transition from child star to accomplished adult thespian. Respected turns in the miniseries Lonesome Dove and its sequel kept him firmly in the public eye. In 1998, he took over as the star of ABC’s long-running police drama NYPD Blue. By all accounts, he was a welcome addition to the show. Ricky (now Rick) Schroder continues to act regularly, frequently in made-for-television movies. He’s also a married father who is very active in charity work.
7. Kirk Cameron
On the series Growing Pains, Kirk Cameron played Mike Seaver, a kid with a penchant for getting into trouble, but also a gift for using his inherent charm to get out of it. Mike was a ladies man, too. Cameron brought a sense of credibility to the part that instantly captured the nation’s interest. Good looking, with a devilish glint of mischief in his eyes, he found himself an object of desire for millions of young girls all across America. The movies came calling, with starring roles alongside Dudley Moore in the body-switching comedy Like Father, Like Son in 1987 and the debate club drama Listen to Me in 1989.
Cameron eventually got out of mainstream showbiz. A devout Christian, he has evolved into a major player in the world of religious entertainment, starring in the faith-based films Left Behind, Fireproof, and Saving Christmas, plus hosting the religious documentaries Unstoppable and Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure. Cameron and his wife, fellow Growing Pains alum Chelsea Noble, have six children.
6. Dustin Diamond
Saved by the Bell was ahead of its time. Debuting in 1989, the popular Saturday morning live-action teen show paved the way for the tween programs that now make up huge chunks of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Girls may have argued over whether Zack or Slater was cuter, but the one thing everyone agreed on was that nerdy Screech, played by Dustin Diamond, was the most fun to watch. Diamond brought such goofy cheer to his portrayal of Screech that he did the seemingly impossible: he made the nerd cooler than the ostensible cool kids.
Diamond apparently found that being so closely identified with the character was limiting. Roles dried up when the show ended. He appeared to rebel against it all by reinventing himself as a bad boy, releasing his own sex tape, intentionally agitating other contestants on the VH1 reality series Celebrity Fit Club and writing a tell-all memoir that painted an unflattering portrait of his former Saved by the Bell castmates. In January of this year, he began a four-month jail sentence for his part in a barroom stabbing.
5. Gary Coleman
In the realm of ’80s pop culture catchphrases, “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” has to rank near the top. Those words were uttered almost weekly by Gary Coleman, who played Arnold Jackson on NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes. The diminutive actor was blessed with a sharp sense of comic timing that had viewers clamoring for that phrase again and again. Coleman’s sassy, wise-beyond-his-years quality won the hearts of the show’s many fans. 20th Century Fox saw an opportunity, giving him a big-screen star vehicle, 1981’s On the Right Track. It underperformed, earning just $13 million at the box office. The following year’s Jimmy the Kid fared even worse.
Coleman never did find a follow-up role that clicked for him the way that Arnold did. He became more of a professional celebrity, doing cameos in shows and movies, often playing himself. In 2003, he unsuccessfully ran for Governor of California. There were also a series of personal problems, including suicide attempts, financial difficulties, a painful divorce, and multiple legal issues. Health concerns were present, too, and on May 10, 2010, Gary Coleman passed away from epidural hematoma. His legacy as a sitcom star continues to live on.
4. Danica McKellar
Winnie Cooper was the love of Kevin Arnold’s life on ABC’s acclaimed The Wonder Years. In real life, Danica McKellar was tasked with being the representation of every viewer’s young love. It was vital to the program’s success that people identify with her. Not an easy job, but one she pulled off with great finesse. The actress conveyed such inherent kindness as Winnie Cooper that she elevated a show that was already very smart and emotional. McKellar become a role model for girls everywhere.
After The Wonder Years ended, she popped up in TV movies and, briefly, on The West Wing. More importantly, she pursued her education, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from UCLA. Since then, she has written several books, including the cleverly titled Math Doesn’t Suck, designed to make mathematical concepts easier to understand and more relatable for adolescent readers.
3. Fred Savage
The other half of this Wonder Years equation (pun intended) is Fred Savage, who so earnestly played the lead role of Kevin that he was nominated for two Golden Globes and two Emmy Awards. Savage deftly balanced comedic and dramatic moments, capturing all the confusion, joy, and magic of childhood in the process. Prior to his TV fame, he appeared in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, and after the show’s success, he landed lead roles in Little Monster, Vice Versa, and The Wizard (which is now infamous for being little more than a 90-minute Nintendo commercial.)
As an adult, Savage has done guest appearances on various TV shows, and now has a starring role opposite Rob Lowe on The Grinder. There have been occasional small parts in movies, including Welcome to Mooseport and Austin Powers in Goldmember. By and large, though, he has moved behind the camera. Savage directed the Cuba Gooding, Jr. comedy Daddy Day Camp, as well as TV series ranging from Hannah Montana to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Modern Family. He is married and has children.
2. The Olsen Twins
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are so much more than former child stars. They got famous sharing the role of little Michelle Tanner on Full House, with audiences falling madly in love with their unparalleled cuteness. A full-fledged sensation was born, and they were soon everywhere. Starting in the early ’90s, the girls parlayed their initial success into a series of best-selling straight-to-DVD movies, including Holiday in the Sun, Billboard Dad, and Passport to Paris. There were additionally a couple of theatrically released features: 1995’s It Takes Two (with Steve Guttenberg and Kirstie Alley) and 2004’s New York Minute (with Eugene Levy).
Aside from their screen work, fans could purchase tons of officially-licensed merchandise bearing their likenesses. So successful were Mary-Kate and Ashley that Forbes listed them as the eleventh-richest women in entertainment for the year 2007, with a net worth of $100 million. More recently, the sisters have started their own wildly successful fashion label. Acting has taken a back seat to running the business. They may have gained attention for being cute on a silly sitcom, but the Olsens clearly had the smarts to turn fan adoration into something greater.
1. Drew Barrymore
When she burst onto the scene as Gertie in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Drew Barrymore was the textbook definition of “adorable.” But even at the tender age of six, it was clear that she had genuine substance. A member of the famous Barrymore acting clan, little Drew proved that talent might very well be genetic. She was that natural and authentic onscreen. Hollywood took notice, eventually casting her in more “adult” projects like Irreconcilable Differences, Firestarter, and the Jeff Bridges drama See You in the Morning.
Well-publicized drug and alcohol problems sidelined Barrymore for most of her teen years, but she eventually got sober and rebounded. A strong performance in the otherwise tawdry 1992 thriller Poison Ivy put her back on the map, with acclaimed turns in Boys on the Side, Never Been Kissed, and Riding in Cars With Boys following. Today, of course, Barrymore continues to act in films, most recently Blended and Miss You Already. She directed the critically lauded comedy Whip It, and as a producer, her company, Flower Films, scored hits with the Charlie’s Angels pictures (in which she also starred) and How to Be Single.
These were the biggest child stars of the ’80s, but certainly not the only ones. Did we leave any of your favorites off the list? Let us know who you remember fondly in the comments.
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