80s Child Stars Then and Now
Not only were the 80s responsible for some of the most iconic blockbuster films ever made, they also kickstarted the careers of several child actors, whose roles in family classics like The Goonies and Stand By Me allowed them to become household names.
From the adorable to the ultra-cool, here’s what your favourite 80s stars are up to now.
Jeff Cohen got his big break in 1985 playing the lovable but accident-prone Chunk in the classic coming of age flick The Goonies. Cohen had a string of hits throughout the mid to late 80s, with roles on Family Ties and Popeye and Son, but his career ended prematurely in 1991 after his appearance in the TV movie Perfect Harmony.
The choice to step away from the spotlight was made for him when he went through puberty. As Cohen grew up, he slimmed down and put on muscle, which meant he could no longer get the kinds of comedic parts he was known for. As he said in a 2015 interview with the Daily Mail: “When I hit puberty, it was a career-ender for me. I was transforming from Chunk to hunk and I couldn’t get roles anymore.”
You might not know the name Aileen Quinn, but you definitely know the face. In 1982, she became a superstar by starring in the film adaptation of Annie, after working as a swing (understudy to all child cast members) on Broadway. The film was a smash hit and seemed to set Quinn up for a lifetime in Hollywood but, barring some onscreen work as an adult in the Will & Grace revival and the television series The Comeback Kids, that never materialised.
The reason why is simple: Quinn was contracted to star in several subsequent Annie movies, and was prohibited from doing other screen work. Unfortunately, the films were never made, and so Quinn was stuck doing regional theatre. Fortunately, Quinn loved performing on stage, later telling Broadway dot com: “I got to have a normal high school and a normal life outside of Hollywood. I could only take regional theatre gigs, and it’s when I got to really to grow up as an actress.”
By child actor standards, Lisa Bonet came to the game late, only beginning to audition for commercials when she was 11 years old. It then took her a further five years for her to land her big break as Denise Huxtable Kendall on The Cosby Show. Bonet played the role for seven years, from 1984 to 1991, but following her departure, her career trajectory slowed.
Lisa Bonet acted parodically in films and TV movies, including some notable titles like High Fidelity and Enemy of the State, but it took her until 2008 to land another regular TV role. Bonet played Detective Maya Daniels on Life on Mars from 2008 to 2009, made a brief appearance on Drunk History as Rosa Parks and recently cameoed on both New Girl and Girls.
Wil Wheaton has had the most 80s career possible. Not only did he star in the Stephen King classic Stand By Me and contribute voice work to the animation legend Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, but he followed that by playing Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, he left acting in the early 90s to work for software company NewTek, before re-entering the entertainment world after five years in acting school.
Since Wheaton has returned to the profession, he has opted mostly for voice work, due to his difficult relationship with the spotlight. Wheaton recently told Metro: “When I was a kid my parents forced me to become an actor, it was never something I wanted to do. Throughout my entire childhood, I begged my mother to stop forcing me to go on auditions… as a consequence of that, I don’t really enjoy on-camera acting.”
Corey Feldman got into the acting game early. He began booking gigs in commercials when he was three years old, and he began playing Regi Tower in The Bad News Bears in 1979, when he was just eight. Following his exit from the show in 1980, Feldman had a string of incredible hits, with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Gremlins, The Goonies and Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, all being released between 1984 and 1987.
However, Feldman’s career as an adult was plagued with issues, as he fought a public battle with substance abuse and struggled to win mainstream roles. He first pivoted to independent films and then to reality TV, and has since released an album and a memoir, as well as appearing on Dancing on Ice, Celebrity Wife Swap and Marriage Boot Camp.
Not all child stars go on to become beloved as adults, but Sean Astin definitely managed it. Following his hit film debut in The Goonies, Astin had a steady career film career, working on mostly goofy comedies but occasionally branching out into historical films like Memphis Belle. However, his biggest break came in the early 2000s, when he was cast as the loveable Samwise Gamgee in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In the years since, Astin has worked consistently in film and in TV, with guest appearances on everything from My Name is Earl and Law & Order to The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He even had a full-circle moment when he was cast as fan-favourite Bob Newby in season two of Stranger Things, a show which often pays homage to the kinds of 80s classics that he originally starred in.
Fred Savage began his acting career at just nine years old, and found success pretty quickly. After appearing on The Twilight Zone and Crime Story, as well as playing Milly’s little brother in the fantasy movie The Boy Who Could Fly, Savage starred in both The Princess Bride and The Wonder Years in the space of just twelve months.
However, like so many other former child stars, Savage pivoted to voice acting after The Wonder Years ended. He eventually found true success behind the camera though, with a directing career including many Disney TV shows such as Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place. More recently, he was controversially fired from The Wonder Years reboot series over misconduct allegations.
Jaleel White is another actor whose name you might not know, but whose face you’ll definitely recognise. In 1989, White first appeared as Steve Urkel on Family Matters, in a one-off appearance that proved so popular it led to the character being re-tooled as a series regular. In fact, Urkel was so beloved that he eventually became the series protagonist, shifting focus away from the Winslow family.
When Family Matters ended in 1997, White starred in the UPN series Grown-Ups, before taking time out to study film and television at UCLA. As an adult, he saw some success with supporting roles in Dreamgirls and Big Fat Liar, and even competed on Dancing with the Stars. Outside of acting, he has released his own line of commercial cannabis strains, including the nostalgic “Purple Urkel”.
Soleil Moon Frye
Usually, it would be difficult for an actor to win the starring role in a television show at the age of seven, but by that point, Soleil Moon Frye was already a consummate professional. Frye began working as an actor when she was just two years old, and she began television appearances when she was five, before winning the starring role in Punky Brewster in 1984.
Though Punky Brewster earned consistently low ratings, it was adored by the children who watched it, and so ran all the way to 1988. This was enough to set up Frye with a steady television career, which included extensive voice work and supporting roles on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Proud Family. She has mainly stuck to the world of children’s entertainment ever since, though she did appear in the 1997 drama The Killing Secret.
Carrie Henn might have only had one film appearance, but it was enough to make her a recognisable face of the 80s. In 1986, Henn was offered the breakout role of a lifetime in Newt, the young girl who is the lone survivor of an alien attack on a newly colonised planet. Newt’s touching relationship with Ellen Ripley touched the hearts of audiences, but then Henn vanished from Hollywood as quickly as she’d arrived.
Henn returned to acting with a voice role in Thunder Island in 2020, after spending over two decades working as a teacher. Speaking about her decision to pursue a normal life and career, she said: “That’s what a lot of people have a hard time understanding. They don’t understand that [acting] wasn’t my passion. It wasn’t my dream. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Was it an amazing experience? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Of course. But it wasn’t my passion. Teaching was.”
Ke Huy Quan
In the mid-80s, Ke Huy Quan was one of the most recognisable child actors in America. Not only did he appear as Harrison Ford’s sidekick Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but he followed it up by playing Data in The Goonies the very next year. However, his next major film role following those two hits was in the American martial arts flick Breathing Fire, six years later in 1991.
He later adopted the stage name Jonathan Ke Quan, but his film appearances grew less and less frequent, and by 2002 his retirement from acting was made official. Instead, he attended the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and, after graduating, turned his attention to stunt coordinating and rigging. He has since worked in a behind-the-camera capacity on movies like the 2000s X-Men, but made a surprise return to acting in 2021 with Finding ‘Ohana and indie hit Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Weird Science might not be the biggest blockbuster to come out of 80s cinema, but it definitely has one of the biggest cult followings. Mitchell-Smith starred in the sci-fi comedy alongside Anthony Michael Hall, but while the latter became a card-carrying member of the Brat Pack, the former spent the 80s starring in a sequence starring in less and less successful projects.
However, after leaving the world of acting in 1991, Mitchell-Smith instead began a career in academia. In 2005, he took up a position teaching at California State University, where he also works as the Co-Director at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. As if that weren’t enough, he has also designed adventures for Dungeons and Dragons in his spare time, and writes regular columns about tabletop gaming in Forces of Geek. He also made a brief return to acting with guest role on 80s-set sitcom The Goldbergs.
When Lukas Haas was just eight years old, he starred alongside Harrison Ford in the 1985 thriller Witness. The role came just two years after his screen debut in Testament, a 1983 drama about a theoretical nuclear extinction event. Haas’ performance set him up for a consistent film career throughout the 80s and 90s, and he has since made at least one film appearance every year since 1996, right up to 2022.
Outside of his regular acting work, Haas also found time to become a brilliant drummer and passionate piano player, so much so that he has collaborated with huge artists like Macy Gray and My Chemical Romance. His biggest recent film role was 2018’s First Man, in which he played the astronaut, Michael Collins, who drove the lunar command module whilst Neil Armstrong walked on the moon’s surface.
Not all child actors are able to have a successful acting career in adulthood, but Henry Thomas managed the transition with relative ease. After his breakout role as Elliott in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial when he was just 11 years old, he worked consistently throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000s, only pausing his pursuit of film roles to play guitar on records and tour with the San Antonio band The Blue Heelers.
Even though he was never without work, the 2010s saw something of a Henry Thomas renaissance. He began a long-term collaboration with filmmaker Mike Flanagan, appearing in his films Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. Not only that, but he starred in Flanagan’s Netflix series’ The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Danica McKellar’s acting career was a whole childhood in the making. When she was just seven years old, she enrolled in weekend acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles, and it paid off when, as a teenager, she landed the role of Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. McKellar played Cooper from 1988 to 1993, before exploring voice acting roles and balancing her acting career with school.
Nowadays, McKellar is mostly known for writing educational maths books for children, the first of which became a New York Times Bestseller. Thanks to her dedication to helping middle schoolers be excited and curious about maths rather than being consumed with hatred for it, she was given the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) Communications Award, and was named the Person of the Week on World News with Charles Gibson.
It’s no surprise that Brooke Shields was able to find success so young, given her rarefied upbringing. Shields’ paternal grandmother was the daughter of Italian noblewoman Marina Torlonia di Civitella-Cesi, who in turn was the daughter of an Italian prince and an American socialite. Shields came out as a debutant at the Waldorf, and began working as a child model at just 11 months old.
Shields worked as a model for much of her young life, but had her breakout role at the age of 12, when she controversially played a child forced into sex work in 1917. Two years later, she starred in the equally controversial Blue Lagoon, after which she had to testify at a U.S. congressional enquiry that body doubles were used for the nude scenes. Shields has worked consistently ever since, most notably in season 19 of Law & Order: SVU.
Danny Lloyd’s rise to fame was sudden and unexpected. When he was just five years old, it was announced on the radio that a local film production was seeking children to audition for a drama. Remembering that his kid couldn’t seem to get enough attention, Lloyd’s father sent off a picture of him, and soon received a call from Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant.
The film was The Shining, and Danny Lloyd soon became one of the most recognisable child actors on the planet. However, Lloyd retired four years later after appearing in just two other films: the TV movie Will: G. Gordon Liddy and a documentary about The Shining. Lloyd grew up to become a biology professor at a community college, and cameoed in Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-awaited sequel to The Shining.
Tracey Gold might not have grown up with showbiz parents, but she became part of a showbiz family all the same. Both she and her sister began working as actresses at a very young age, with her younger sister Missy Gold appearing on the sitcom Bensen from 1979 to 1986, and Tracey Gold appearing in a Pepsi print ad when she was just four.
The elder Gold appeared in two cancelled sitcoms before finally gaining prominence when she was cast as Carol Seaver on Growing Pains, a role which she held for much of her teenage years. Unfortunately, her time in the spotlight led to her becoming one of the first celebrities to be outed for her battle with anorexia. Now as an adult, she often holds talks about the impact of eating disorders and the importance of a healthy body image.
As the older brother of Candace Cameron Bure, otherwise known as D.J. Tanner-Fuller on Full House, Kirk Cameron grew up in a showbiz family. Cameron began acting at age nine with a breakfast cereal advert, but by 13, he had already starred in numerous television shows and movies. His fame peaked in 1985, when he won a starring role as Mike Seaver in Growing Pains.
Cameron spent the late 80s as a teen heartthrob, appearing in magazines like Tiger Beat and Teen Beat and earning around $50,000 a week. However, following Growing Pains’ end in 1992, Cameron drifted away from the spotlight, only returning to star in various Growing Pains and Full House reunions.
Bridgette Anderson began acting before she even learned to talk, appearing in commercials for Bank of America and Mervyn’s as an infant. By the age of two, she had a talent agent and regular work as a model, before getting her big break in 1982 as Savannah Driscoll in the film Savannah Smiles. The same year, Andersen portrayed the six-year-old Mae West in the biographical TV movie, Mae West.
Anderson had a staggering IQ, learning to read at age two and a half and cultivating a love of Ernest Hemmingway. Tragically though, her childhood in the spotlight led to her developing substance abuse issues, which were compounded by her inability to find acting work in her teenage years. As a result, Anderson sadly passed away at the age of 21 from an overdose.
While Drew Barrymore went on to superstardom and Henry Thomas enjoyed a lower-key yet still fruitful career, one star of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial who tends to get forgotten is Robert MacNaughton, who played Elliot and Gertie’s elder brother Michael. McNaughton came to the role with only a few TV acting credits to his name, and it proved to be his only major movie.
After taking the lead in 1983 drama I Am the Cheese and appearing in several TV movies, MacNaughton worked more extensively as a stage actor before quitting the business in 2002. He has since worked as a mail man, but made a minor return to acting in 2015 with low-budget horror movie Frankenstein vs. The Mummy.
Alyssa Milano sky-rocketed to fame with her first TV role, portraying the young Samantha Micelli on Who’s the Boss? The hit sitcom ran from 1984 to 1992, meaning Milano (11 at the show’s beginning, 19 at its end) literally grew up in front of the world. She clocked some more notable credits along the way, including playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter in Commando.
After shedding her good-girl image with such 90s films as Embrace of the Vampire, Milano enjoyed further small screen success with supernatural drama Charmed, which ran until 2006. In recent years, Milano has been more noted for her online political activism, most famously as one of the most prominent voices in the #MeToo movement.
Scott Grimes broke through with TV movies A Doctor’s Tale and The Night They Saved Christmas, he made his film breakthrough with 1986 sci-fi monster movie Critters. Grimes would reprise his role of Bradley Brown in Critters 2: The Main Course, and has maintained a successful career as an actor and a singer ever since.
In the 90s Grimes had a recurring role on drama Party of Five, then in the 2000s he joined the cast of ER. More recently, he’s played pilot Gordon Malloy on sci-fi comedy series The Orville. His film work includes 2010’s Robin Hood and upcoming Christopher Nolan movie Oppenheimer. He’s also recorded three albums as a solo artist.
Thanks to his role as the dashing young hero Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story, Noah Hathaway is an eternal icon to children of the 80s and anyone else who grew up with the 1984 fantasy hit. The film was one among many child actor credits for Hathaway, who also appeared on many popular TV shows including Battlestar Galactica, Mork & Mindy and CHiPs.
However, after 1986 comedy horror Troll (in which he played a character named Harry Potter Jr.), Hathaway largely fell off the map as an actor. He has since worked as a dance instructor, tattoo artist, Muay Thai fighter and motorcycle racer, as well as still taking the odd acting role and being a popular figure at fan conventions.
Following on from Judy Garland in the iconic role of Dorothy was always going to be a big ask, but Fairuza Balk did so with panache in 1985’s Return to Oz, the dark and somewhat controversial belated sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Balk’s subsequent work as a child star includes 1986 TV movie The Worst Witch.
In the 90s, Balk transitioned into edgier mature roles with The Craft, American History X, The Waterboy and Almost Famous, but her acting career has cooled off somewhat over the years. She has also worked as a singer and artist, and in 2020 she made a cameo appearance in belated sequel The Craft: Legacy.