Paul Petersen has been many things in his career – child star, teen idol and pop star. However, his ongoing legacy in Hollywood goes far beyond these accomplishments.
Starting his professional career at age nine, Paul was one of the original kids hired to be a Mousekteer on The Mickey Mouse Club. However, before the cameras even rolled, Paul was the first kid fired from the show when, legend has it, that he punched the casting director in the studio commissary. A few acting roles followed, with the most noteworthy being a part alongside Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat in 1958. However, Paul would become part of Americana later that year when he was cast in the role of Jeff Sloane on the classic family sit-com The Donna Reed Show.
In the role of ‘All American Boy’ Jeff, Paul quickly became one of the era’s top teen idols, appearing on magazine covers and becoming the teenage fantasy of girls all across America. Paul even had a brief flirtation with music when he had minor pop successes in the early 1960’s with Lollipop and Roses, She Can’t Find Her Keys and My Dad. The Donna Reed would be a televisions staple until 1966, but when the series went off the air, like most young actors, Paul found it harder and harder to find work. The days of the family sitcom and the popularity of the ‘All American Boy’ were over, and Paul Petersen was finding that his acting career fading at an alarming
However, there was a much important work for Paul Petersen than just being a TV star. Paul would use these experiences to do so much more.
In 1990, after the suicide of his friend and contemporary Rusty Hamer, Paul Petersen put together A Minor Consideration, an organized support group for former child stars that are suffering from any sort of issue due to their unique experience of being in front of the camera. From drug addiction to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, to exploitation and any other sort of injustice that children may face as the result of show business, be it In the past or the present, Paul Petersen has lead the charge to make sure that this unique subculture of people are taken care of. An accomplished writer, for decades Paul has written extremely thoughtful and hard hitting essays about the harsh reality faced by child stars on A Minor Conisderation’s web-site. He is a man who knows the laws, knows the history of children in entertainment, and takes a keen interest in making sure that the best interests of the child is put forth on movie and television sets.
Simply put, Paul Petersen is a true crusader.
I have been aware of Paul’s work for years, and have been an admirer of his writing and essays. Thus, it was a great thrill to be able to talk to Paul Petersen about the work he does, and how A Minor Consideration is preparing itself to ensure that its work will continue in the future.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADER: A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL PETERSEN
Sam Tweedle: I have been a big admirer of your writing and the work that you do for a long time Paul. I first became aware of it when you and Jay North were on Sally Jessy Raphael in the 90’s, just after the death of Dana Plato.
Paul Petersen: That was a breakthrough for A Minor Consideration. We have to thank Burt Dubrow who was the director and producer, who listened to Jay North’s story and gave us a chance to finally start educating the country about how unfair and exploited the rules for children are in the entertainment business. It took someone like a Jay North to finally tell the truth in public instead of hiding all these skeletons in the closet.
Sam: Once a former child star said to me that the myth of the messed up former child star is one that is created by the media, and that most former child stars don’t go bad at all. They just fade away, and it’s only the ones that go bad that the media focuses on. Do you think that is true?
Paul: No I don’t, but human nature is what it is. One third of all of humanity has no problems in life and proceeds. About a third has issues and survives. Another third have significant troubles, and that’s exactly the population of former kid stars. The one thing that stands out significantly, and this is by scientific survey, is that kids in the business have three times the national average of addicted behaviors. The national average is one out of four. Amongst kid stars it’s three out of four.
Sam: What do you think the connection between the addiction and the celebrity is?
Paul: If you accept my notion that fame is itself is a drug, then the loss of fame automatically calls for a substitute, and that’s what happens. People are looking to fulfill a void in their life once the work goes away and when they grow up and find out they are no longer employable, or no longer attractive, and their time in the sun is over. What’s amusing about that, at least by our perspective, is that when kid actors finally get together and share the experience they get better in a hell of a hurry, because the isolation that you feel as fame slips was is what is so bedeviling and when you discover that you are not alone and that others have gone through the same process, it helps in getting better.
Sam: Now you started A Minor Consideration in the 1990’s after the suicide of Rusty Hamer.
Paul: Yes. Rusty died on January 19th, 1990. We use that as our official start date.
Sam: Did you know Rusty?
Paul: Very well. Yes. We were on TV at the same time. We both owned Cobras. He was a close friend. The reason that Rusty’s death hit so hard was because there were two other deaths right before his; Tim Hovey and Trent Lehman. But I knew where Rusty was, I was talking to his brother John, and even with many trips through New Orleans I didn’t stop and drive up to DeRidder to see him. When his death was announced I sat up in my bed and said to my wife “That will never happen again.” If there is a kid actor in trouble, and I know about it, I’m going to show up. From that date to this that has been our motivating reality. If there is trouble somebody in the group is going to knock on their door.
Sam: How did A Minor Consideration formally come together?
Paul: Well what happened was there was five former kid stars in trouble in January of 1990; Dana Plato who we already mentioned, Todd Bridges was in jail on attempted murder charges, Jay North was in serious trouble, Danny Bonaduche was fired from another job and Drew Barrymore’s autobiography was about to come out detailing her substance abuse starting at age nine. So we started making phone calls. My first call was to Jay North, who also knew Rusty, and I said “Jay, if you don’t get help that is going to be you.” Jay was overweight and deeply bitter and he finally agreed to let him find help for him. I reached out to [his former co-star] Jean Russell and between the two of us we were able to get him into therapy and he rather quickly turned the corner. It was in that six month period that people became aware of our work. When I told my wife that we might be visiting or taking care of three or four people a year, it turned out to be three or four hundred. Gradually other former kid stars joined in the effort and we finally put A Minor Consideration together formerly. We were a 501©(3) with a board of directors and all of that.
Sam: Who are some of the former child stars that are involved in A Minor Consideration today?
Paul: Name any child star from a 50’s television show – Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers, Jay North, Melissa Gilbert, Alison Arngrim, Jimmy Hawkins – there’s so many. Literally hundreds. I think the total number that we formally listed two years ago for our organization was six hundred former kid stars. It’s everybody. You’ve got to understand that kid actors pay attention to each other. Even years after their careers are done. One of our first and earliest and strongest supporters is Diana Serra Cary, who was Baby Peggy back in the 1920’s. She was a contemporary of Jackie Coogan, and writes eloquently about Hollywood’s children. Her most recent book is The World’s Boy King which is a wonderful book about Coogan. She lived through all of that. The marriages, the court cases, the imposition of The Coogan Law, which didn’t do what it had promised. It only covered kids with long term contracts. Kids like me, who had an eight year run, on The Donna Reed Show.
Sam: How about your own experience? How old were you when you first started working professionally as an actor?
Paul: I was nine. My first professional job was from an open audition for The Mouseketeers.
Sam: And if I know my Mickey Mouse Club lore, you were the first Mousekteer to be fired.
Paul: I was.
Sam: You punched an adult in the stomach.
Paul: Yes. Mr. Travers, the casting director. But just to make sure we book end this tale, the first movie I did after The Donna Reed Show was Walt Disney’s last movie, The Happiest Millionaire. He hired me back, and we laughed about it. I was nine years old, and Walt was able to say “I gave Paul his start,” although it was a rocky start.
Sam: Have you had your own pitfalls due to your time as a child star?
Paul: Absolutely. Look Sam. I thought I was being raised and trained to be the next Cary Grant. I did. I worked with him in that wonderful movie Houseboat, and he was my friend and I was paying attention professionally. But after The Donna Reed Show I hit a decline that is much like a mathematical equation. After The Donna Reed Show I worked sixteen weeks, and the next year I worked eight weeks, and the year after that I worked four weeks and the year after that I worked not at all because, guess what, Hollywood was done with me. But finally I came to realize that what had occurred at exactly the same time was that we had a half a million troops over in Viet Name, and the “all American boy,” which I was certainly seen as, was no longer popular.
Sam: And now it was the counter culture kids.
Paul: That’s correct, and I didn’t understand it. I tell you Sam, I didn’t handle it well. There were a lot of troubles with bad associations and with alcohol and drugs. That was the time. We’re talking the late 1960’s here. Thankfully I got a job with a Connecticut company and was able to leave Hollywood. The famous story about me leaving Hollywood was directly related to Mickey Rooney. He came to my house unannounced, and just knocked on my door and barged in and sat on my couch and said “I’ve been through this. You listen to me. You’ve got to get out of town. Get your education and don’t come back here for twenty-five years because they are not going to let you work.” Why did he say that to me? Because it happened to him. You couldn’t have been a bigger star than Mickey Rooney, and even with that the town turned their back on him.
Sam: Was it about Hollywood that makes it turn its back on child stars, and is it just as bad now as it was forty or more years ago?
Paul: Absolutely. Nothing has changed. It’s a business. It’s called “show business.” It’s not “show fun.” It’s not “show family.” When they are done with you, they’re done. There is that residual notoriety that follows you around, which is actually made worse today because of the internet and this endless broadcasting of old images. Sam, do you realize that The Donna Reed Show is still broadcast every morning here in Los Angeles? In 1966, when we went off the air, if anybody had said that the black and white family sitcom will still be on their air fifty years from now I would have thought they were crazy. But there it is, and the DVDs are still out there. In fact, even that Sally Jessy Raphael show is on YouTube. It’s all accessible. That’s what the internet has become. So there are no secrets out there anymore, and the internet amplifies not only past accomplishments, but past mistakes as well.
Sam: Now A Minor Consideration is going through a major transition right now, and it all begins with your event on August 30th. Tell me about that.
Paul: I’ve been doing this since 1977, but formally since 1990. And, Sam, I’m going to be 70 next month and I’m tired. Well unbeknownst to me, a whole new crop of former child stars, most of them thirty years younger than I, got themselves together and wanted to do the same thing, but didn’t want to step on my toes. About eighteen months ago they invited me to a lunch and gave me this proposal that they are going to continue the work of A Minor Consideration. Well I looked them in the eye and said “It’s yours.” I never made this for Paul Petersen. This is for child stars everywhere.
Sam: Who are some of the actors who are taking over the future of A Minor Consideration?
Paul: There is Jackie Coogan’s grandson, Keith Coogan, Katy Kurtzman, Mary McDonough, the president of the group is now Scotty Schwartz who was in A Christmas Story and The Toy. They already have over two hundred members. So this is our first formal fundraising event ever. We’ve never had a fundraiser. This is the first time, and this is to give the new kids a sound financial start because the work will continue. Not only because there is still a lot of kid stars appearing right now on TV, but with this drama of the kids on reality shows. That has got to be fixed.
Sam: That’s a really messed situation, isn’t it?
Paul: It is, and it flows directly from the exemption granted in 1938 to all children in the entertainment industry in the Fair Labor Standards Act. They are exempt from federal labor laws. Well it didn’t seem like a big deal in 1938 because all the work was done in Hollywood. But now they are filming movies all over the world, and they are doing television, sometimes deliberately, in States that have no child labor laws. Or, like Pennsylvania or Arkansas, they film in jurisdictions were the departments of labor looks the other way. The lure of production dollars is mammoth. It gets the attention of legislators. The most infamous state is North Carolina, which brags on their film commission web-site that they have no child labor laws.
Sam: Oh god.
Paul: So what does that mean? That means excessive hours. No requirement for a studio teacher. No requirement for money being set aside. And, more to the point, and I say this after vast experience, who owns the money? When you really look at the laws Sam, and this is the task that the new kid stars are really going to have to undertake, in Western civilization common law, this is what the law says: Parents of a working child are entitled to its custody, income and services. People refuse to understand that children are considered by the law to be the property of their parents.
Sam: So a huge problem is when the parents are putting their children in front of the camera to exploit them.
Paul: That’s exactly the problem. The law gives them permission to do it with no previsions in many of these other states to address the issue. This is what A Minor Consideration believes. The person who does the work owns the money, and we’ve changed the law here in California, so that is now fact. Parents are trustees over that money and must behave responsibly. But if you step out of California and you’ve got a hell of a mess. That’s how you get a Jon and Kate Gosslin. For six years they worked in Pennsylvania and the parents were paid, the cinematographer was paid, the publicist was paid and nobody paid the kids. Discovery Communications, that owns the show, admits that they made two hundred million dollars from Jon and Kate Plus Eight.
Sam: Where are those kids now? Do you know?
Paul: Unfortunately they are still under the control of their mother who keeps pitching them for evermore series. The older twins are now fourteen and the younger six are ten years old now. But Jon is still battling to try to keep these kids off of TV. It’s not healthy.
Sam: I find that what is harmful about reality television is the blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. That seems to me to be more damaging to kids that are put in this situation.
Paul: Absolutely, and these are kids that are not prepared to deal with the ups and downs of the public life. At nine years old, even thought I was a handful, I was taking three lessons a week and I had been for three years. I could sing and dance and I was not intimidated by the audition process. I am an outgoing kind of fellow. I’ve always enjoyed getting in front of a microphone. But that’s not the kids that we are seeing on reality television. They are not highly trained professionals able to withstand rejection. They are children.
Sam: And now we have all these Duggar kids who are watching the skeletons in their family get dragged into the public sphere.
Paul: Here’s what so sad. The [production company’s] actively recruit the unusual. They look for families that are outside the normal, whether they are polygamist families or something else. The latest incarnations are the Busby Quintuplets that they have hired by TLC for next season. We sent them what The Dionne Quintuplets have told the world – don’t do this. Children are not objects to be displayed. It’s harmful. Even so TLC, and unfortunately the tabloid press, knows the people who buy their tabloids and who this appeals to, are the ones who would subject themselves to this invasion of privacy and sacrifice their children.
Sam: It’s just history repeating itself, but it has to be just the parents fault, and Hollywood’s fault.
Paul: Well listen. Fifty percent of it falls on the parents shoulders. There is a reason why twenty percent of professional children leave the business every year. The possibility of even being a member of SAG or AFTA after five years is remote, because most parents do the right thing, They recognize the colossal waste of time, and the children’s interests change, and they don’t like to be stuck on the 405 for three hours for an interview.
Sam: In your opinion, who are some of the current child stars that you worry about the most today?
Paul: I think Miley Cyrus is at serious risk. Things bother me and it’s not because I’m some old Conservative curmudgeon. Seeing Britney Spears dressed at the teen awards on Sunday night made my stomach turn. Wait a second. It’s time to grow up here “mother of two.” I worry about Justin Bieber. I’ve written excessively about him. I worry about Lindsay Lohan. I worry about the kids on TV right now. But then I celebrate the Spouse Twins. They left the business completely, went to NYU and just graduated in May. Well bless their hearts. That’s the way to do it!
Sam: How about success. Who do you feel your biggest success stories you are.
Paul: Without a doubt Jay North, but because that was so public. But we had others. Lee Aackers, who was a recluse for twenty five years and sat back and did nothing while a guy named Paul Kline stole his identity and was making public appearances as ‘Rusty from Rin Tin Tin.’ We got him healthy. He went public also on Sally Jessy Raphael and it pissed off every cowboy in Hollywood because they thought Kline was legit. One of the best things about this, and this is standing outside myself, is that people in the industry have come to recognize that we are not to be trifled with. We’ve earned the media attention, we are telling the truth, and none of us can get our childhood back. So when we go to state legislations, like Pennsylvania, or to Sacramento, we are talking about today’s working kids. They deserve to have the full protection of the law. The most interesting argument we have from these legislations is that I say to them “Look at every movie with an animal. It says right on it that ‘no animal was killed or harmed in the making of this film.’ It should say that for kids.”
Sam: That’s right. It’s like they are treating the animals better than the children.
Paul: In fact they do. The American Humane Association, which started its existence back in the late 1800’s as a child welfare league, has extensive regulations that cover mice and fish and goats and horses. Well, God forbid, you hurt and animal when you are doing a movie, you are going to hear about it. My best argument when I personally sued Octomom was saying to the court that is Nadya Suleman had had a litter of German Shepard puppies that they would have had more production to these kids.
Sam: I’ve read stories of animals being even paid more than children.
Paul: Of course. I one time guessed starred on a Lassie movie, and the very first shot was Lassie and me running up to a burning barn door, and just before the director yelled “Action” old Rudd Weatherwax leans over and says to me “Don’t step on the dogs toes.” But I’m very good friends with Jon Provost, who gave the most compelling testimony at our first ever convocation of former child stars in 1994. He rolled out the regulations protecting animals on one of those old thermal fax sheets that look like roman scrolls. He said “These are the laws protecting animals. Meanwhile, there are only eight pages in the California statutes protecting kids.” When Jon went into a raging river while filming an episode of Lassie, as they passed the camera crew members dove into the river to take the dog out and not him.
Sam: Today, is there at least not that kind of stuff going on? Is the world at least a little more enlightened at not putting kids in danger?
Paul: We’re doing better. We still have a show called Stunt Kids which is very dangerous, but then look what kids are doing in extreme sports. A few years ago we had two brothers hurt while doing stunt work on a snowmobile. One was killed and the other was paralyzed. Parents push their kids in some of the damndest things. One of the smartest and most insightful things I ever heard came from Rick Sorenson, who played Boy in the Tarzan movies. He said “Paul, you have to pick your parents with care.” There are great stage parents. Fred Savage’s Mom and Dad are fabulous. Ron Howard’s parents were fabulous.
Sam: But then there are the nightmare ones, like Danny Bonaduche’s father, or Joe Jackson.
Paul: What has changed is now the industry knows that they can call us. Most of the work we do is behind the scenes and very discrete. We have a lot of secrets. But if we show up its real quiet on a working set. When the theatrical unions see problems they call.
Sam: That’s good.
Paul: It is good, because people do need a place where they can report. And when they do we show up.
Sam: Is it you who shows up on the set most of the time?
Paul: Absolutely. Especially when I was on SAG and AFTA boards. But it’s not just me. When we make an inquiry to the studio teachers, or we are called or we walk in its really quiet.
Sam: How do the child stars that you are there to help react to you?
Paul: Well it depends if they are the problem or the crew is the problem. Look at what happened with Brett Butler from Grace Under Fire. What a terrible example and children had to work with her. She was always flashing her new breasts and misbehaving terribly, and my whole lecture was that the behavior going on there would not have been permitted to go on in a Los Angeles city school room. That’s how you have to think about this. One of the kids, J. Evan Bonifant, was threatened with a law suit when they walked out of a long term contract, and instead the lawsuit went the other way. The kid was in a poisonous atmosphere and his mother had the sense to say “That’s it. We’re done here.”
Sam: That sounds like a similar work environment that Angus Jones would have faced on the set of Two and a Half Men. Didn’t he turn to religion or something?
Paul: He joined a cult in Northern California. Young performers are pray to these outlandish life styles. I’m routing for Angus. I want him to do well. But, my god, can you imagine working with Charlie Sheen? And when that is your adult star, you are almost duty bound to protect them. That is an unhealthy environment. I have hopes for Angus. I think he’ll have stressful times like anybody does in their twenties, but I hope he pops out the other side. I don’t think he has a career in the industry.
Sam: Don’t a lot of former kid stars go on to do behind the scenes work?
Paul: I know more stage parents that have careers in Hollywood than former kid stars with careers. They become mangers and agents and publicists and production assistants. But kid stars only do if they are allowed to stay in the business. I’ve had a lot of round and round conversations about that one. I remember when Gene Reynolds was the president of the Director’s Guild, when I asked him how come some of the kids that he worked with in the apprenticeship program; he looked me right in the eye and said “We only go on merit.” This was in a public meeting and I said “You son of a bitch, I paid your salary for five years. What do you mean merit?” But that’s what they think. WC Fields was right. Never work with kids or animals.
Sam: This is going to continue forever. There is always going to be child actors.
Paul: Sure. You can go back to the 1850’s to Lotta Craptree coming out of the California gold fields. There were a lot of child actor troupes in the mid 1800’s. It is a phenomenon. People like to watch children. When you see a wonderfully gifted actor pop up, like Haley Joel Osment, it’s wonderful.
Sam: Do you see child stars staying in the industry longer than they were fifty years ago?
Paul: I think you can. I think the transition runs smooth if they say what they are going to do and, at age eighteen, leave town and get their education. It works every time. Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore all did it. Then you find out who you are.
Sam: Roddy McDowell went to New York and got a proper education when his child actor career dried up and it did him well.
Paul: That’s right. But the flip side of that is Bobby Driscoll, who got a special Oscar in 1948 and when he went to New York and died with a needle in his arm and is buried in Pauper’s Field to this day. He did not grow up to be Cary Grant. He was short, he had terrible acne scarred complexion and his talent could not overcome that. Jackie Cooper and Gene Reynolds were friends of his when they were all struggling in New York and they both said to me that, despite his talents, Bobby Driscoll was unemployable. And he had a big chip on his shoulder, but you shouldn’t be surprised of that. Look at Robert Blake. Where do you think that personality came from?
Sam: Well, I had my own run in with Mickey Rooney and I found him to be very bitter.
Paul: Oh he was. No doubt about it. He didn’t even see his children to the bitter end. I’m still trying to help Mickey Jr. who has become a hermit and he’s a wonderful performer.
Sam: Incidentally, if I remember my Mickey Mouse Club lore, Mickey Jr. was the second Mousketeer to get fired, right after you.
Paul: That’s correct. We got into trouble all the time.
Sam: You know Paul, with all you’ve done; A Minor Consideration seems to be your real legacy.
Paul: Without a doubt. I’ve done so many cool things, but A Minor Consideration is heads and shoulders above all of it.
There are a lot of Hollywood heroes, but in the reality of the business, Paul Petersen is one of the greatest.
While we may watch with fascination as a former child star crashes and burns in the tabloid media, the reality is that they are a hurting individual with a heart, a soul and a life. We don’t need more kids with horrible ends like Bobby Driscoll, Dana Plato or Rust Hamer. What Paul and his contemporaries at A Minor Consideration is doing is trying to save lives, and protect the kids that are thrown into extraordinary situations – often against their will or finding themselves in situations so deep they can’t get out from under. It’s not a phenomenon – to some of these kids it’s a death sentence.
As long as there are child stars, there is a need for A Minor Consideration. Please visit their web-site at http://aminorconsideration.org/ and please support them. As a Minor Consideration goes forward to ensure that the next generation of child stars have someone who will listen and fight for them, the group needs our support more than ever.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging our interview with Paul Petersen. Thank you for continuing to give me your faith and opportunities during PCA’s long hiatus. I hope we can continue to work again in the future. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.