Being a childhood star doesn’t exactly lead to a happy, healthy adult life. The world is well aware of that. We’ve all witnessed Amanda Bynes’ descent into madness, and Kirk Cameron’s descent into insufferableness. We don’t need another list of the Todd Bridges and Danny Bonaduces of the world. But then we wondered, what child stars didn’t fall prey to the dark side? Who knew how to let go of the baggage, and become a genuinely cool adult? This is a list of the 10 child stars that seem normal. Isn’t that an accomplishment in and of itself?
10. Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t really a boy genius, but seeing how his life has turned out, you could have fooled us. First making his name as a savant doctor on Doogie Howser, M.D., he was a massive star when most of us were still learning what girls were.
It would take a self-satirizing turn in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle to remind audiences how much they loved Mr. Harris. Since then, he has been on one of the hottest winning streaks in Hollywood. He starred on the much-loved CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. He won a Tony Award for his turn in the Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He’s also become show biz’s go-to MC, hosting the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars.
9. Jenny Lewis
As a kid, Jenny Lewis was everywhere. Her first gig was in a Jell-O commercial, and she followed that up with a run through a who’s who of ’80s sitcoms, like Growing Pains, Just the Ten of Us, Roseanne and Mr. Belvedere. But it was the on- two punch of Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard in 1989 that make her a favorite for those of us who grew up during the Reagan years.
Still, just a few years later, she would walk away to pursue her passion for music. In 1998 she co-founded and fronted the rock band Rilo Kiley. She has gone on to have a lengthy solo career, and record with Ben Gibbard under the moniker The Postal Service. Today, she is one of the biggest names in the indie rock game.
8. Jason Bateman
Jason Bateman wasn’t the biggest child star of the ’80s, but he was one of the most ubiquitous. He’s probably best known as Ricky Schroder’s wise-cracking friend Derek Taylor on Silver Spoons, and big brother David Hogan on Valerie, er, Valerie’s Family, er, The Hogan Family. It had a lot of names. Whatever it was called, Jason became the Directors Guild of America’s youngest-ever director, when he helmed three episodes of the sitcom at the age of eighteen.
A long sojourn through the wilderness of show business world end in 2003, when Jason was cast as Michael Bluth on the seminal sitcom Arrested Development. It was a game changer. Mr. Bateman would be reborn as one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. Since then, he’s focused on film work, with star turns in films such as Juno and Horrible Bosses, and a return to directing with Bad Words.
7. Danica McKellar
Our collective childhood crush, Danica McKellar made a big impression in 1988, when she first appeared as Kevin Arnold’s dream girl Winnie Cooper on the pilot of The Wonder Years. She spent the next six season working her way in and out of his, and America’s, hearts.
Even dream girls struggle to grown up. Finding the transition to adult actor difficult, Danica studied at UCLA, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics with honors summa cum laude in 1998. She has since gone on to write a series of math books aimed at adolescent readers, including the New York Times bestseller Math Doesn’t Suck. She returned to TV in 2014 as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars.
6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt began acting at the age of six, appearing in films like Angels in the Outfield and 10 Things I Hate About You, he was perhaps best known during the ’90s as Tommy Solomon on NBC’s long running sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun.
As an adult, Joseph has starred in films as diverse as (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises. (Look for his role as Edward Snowden in a biopic later this year.) He’s also the founder of HitRecord, an online collaborative production company that allows users to collectively work on artistic projects. Oh, and he made his debut as a writer/director with the rom com Don Jon and is developing a Fraggle Rock movie. It’s safe to say no one saw this coming back when he was goofing around with French Stewart.
5. Charlie Korsmo
Charlie Korsmo was one of the biggest child stars of the ’90s. He worked with A-listers with a capital A, from Steven Spielberg to Bill Murray. In two short years, he appeared in classic films such as Hook, Dick Tracy and What About Bob? He returned to acting briefly in the late ’90s, appearing as a nerd who becomes the life of the party in Can’t Hardly Wait, before hanging it up for good.
Charlie would soon graduate from MIT with a degree in physics, work for the Environmental Protection Agency and the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. After graduating from Yale Law School, he would go on to teach law at Case Western Reverse University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2011, President Barack Obama nominated him for membership on the Board of Trustees of the Marry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. So he’s doing alright for himself.
4. Anna Chlumsky
After a few modeling gigs, and some film extra work, an 11-year-old Anna Clumsky was cast as the lead role of Vada in the 1991 hit My Girl. The film immediately changed her life, propelling her to the top of the industry, a female counterpart to her co-star Macaulay Culkin. She would go on to star in a sequel, and a handful of less successful films, like Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain.
Sadly, when puberty arrived, the roles dried up. Anna stepped away from acting, focusing on school. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2002 with a BA in International Studies, she moved to New York and worked as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins for science-fiction novels. But Anna soon realized she missed acting. She got formal training at the Atlantic Acting School in Manhattan, and began booking roles again. Bit parts on Law & Order and 30 Rock, and films like In the Loop and The Pill, led to her current role on HBO’s Veep.
3. Elijah Wood
A small town Iowa boy, the combined might of a Paula Abdul video (“Forever Your Girl”) and a bit part in Back to the Future 2 would be enough to bring young Elijah Wood to Los Angeles permanently. It seems he hasn’t slowed down since. Childhood parts in Radio Flyer and North would lead to more adult roles in Deep Impact and The Ice Storm.
Unlike many other child stars, Elijah seems to have transitioned seamlessly into adult roles. That may be a matter of genetics, and the fact that he seems to have skipped the awkward phase altogether. Or it may just be a good head on his shoulders. Whatever the reasons, when Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings came calling, Elijah was ready. The gigantic success of those films led to numerous opportunities. He’s played a serial killer in Frank Miller’s Sin City, a penguin who can tap dance in Happy Feet, and a guy who pals around with a talking dog on Wilfred. He’s even started his own record company, Simian Records. He seems to have built an idiosyncratic career that’s both under the radar and lacking in failure. (He certainly dodged a bullet sitting out The Hobbit movies…)
2. Fred Savage
There was a point just after The Princess Bride, as The Wonder Years was redefining what television could be, and The Wizard was calling to the children of America like a Nintendo siren song, that few could claim to be a bigger star than Fred Savage. In fact, Fred is the youngest actor to ever earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
But puberty came in like a lion, and his “cute kid” status evaporated in a series of pimples and voice cracks. The work dried up, and Fred transitioned behind the camera. Today, he is one of the most in-demand directors in television, having worked on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls. Still, old dreams are hard to let go of. It was recently announced that he would be returning to his acting roots in a pilot with Rob Lowe, called The Grinder.
1. Mara Wilson
After watching her brother Danny act in commercials, a five-year-old Mara decided to get in the game. It was a good choice — she would makes her film debut in the megahit Mrs. Doubtfire. That would lead to a starring role in the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street remake, and a titular turn in Matilda the next year.
But despite a series of awards for her performances, Mara left showbiz after starring in Thomas and the Magic Railroad back in 2000. After that, acting gave way to education. Since then, she’s reinvented herself as a blogger, author, Twitter superstar and a quintessential voice on child actors. If seeming down to earth was a career, she would be Donald Trump.