The child star notoriously has had a history of fading away before reaching adulthood. It’s rare to transition to adult star scoring an A-list career after an A-list youth. These 33 child stars have bucked that trend while keeping themselves in the limelight and eclipsing their youthful fame with their more mature successes.
There is a sad and tragic history associated with being a child star, what with Dana Plato (Diff’rent Strokes), River Phoenix and Brittany Murphy all having passed away under various circumstances. But there are those who have turned the opportunity provided them as a young actor into something meaningful as an adult.
Check out these child star phenoms from across the entertainment spectrum. They have grown up right in front of our eyes. And many of whom, with their current successes, we have forgotten were child stars! Who makes the list? Did you know that Ryan Gosling was a child star? How about The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss? Also, want to see a young Jake Gyllenhaal in the classic City Slickers? He was so cute! So too was everyone on this list of folks who went from child star to superstar.
Child star moment: The All New Mickey Mouse Club
Gosling famously started his career on The All New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993 when he was barely a teenager. That role led to him scoring roles in spooky TV hits like Are You Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps — based on the wildly popular books by R.L. Stine. He even played the title character in Young Hercules when he turned 18. He never looked back with hits such as The Notebook, Crazy Stupid Love, The Big Short and of course the Oscar-winning La La Land (Is La La Land heading to Broadway?). He even played historical icon Neil Armstrong in First Man.
Child star moments: Luc Besson’s The Professional, Michael Mann’s Heat, Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!
The actress first caught our eye as the subject of a hitman’s protection in the Besson instant classic, The Professional. The 13-year-old Natalie Portman could never have predicted that she would become one of the most talented members of her thespian generation, winning an Oscar for Best Actress for Black Swan. Her breakout adult role? The George Lucas written and directed Star Wars prequels as Queen Amidala/Padmé. Think about that. By her 18th birthday she had been in films by Besson, Mann, Allen, Burton and Lucas. All in all, she has appeared in 36 films since turning 18, with many more on the way.
Child star moments: City Slickers, A Dangerous Woman (directed by his father, Stephen Gyllenhaal)
Gyllenhaal, since turning 18, has dazzled in myriad roles. But it was his adorable appearance in City Slickers opposite Billy Crystal that first introduced us to the young actor. Since then, he has dazzled with his talent in October Sky, the cult hit Donnie Darko (which also starred his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal), the global warming action hit, The Day After Tomorrow, the Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain, plus End of Watch, Prisoners, Everest and the Boston bombing tale Stronger. And as the villain in the Marvel movie Spider-Man: Far From Home, he embodies all that makes an A-list star.
Child star moments: The Doris Day Show, Gunsmoke, Taxi Driver, Freaky Friday
Prior to this new wave of celebrity kid stars, Jodie Foster was the rare success story of a child of the ‘70s who grew into an adult star. From her early appearances on TV classics such as The Doris Day Show and Bonanza to eventually becoming a Disney darling, she then steadily worked through her teen years. In 1988, her more mature career scored major liftoff as she won an Oscar for her work in The Accused. Since then she has been one of the most prolific actresses (and directors) working today. Her hit movies include Contact with Matthew McConaughey, Panic Room with a young Kristen Stewart, Inside Man from Spike Lee, the thriller Flightplan, Elysium with Matt Damon and Hotel Artemis with Jeff Goldblum.
Child star moments: Appeared in Romper Room at the age of 5. By his early teens, he was in Growing Pains and the first Parenthood TV series.
Youthful efforts from Leonardo DiCaprio in the public eye started with the PBS children’s hit Romper Room. He then became a reliable child star in a couple of big ‘80s TV shows, Growing Pains and Parenthood. Soon after turning 18, DiCaprio starred opposite Robert DeNiro in This Boy’s Life, and a year later he was nominated for his first Oscar for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He then went on to a prolific career. The superstar appeared in Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, The Beach, Catch Me if You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Inception, Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Revenant (which won him a Best Actor Oscar). He is also in the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt.
Child star moments: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Bend it Like Beckham
Not many people are aware that Keira Knightley started her charmed career as a child star before she wowed the world with her work in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice and dozens of other flicks that placed her firmly on the A-list. But it was her child star work that initially put her on the map. She got her start in a number of British TV series which commenced when she was eight years old. But it was her role at 14 in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace where the world first truly took notice. The cult favorite The Hole followed (at 16), and her talent truly was announced with the girls soccer inspirational tale Bend it Like Beckham. She (and we) haven’t looked back since.
Child star moments: The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show
The parents of Ron Howard must have known something about their child because he famously became a star portraying Opie in The Andy Griffith Show at the age of 6. Thing is, his work in the entertainment business started a year earlier with seven appearances on various television programs. Howard played Opie for eight years — putting him in America’s living room as he grew up right before our eyes. He arrived on the big screen in a big way in Lucas’ breakout hit American Graffiti at the age of 19, and television called again at 20 with the smash Happy Days. Howard left acting behind and tackled another profession that earned him an Oscar — film directing. He has helmed some of Hollywood’s most endearing films, including Splash, Parenthood, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Child star moment: 227
The television hit 227 introduced us to a future Oscar winner in Regina King, who worked on the show beginning when she was 14. King worked steadily since and has appeared in some of your favorite flicks, including Friday, Jerry Maguire, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, Ray and of course the flick that won her an Oscar in 2019, If Beale Street Could Talk.
Child star moment: Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun
Given the rich résumé that Oscar winner Christian Bale has — starting with the cult classic American Psycho and running through his latest Vice, which won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor — it can be easy to forget that the Welsh born thespian has been blowing audiences’ collective minds since he was the choice of Steven Spielberg to carry an entire World War II epic on his young shoulders in Empire of the Sun. Bale was 13 when he made that film. Given how extraordinary he was in that, his entire award-winning career that followed should surprise nobody.
Child star moments: E.T., Firestarter
Filmmaker Spielberg has a way with child actors that few can top, so one had to expect great things from Drew Barrymore who played Gertie in his blockbuster E.T. at age 7. At 9, she headlined the Stephen King classic Firestarter. Several other hits followed, including Irreconcilable Differences and another King adaptation, Cat’s Eye. Barrymore had legendary issues with substance abuse early in her teens but emerged triumphantly as an adult actress in films such as Poison Ivy, Bad Girls, Boys on the Side, Scream, The Wedding Singer, Ever After, Never Been Kissed and Charlie’s Angels. She branched out into producing and has been working steadily and successfully since turning 18.
Child star moment: Nickelodeon’s Canadian hit Fifteen
Deadpool was a child star in Canada before turning that into American success at age 22 with the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Ryan Reynolds had ever-increasing success after such as when he and Sandra Bullock made rom-com movie magic with The Proposal. Some could argue that his career was fading when a certain “Merc with a mouth,” aka Deadpool, made him a global phenomenon at age 40. This guy’s career has had all sorts of ebbs and flows, and it’s great to see such an innate talent became the superstar youthful audiences thought he could be as a child star.
Child star moments: A Far Off Place, The Man in the Moon
At 15, Reese Witherspoon was tapped to headline The Man in the Moon. Then two years later she carried the youthful epic A Far Off Place. For every child actor to adult actor success story, there are a million who fail. Witherspoon had that spark from an early age and that has firmly stayed with her as she moved to adult roles in films such as Fear, Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions, Election, Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama. Then she won an Oscar for Walk the Line. Currently, she is one of the most in demand actresses in Hollywood.
Child star moments: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Roseanne
Long before he appeared in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, The Big Bang Theory, Johnny Galecki was working his magic as a child star. He was merely 12 when he made a couple of TV movies, but it was when he turned 14 and played Rusty (whose father was the one and only Chevy Chase) in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that he became a recognizable face. At 17, he returned to television as David in Roseanne. Film and television work steadily continued. But it was 2006 (at 31) when his iconic role of Leonard Hofstadter opposite Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory changed his life (those residuals from 280 episodes are nice!) and permanently recognizable to fans the world over.
Child star moments: Bonfire of the Vanities, Interview with the Vampire, Little Women, Jumanji
Kirsten Dunst caught the eye of everyone as a young actress when (at 8-years-old) she stole scenes from Tom Hanks in Bonfire of the Vanities and then (at 12-years-old) stole scenes from Tom Cruise and Pitt in Interview with the Vampire. She wasn’t done. At 13, she starred alongside Robin Williams in Jumanji. And before she turned 18, Dunst starred opposite DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog, Josh Hartnett and James Woods in The Virgin Suicides and joined Michelle Williams in the stellar political comedy Dick. Starring as Mary Jane in three Spider-Man movies was pretty good, no?! Portraying the title character in Marie Antoinette was not too shabby either. Dunst is still working to this day and shows no signs of slowing down.
Child star moments: A River Runs Through It, Angels in the Outfield, 3rd Rock from the Sun
Director Robert Redford saw something special in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and cast him with Pitt in the epic A River Runs Through It. Gordon-Levitt was only 11 at the time, and that was merely the tip of the iceberg for the actor’s youthful work. Who could forget his endearing turn at 13 in Angels in the Outfield and at 15 scoring a role that sent him into millions of living rooms, 3rd Rock from the Sun. He transitioned effortlessly into more adult roles. His first 18-plus role was in the beloved classic 10 Things I Hate About You. And from there the actor blew us away in a myriad of films, such as 500 Days of Summer, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and as the title character in Snowden from Oliver Stone.
Child star moment: National Velvet
With an iconic Hollywood career, Elizabeth Taylor left us with a rich history, appearing in some of the most beloved films in Tinsel Town history. Did you know she got her start as a child star? You bet! Her sensational turn in National Velvet at the age of 12 put her on the map. At 18, she starred in Father of the Bride. And then with each successive performance, her legend grew — from Cleopatra, Giant, Suddenly and Last Summer to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Child star moments: SpaceCamp, Parenthood
At the tender age of 8, Joaquin Phoenix got his start in the acting world with performances in many blockbuster television shows including Hill Street Blues, The Fall Guy and Murder, She Wrote. His performance in the beloved ‘80s flick SpaceCamp (at 12) got him further noticed by casting agents. At 15, Howard (himself a child star) tapped him to join the electric ensemble that produced Parenthood. He’s since been nominated for three Oscars — for Gladiator, Walk the Line and The Master.
Child star moment: The Horse Whisperer
Scarlett Johansson started her acting career at the age of 10 when she appeared in the Rob Reiner film North. But it was her performance in Redford’s The Horse Whisperer at 14 that truly set her career afire. Johansson auditioned for a role in Freaky Friday and lost it to another child star – Lindsay Lohan. Her truly mature role (at 19) came in the beloved classic Lost in Translation opposite Bill Murray. Blockbuster status arrived when she tackled the role of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From Iron Man 2 through Avengers: Endgame, she has portrayed the character seven times and at some point in the next few years, the highly trained assassin will get her own film.
Child star moments: Who’s the Boss, Commando
The odds were stacked against Alyssa Milano being known for anything beyond being Tony Danza’s daughter in the ‘80s sitcom Who’s the Boss given that most child actors never make it beyond being a young performer. Milano showed that she was old enough to be thought of for adult parts with risqué turns in Embrace of the Vampire and Poison Ivy II. She starred with Mark Wahlberg in Fear and showed the world that she was someone who should be taken seriously. TV called again with successful turns in Melrose Place, and who could forget her witchy part in Charmed? She has become a staunch advocate for women’s issues and has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement from its inception.
Child star moment: The Piano
Anna Paquin won an Oscar for her role opposite Holly Hunter in The Piano when she was only 11. Many parts followed, including working with Spielberg in Amistad, plus the beloved romance A Walk on the Moon. When she turned 18, Paquin was picked to portray Rogue in the X-Men movies and appeared in Cameron Crowe’s musical love letter, Almost Famous. She furthered her adult acting evolution with the HBO smash, True Blood.
Child star moments: Internal Affairs, Radio Flyer, The Good Son, North, Back to the Future Part II
Before he played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an adult, Elijah Wood made a name for himself as a child star when he appeared opposite Richard Gere in Internal Affairs and anchored Richard Donner’s Radio Flyer. When he turned 18, he took on The Ice Storm and was a star in the asteroid blockbuster, Deep Impact. Then he appeared in The Lord of the Rings. He has since starred in dozens of films and television shows.
Child star moment: Australian hit show Echo Point
Australian native Rose Byrne has taken Hollywood by storm with turns in comedy hits like Neighbors and its sequel, Bridesmaids as well as Get Him to the Greek. Before that, and thousands of miles away from Hollywood, the actress started as a child star in Australia with the film Dallas Doll in 1994 and the Down Under hit TV show Echo Point — at the age of 16. She first caught American audiences’ attention as Russell Brand’s onscreen love in Get Him to the Greek and the horror hit Insidious. But it was the comedy smash Bridesmaids that firmly put her on the A-list.
Child star moment: The All New Mickey Mouse Club
The All New Mickey Mouse Club introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, and his hard work and supreme talent took it from there. Sure, we all know he joined N’Sync and became an international music superstar. That was merely the beginning as Timberlake would go on to carve out a career as an actor as well. His first hit arrived with Alpha Dog, which showed a darker side of the singer. From there, he had a parade of roles that saw him starring opposite a treasure trove of talent — including The Social Network with Jesse Eisenberg, Bad Teacher with his ex-girlfriend Cameron Diaz, Friends with Benefits with Mila Kunis, Trouble with the Curve opposite Clint Eastwood and the Coen brothers’ classic Inside Llewyn Davis. He was animated in the family hit Trolls, which saw his song (“Can’t Stop the Feeling”) get nominated for an Oscar. He even got to take to the Oscar stage and open the show with that song.
Child star moments: Animaniacs, Picket Fences, Girl, Interrupted
Long before she rocked Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss was a child star in a wide variety of mediums — from animated television hits (at 11 she voiced Katrina on the WB cartoon series Animaniacs) to a TV smash in Picket Fences (where she appeared from 10 until she was 15) and on the big screen opposite Angelina Jolie in the Oscar-nominated Girl, Interrupted (at 17). Since then, she has starred in a huge variety of material on television (including having played the First Daughter on The West Wing) and the big screen (Get Him to the Greek, The Old Man and the Gun with Robert Redford and the Jordan Peele smash Us).
Child star moment: Explorers
At 15, Ethan Hawke starred with River Phoenix in Joe Dante’s Explorers. The quintessential ‘80s sci-fi flick exposed the world to the immense talent in Hawke. It was that film that helped him secure his first real big “adult” role at 19 opposite Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. From there, he took off with Reality Bites, the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight), Training Day, The Purge and Boyhood.
Child star moments: My Girl 1 & 2
Anna Chlumsky first appeared opposite John Candy in Uncle Buck, but her star-making turn came with her performance at 11 years old as the title character in My Girl and My Girl 2. A ton of character actor TV work followed as she transitioned into adulthood. She hit the big time again in the Emmy-winning HBO comedy smash Veep with Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Child star moments: D2: The Mighty Ducks, Heavyweights
Long before he became the longest running star (16 years and counting!) on Saturday Night Live, Kenan Thompson was a child star working his magic on a little hit called D2: The Mighty Ducks and the big screen comedy Heavyweights. The cult classic Good Burger followed, along with turns on The Steve Harvey Show and his own Nickelodeon hit Kenan and Kel, as well as All That.
Child star moments: Mermaids, Addams Family movies, Casper
Christina Ricci was the embodiment of “child star.” At 10, she starred with Cher and Winona Ryder in Mermaids. At 11 and 13, Ricci was Wednesday in The Addams Family movie and its sequel in an iconic turn that endeared her to millions. At 15, she starred opposite the Friendly Ghost in Casper. Then at 17, she starred in a one-two punch that served as her “final” child star movie (That Darn Cat) and her first “adult” film in the Oscar-nominated drama The Ice Storm with Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline and another member of this list, Elijah Wood. Cementing her transition to adulthood was her performance in the drug-soaked Hunter S. Thompson epic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp. From there, an adult career blossomed with decades of solid work in tons of hits and independent movies from Monster (which won an Oscar for Charlize Theron) to Speed Racer.
Neil Patrick Harris
Child star moments: Doogie Howser, M.D.
Most probably think that Neil Patrick Harris’ ascent to national treasure began with his role in the television hit Doogie Howser, M.D. But at 15, he starred with Whoopi Goldberg on the big screen in Clara’s Heart. That TV hit arrived a year later and found Harris starring as the main character for five seasons. Many thought he would be defined by the “child star” label, but he burned that bridge when he appeared as a drug-addled, womanizing version of himself in the cult classic Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. That film brought him newfound attention that eventually scored him the ensemble comedy smash How I Met Your Mother as an alcoholic womanizer! He has since established himself as a triple threat with his singing and dancing talents on Broadway where he earned a Tony Award for his work on Hedwig and the Angry Itch. He also established himself as quite the host for award shows, including the Tonys and the Emmys (of which he has won four times!).
Child star moment: Roseanne
At 13, Sara Gilbert became a TV star with her work on the TV hit Roseanne. That show paved her path as a character actor in hit shows such as ER, The Big Bang Theory and 24. Gilbert also made a splash on the big screen in films like High Fidelity before putting on a producer’s hat and starting a little daytime talk show called The Talk.
Child star moment: Sea Hunt
Jeff Bridges — now a Hollywood legend — starred in classics such as The Big Lebowski and countless others. His father, Lloyd Bridges, featured him on his hit TV program Sea Hunt and then on The Lloyd Bridges Show as a child. His adult career took on its iconic status due to The Last Picture Show, King Kong, Tron, Against All Odds, Starman and The Fabulous Baker Boys to name just a few. The seven-time nominee won his first Oscar for the 2009 film Crazy Heart.
Child star moment: Blossom
When you are a child star, playing the title character in a hit show will likely make you a household name. That was exactly what happened to Mayim Bialik when Blossom debuted when she was 15. She actually got her start in the public eye a little earlier than that NBC sitcom. She played CC at the age of 13 in Beaches with Bette Midler. She worked steadily over the years since that major role but also broke away long enough to get aa graduate degree from UCLA! Knowing that, her return to TV with her role as a scientist on The Big Bang Theory doesn’t seem like such a stretch!
Child star moments: Little House on the Prairie, Silver Spoons
Jason Bateman was 12 when he made his debut on the hit show Little House on the Prairie as James Cooper Ingalls. But it was his performance two years later in Silver Spoons that endeared him to millions. He went on to star in Horrible Bosses and, of course, Arrested Development. His film work started with him stepping into the wolfie shoes left behind by Michael J. Fox when he starred in Teen Wolf 2. Since then, he appeared in countless films that have brought joy to millions, including Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Break-Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, Identity Thief, Zootopia and Game Night.