The Meat Market: Child Stars and Their Agents

Question: What do some of the most famous child actors in the last 20 years have in common? The answer: drug addiction and Iris Burton.

As I was looking through the New York Times online the other day, I happened upon the obituary of Iris Burton. The headline: “Iris Burton, Agent for Child Actors, Dies at 77.” Intrigued, I read on to find that on April 5, she passed away as one of the most successful child talent representatives of the modern era. Burton’s is a story with no shortage of strange Hollywood connections.

From TV stars of the 90s to actors known to today’s younger generations, Burton’s child actor rap sheet speaks for itself. Drew Barrymore, River and Joaquin Phoenix, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Kirsten Dunst, Jaleel White, Hilary Duff, Kirk Cameron, Tori Spelling, and Corey Feldman: all can give thanks to Burton for their discoveries.

When I look at this list, though, something startles me. For a moment, I think about some of my favorite TV shows and films from childhood, like “Full House” and “E.T.” But my mind quickly turns to the ugly realities that emerged as silly catchphrases and smiling baby teeth faded into adolescence and adulthood. The list of successes becomes a list of bloody defeats.

First and foremost, take River Phoenix. Discovered by Burton, he was a child star in the mid-80s—you may remember him as Young Indy in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” In 1993, at age 23, River died of a heroine and cocaine overdose outside of a club on the Sunset Strip called the “Viper Room.” The club was partially owned by Johnny Depp, whose early film career (started at age 21 with “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) was ironically also marked by success and drug abuse.

Next on the list is Drew Barrymore. After exploding onto the scene in “E.T.,” she began using substances before she was even a teenager; she was in rehab by the time she was 13 years old.

Joining Drew in the rehab line is ne’er-do-well Corey Feldman and Spidey love interest Kirsten Dunst, who reportedly recently ended a stint at the Cirque Lodge treatment center in Utah. The Lodge has also treated Burton-grad Mary-Kate Olsen for anorexia and purported cocaine addiction.

Now a deep breath.

Ragging on child stars is easy, and there are many more with similar or worse stories. But with so many coming from the same nest, any logical thinker is prone to ask, “What’s up?”

My favorite line from the Burton obituary quotes a 1984 People Magazine interview with the agent: “I hate to say it, but kids are pieces of meat. I’ve never had anything but filet mignon. I’ve never had hamburger. My kids are the choice meat.”

I’m not sure how that makes you feel, but her words make me nauseous. For a moment, I’m not sure if I’m reading the words of Iris Burton or the roughly translated phrasing a child-labor-using sweatshop owner in a third-world country. But if you consider it carefully, there are more parallels between these types of labor than you would imagine.

Child actors, like sweatshop workers, often lose the opportunity to attend a normal school and never experience important stages in character and personality development. Thrown into a world controlled by adults, both are often forced to accept adult responsibilities when they are far too immature to adjust. The pressures placed upon them are unnatural at their age. The resulting misbehavior—largely related to drug and alcohol abuse—of these kids is not remotely surprising.

By “discovering” children, Iris Burton knowingly halted their natural development and sent them down a path that was almost guaranteed to lead them astray. Baby-blue eyes and cutesy, high-pitched jokes are almost inevitably replaced with pocked skin, awkward limbs, and bad onscreen chemistry. Children grow up, and their star power rarely lasts. But when the meat turns cold and heads for the B-list, Iris is still sitting at the high table, waiting for another helping of Kobe beef.

The Times’ article quotes River Phoenix’s mother as saying, “[Burton] was like a mother bear when it came to protecting these kids—not just my kids, but all the talent she represented.” In the case of most child actors, though, another parent is the last thing they need.

Subjected to just as many—if not more—jokes as these child actors are their parents, the “Stage Moms and Dads.” These scary fanatics should bear a large portion of the blame along with Burton. People like Joe Simpson, Jessica Simpson’s father, push their kids to unbearable limits for success, manipulating their children’s lives and then trying to share the spotlight.

With post-childhood disasters like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears dominating the celebrity news, it’s unlikely that the “child star phenomenon” will become a thing of the past. In the meantime, let’s hold our breath for Dakota Fanning, Miley Cyrus, and Abigail Breslin.

Way before ever becoming an agent, Iris Burton got her start as a dancer on Broadway and then in Hollywood. One of her only two film credits is as an unnamed dancer alongside Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” Curiously, Heston passed away on the same day as Burton, and the two seem kindred spirits. In later life, while one championed the National Rifle Association after a wave of school-shootings, the other rifled through new headshots just days after the funeral of one of her numerous finds.

—Columnist Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.