SAG talks kid stuff

Guild program offers tips to child actors

SAG president Melissa Gilbert delivered a strong dose of showbiz de-glamorization Saturday to several hundred child actors and their parents.

“Our business is a business where everyone will tell you how fabulous and smart and funny you are until they don’t need you,” Gilbert said in launching the SAG Foundation’s “Conversations for Kids” program at the Pacific Design Center in Hollywood. “It does go away for everyone. And sometimes it comes back.”

Gilbert, who got her SAG card at the age of 2 and spent a decade on “Little House on the Prairie,” stressed the need for kid thesps and parents to seek out a semblance of normality in their lives by keeping home activities separate from work. “Dishwasher duty works,” she quipped.

And that’s particularly key when underage actors attempt to re-form relationships with their peers. “When you are re-entering school, it’s important to tell other kids, ‘I’m just a kid; I just want to go to McDonald’s and I’m not special and different,’ ” she added.

As for parents, Gilbert noted that mothers and fathers are the one group of people on locations who aren’t paid to be there. As a result, it’s important that they speak up forcefully on behalf of their children.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” Gilbert said. “Be a pain in the neck if you have to be.”

Not all glamour

Additionally, she warned parents that being on sets is often a less than scintillating experience for those not working. “It’s so boring if you’re not directly involved,” she noted. “My friends would get excited about visiting me on the ‘Little House’ set and then they’d leave in an hour.”

Gilbert, who also heads SAG’s child performers committee, also responded emphatically in the negative to a question of whether parents should give up their jobs and rely solely on income from a child actor. “That’s a real recipe for disaster,” she added. “I don’t think it’s very healthy.”

Gilbert noted that the child performers committee has explored the possibility of setting up a separate SAG panel that would include kid actors but has been stymied by scheduling logistics.

The foundation’s “Conversations” series launched in late 2000 with the goal of bringing together stars with rank-and-file thesps and has held more than 50 such events. The “Kids” series, funded by a grant from the SAG/Producers Industry Advancement Cooperative Fund, is designed to deal with what the foundation called “the most underserved” portion of SAG membership.

A survey of the 174 kid thesps who RSVP’d to attend Saturday’s event showed:

  • 34 said they earned over $50,000 during the last five years; 28 earned between $25,000 and $50,000; 29 took in between $10,000 and $25,000; nine earned between $5,000 and $10,000; and 74 earned under $5,000.

  • 135 had signed with an agent and 61 with a manager;

  • 139 had worked in commercials, 118 in TV and 96 in film;

  • 72 are taking acting classes;

  • 156 want to go to college.

  • 33 attend private school, 110 attend public school and 22 are home schooled.

  • 145 have a Coogan account. The current version of the state’s Coogan Law requires that 15% of a child actor’s wages be set aside in a trust.

Gilbert spoke and responded to questions for 90 minutes in a discussion moderated by Pamela Reed. Also attending the event was Margaret O’Brien, who won an Academy Award at the age of eight in 1944 for “Meet Me in St. Louis” and was among the nation’s top box office attractions.

O’Brien said her mother, who was a dancer, always stressed the importance of being grounded. “Mom always told me never to get too high and mighty and to not let my head get too big,” she said.

O’Brien, who was under an MGM contract, recalled that she was always required to stop working at 6 p.m. even if the scene wasn’t completed. “Sometimes that was a little difficult because I’d be in the middle of something like a crying scene where I wouldn’t want to have to start again the next day,” she added.

The thesp said she loved all aspects of acting as a child, when she received as many as 145,000 letters per week. “They always made that clear to us at MGM that being nice to our fans was part of the job,” she added.

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