“We hang out with him every year in the summer before we start shooting to get a sense of where he’s at, what he’s into, what his interests are,” says Mr. Lorre, who plans to incorporate the actor’s love of music — and girls — into upcoming scripts.
Other youth series also have worked growing up — and growing pains —into their story lines, including “The Andy Griffith Show,” on which Ron Howard went from 6 to 15, and “The Brady Bunch,” on which all the youngsters grew up in front of the camera.
Though shows certainly can survive this ponderous period, “watching kid actors grow up on TV can be a very uncomfortable experience for [viewers],” notes Matt Roush, lead critic at TV Guide.
“You want them to stay as cute, as charming, as innocent as they were when you first meet a show,” he explains. “But if shows are lucky enough to stay on the air, the challenge … is how to bring the innocence back.”
For many of them — from “Cosby” and “Roseanne” to “The Waltons” and “My Three Sons” — that means that when the youngsters grow up, they get to have children of their own — if producers allow the characters to grow up when the actors do.
“Years ago when Emmanuel Lewis was doing ‘Webster,’ one of the things he got upset about as he got older was that they continued to try to make him this cute little guy,” Mr. LeRoi says. “The same thing happened with Jaleel White on ‘Family Matters.’ He starts growing into this handsome guy, and they’ve still got his pants up around his ankles. He doesn’t evolve as a character, so that becomes a hindrance.”
There are problems, too, when young actors feel they’ve outgrown their characters.
“You want to encourage [your young stars] to try other things, but certainly some of their choices can make it challenging,” says “Cosby‘s” John Markus. He was head writer and co-executive producer in 1987 when maturing “Cosby” kid Lisa Bonet made tabloid headlines for starring in the sexually charged psycho-thriller “Angel Heart” just as she was due to begin the series spinoff, “A Different World.”
“She was someone who artistically wanted to explore new things,” Mr. Markus says.
“Malcolm-Jamal Warner did a play off-Broadway during one of his summer breaks, where he played an extremely street-wise drug dealer,” Mr. Marcus recalls. “That was different from putting a movie out there, but he really felt confined by playing Theo at that point.”
But these are challenges that “are the same challenges with any actor, to keep them engaged, to keep them focused, to keep them interested,” says Tom Lynch, who has produced numerous child-centric series, including the N’s “South of Nowhere.”
Then there’s “the hormone thing,” Mr. Lynch says. “Look, most actors tend to be attractive and witty. They’re extroverted people, and so there are relationships that start and end on sets, and those are my biggest fears. It’s just not a good place for that kind of thing to start.”
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