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Everybody hates hormones

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Tyler James Williams is at work on the set of "Everybody Hates Chris." He's between takes, resting his head on a classroom desk, as the crew hustles to prepare the next shot.

This would be like any other day for any other TV show — the lights, the cameras, the action — except that it's the summer hiatus season. The soundstages of most every other broadcast series are dark.

However, those shows don't star a 14-year-old boy who is getting taller —and whose voice is growing deeper — by the day. So, instead of lazy afternoons on the beach or hanging out at the mall, everybody on "Chris" is filling the summer trying to lock in the third season of the CW comedy before Tyler hits puberty.

If this were a scene from the show — Chris Rock's autobiographical coming-of-age tale — now would be the point where Tyler would look into the camera and the voice-over chorus would sing, "Every-body ha-ya-tes Chr-i-i-i-s."

In reality, that wouldn't be quite fair. Tyler isn't the only one in the cast who's showing signs of aging.

Co-stars Vincent Martella (who plays Chris' best friend, Greg) and Tequan Richmond (Chris' younger brother, Drew), both 14, also are going through changes. And the French-tip manicure that Imani Hakim (little sister Tanya) is wearing isn't the only sign of the 13-year-old's burgeoning maturity.

"We knew if we kept feeding them, they would keep growing and the hormonal changes would kick in," notes series co-creator and co-executive producer Ali LeRoi.

The show, which will air Mondays at 8 p.m. this fall, received an early pickup from the network "so we could get more of them as young as opposed to old," Mr. LeRoi says. "There's a cute factor that people kind of like to hold onto. So being able to shoot a bit early, I think, helps us."

Trying to keep kids just kids has been no small feat for other series, either.

As the adorable youngest daughter on "The Cosby Show," Keshia Knight Pulliam moved into her tween years in 1989, when the series was showing a slide in the ratings. Producers opted to up the "cute factor" by adding 3-year-old Raven-Symone to the cast, although the series eventually lost ground to Fox's perennial child star, Bart Simpson (no worries about growing up there).

"Malcolm in the Middle" went through its awkward stage early. It was an instant hit for Fox when it premiered in January 2000. However, its 14-year-old star, Frankie Muniz, who was 13 when he shot the first season as an 11-year-old whiz kid, had grown eight inches and his voice had dropped at least an octave before the show came back for a second season that fall.

Producers scrambled for an early shoot over the summer and juggled new story lines for their lead character.

"We realized that a lot of the fourth grade, fifth grade, 10-, 11-year old stories we had been planning to do with Malcolm we couldn't do anymore," says creator Linwood Boomer. "We had to sort of write to his age."

By doing so, some producers are able to connect with their young actors and incorporate the youngsters' personal stories into the show. This is the case with "Two and a Half Men" executive producers Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn and their 14-year-old star, Angus T. Jones, who plays "half-man" Jake.

"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."