The child actor is the most varied position in Hollywood. Being an actor is already a weighty task, doing so while simultaneously growing up and maturing is even heavier. We’ve seen child actors turn into the biggest stars in Hollywood. We’ve also seen their lives turn for the worst after all the unintended attention brought on by their fame.
Variance is the key to categorizing the 100+ years of child actors. By this article’s standards, Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman are in the same boat, while their careers couldn’t be more different. Thus, a theoretical Hall of Fame must be made. This isn’t an overarching ranking of the greatest child actor performances, rather a collection of all the performances and performers that mattered, good or bad. Without further ado, welcome to the Child Actor Hall of Fame.
Actors Who Elevated The Product
(Child actors that made the content better because of their involvement)
Noah Jupe, A Quiet Place
Henry Thomas, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Let’s open the HOF with some positivity, highlighting the cream of the crop in child actor performances. These actors actively raise their project’s stock purely based on them being in it, an unusually powerful stance for an otherwise lesser role.
My first inductee came to mind quickly. Noah Jupe blows away the three other actors on screen in 2018’s A Quiet Place. His ability to convey true terror in the face of poorly CGI’d alien monsters was Oscar-worthy. Get used to Jupe’s face, we’ll be seeing it on our screen for years to come.
As for Henry Thomas and Abigail Breslin, I can’t think of a better pair to encapsulate a perfect child actor performance. Thomas’ audition for E.T. should be studied in any acting school on the planet and has almost 27 million views on YouTube. On the other hand, Breslin is worthy of her status as the titular Little Miss Sunshine and steals every scene she’s in.
This category is the only one with four inductees instead of three. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t include arguably the weightiest role ever placed on a child actor in Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance as “Hushpuppy” in Beasts of the Southern Wild. At 8 years old, Wallis faced a script that navigates familial drama, and grief atop an increasingly fantastical world surrounding her. It’s perhaps the single most impressive child actor performance given her age and the quality of movie she was put in. She’s still only 18, and we should expect a lifetime of more roles like her debut.
Actors Who Tarnished The Product
(Child actors that made the content worse because of their involvement)
Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park
Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds
Jaden Smith, Entire Filmography
I said this would be the Child Actor Hall of Fame, not a list of the best child actors. As such, the worst is just as important as the best in this case. If anything, a horrible child actor gains more overnight notoriety than a good one.
In all honesty, I included this category just to bash the atrocious Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello from Jurassic Park. The two seem to be in a competition to see who can butcher more comedic dialogue and kill potentially tense scenes with their cartoonish overacting.
In a vacuum, their performances as “Lex” and “Tim” aren’t noticeably awful. When put against the otherwise perfect adventure classic that is Jurassic Park, perception begins to change. It’s not their fault that Jurassic Park turned out to be a generational blockbuster and one of the biggest accomplishments in practical effects. It is their fault that they still delivered terrible performances.
Oh yeah, Dakota Fanning is a disgrace in the already disgraceful War of the Worlds, and Jaden Smith has never made a good movie. Moving on.
The Launchpad Wing
(Child actors that launched a career based on their role as a child)
Natalie Portman, Leon The Professional
Ron Howard, The Andy Griffith Show
Olsen Twins, Full House
For the Launchpad Wing of the CA-HOF, quality of performance during their time as a child actor doesn’t really matter. These are the stars that became stars after being exposed to a massively popular project or an iconic filmmaker.
Natalie Portman arrived on the scene in 1994 with the classic Leon: The Professional and it was immediately clear that she was going to be massive. Her charisma and ability to hold her own next to Jean Reno and Gary Oldman was unrivaled and unteachable.
The Olsens and Ron Howard can both thank 20th century TV execs for picking them to represent the ideal American family child in their respective eras. Outside of Opie Taylor and Michelle Tanner’s similar place in TV culture and cuteness factor, both parties have gone down wildly different career paths. Howard is now an A-List Hollywood director while the Olsens have pivoted to fashion and cosmetics as their sister, Elizabeth, continues to act.
The Fred Savage Middle Ground
(Iconic child actor Fred Savage’s unique place in pop culture)
Fred Savage was 11 when The Princess Bride came out and 12 when The Wonder Years premiered. He was on top of the world, obviously peaking, and easily recognized across America. Savage parlayed his career prime into 30+ years of “Oh yeah it’s that kid from The Princess Bride”, an impressive feat in its own right.
That said, it’s this feat that makes Fred Savage so compelling to me, the aspiring writer that agonizes over the ins and outs of an otherwise irrelevant character actor. It’s tough to call Savage totally “irrelevant” but it’s also impossible to label him as relevant. The tight rope he walks and has walked between household name and iMDB search history is what’s fascinating.
If Savage were to cameo in something (as he’s done countless times in things like Seinfeld or Once Upon A Deadpool), it wouldn’t be unusual.
“It’s that guy! Fred Savage!” we’d cry out from our couches, “What’s he doing in this?”
On the other side of the coin, if Savage were to star as the lead role in any kind of production, it wouldn’t make any sense and we’d be left questioning.
All that to say, Fred Savage embodies the exact middle ground in Hollywood. Everyone working in the industry is either more or less famous than Fred Savage, a test that can legitimately quantify most entertainers’ success.
I’d like to think that someday I can vault myself into the “More Famous Than Fred Savage” camp of content creators. Until then, I’ll make a home in the slums of “Pop Culture Writers Not Named Bill Simmons.” It’s rough out here.
The Fool’s Gold Wing
(Actors who were expected to have long careers but faded after their breakout)
Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone
Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things
Haley Joel Osmont, The Sixth Sense
A blend of positivity and negativity, The Fool’s Gold Wing represents the actors that were primed to take over the world but disappointingly faded off before getting the chance. This isn’t an indictment on their careers or talent as an actor, they still had to be good enough to put themselves in that kind of situation. That said, if acting could be sold as stocks, these three would’ve crashed the market.
Haley Joel Osmont best represents the fool’s gold actor. He ripped off The Sixth Sense, Pay It Forward, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence in three consecutive years, putting up stellar performances in all. If I had been writing this article in 2001, I would’ve said something hyperbolic like “We’re watching the birth of the next great American actor.”
The craziest part is that I still don’t think that would’ve been extreme! Osmont had an unstoppable run that abruptly ended with no warning or indication. Now he’s making absurdist body horror with Kevin Smith and starring in one-off serial killer episodes of The X-Files reboot. Yikes.
Macaulay Culkin is arguably the poster child for child actors everywhere. I totally get it, Home Alone is a really, really good movie, the sequels too. Culkin definitely had a moment and capitalized on it when he could. It does feel like he could’ve been bigger if he wanted it, but maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just wanted to tour with the best-titled band of all time, “The Pizza Underground”. He’s probably happier because of it. All is well, we have Kieran now.
The Noah Schnapp inclusion might be a bit controversial, and I admit it. He’s only 17 and I’m already judging his career in totality before he’s even had the chance to correct it. However, my jumping of the gun should be a compliment. I think Schnapp was so obviously better than his co-stars in Stranger Things that I was shocked to see him all but disappear when the show isn’t in its cycle.
Maybe this is yet another supernatural trick from the Upside Down, intentionally burying a star who had a shot to be generational. Maybe I, as a teenager, am reading way too much into another teenager’s blossoming acting career. Either way, Schnapp is a Fool’s Gold. I’m open to and would encourage him moving his way out of this category onto greater things. For now, he’s not.
The Disney Machine
A true hall of fame for child actors could not exist without mentioning the unstoppable force that is the Disney channel. The network has single-handedly launched tons of Hollywood’s best, like Lindsay Lohan, Debby Ryan, and Zac Efron.
In 1993, Disney Channel’s The All-New Mickey Mouse Club featured Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, and Christina Aguilera. Since then, Disney has continuously churned out new talent to the Hollywood ecosystem, including Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Skai Jackson, Miranda Cosgrove, and even Jake Paul.
I’d also put the Harry Potter franchise under the “Disney Machine” banner. All three of its primary leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, have gone on to have great careers. The trio have each been unique enough in their own right to separate themselves from the wizarding world label, but their careers are undoubtedly attached to the machine.
The One Hit Wonders
(Actors who only had one good movie before fading)
Spencer Treat Clark, Unbreakable
Edward Furlong, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Cast of The Brady Bunch
A slight difference from the Fool’s Gold Wing, The One Hit Wonders are actors that never had a chance to be a major star but still killed it in their roles.
Out of everyone on this list, Spencer Treat Clark takes the title for the best individual scene as a child actor, for his tour de force of cinematic tension as he points a gun at his seemingly invincible father in Unbreakable. Clark finishes Unbreakable batting 1.000 in every scene he’s featured in. The talent was obviously there, but his next biggest credit is Glass, the 20 years removed sequel to Unbreakable.
Everyone’s favorite leather-jacketed sidekick to The Terminator, Edward Furlong fell off a career cliff after the huge success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. He played the “bad boy” typecast perfectly and indirectly inspired a whole generation of 90s teens who followed after his lead.
To wrap up this category, I have a challenge for the reader. Name one non-Brady IMDB credit from any of the Brady Bunch children. Take all the time you need, I’ll wait. Got your answer yet? Didn’t think so. The Brady kids’ lowly filmographies is somewhat shocking given the stranglehold that the show had on 70s pop culture. You’d think that the popularity of The Brady Bunch would be good for a cameo or two at least, you’d be wrong.
To save you the research, here are the top four results for Susan Olsen (unrelated), who portrayed the daughter Cindy Brady.
- The Brady Bunch
- The Brady Bunch Variety Hour
- The Bradys
- Child of the ‘70s
(Group of actors that succeed based on their association)
Cast of The Little Rascals
Cast of The Sandlot
Cast of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Lastly, the child actor ensemble is a reliable premise to start with in Hollywood. Let’s face it, kids are funny. Kids are even funnier when they’re surrounded by other kids doing kid things. The Little Rascals is basically 90 minutes worth of kids doing kid things, and it totally works! The Sandlot might be even better, putting vintage adolescent humor and drama together to make a family classic.
As for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I might venture to say that this is the greatest collection of child actors ever. Julie Dawn Cole is paramountly punchable as the bratty Veruca Salt (as punchable as you can get with a 10 year old girl, which isn’t much but that doesn’t change how annoying she is). Paris Themmen, Michael Bollner, and Denise Nickerson all play up their ridiculous character traits to perfection. Finally, Peter Ostrum brings us home, playing one of cinema’s most lovable characters in Charlie Bucket.
The group just fits together like a beautiful puzzle, one that’s also flavored like Snozzberries.
While writing about this movie, I’ve had to remind myself that this article is about the child actors in these movies, not the movies themselves. I’m voluntarily neutering myself for the sake of this piece and the little bruises on my fingers from typing this long. I won’t say what I want to say, but someday I will. Someday I’ll write a full piece about how much I hate that boldfaced liar Grandpa Joe and his cheating opportunistic antics.
We’ve reached the end of the Child Actor Hall of Fame! Who’s your favorite child actor? Between the Kevin McCallisters and the Marsha Bradys of the world, I fall somewhere in between.