Dr. Fred Eichelman: Interview with Former Actor and Child Advocate, Paul Petersen
The trials of being a child star that led Paul to fight for children's safety
Dr. Fred: I’d like to begin by talking about a program that seems your great passion in life. It has an interesting title, A Minor Consideration.
Paul Petersen: I’m always happy to talk about that. I get on my soapbox at a drop of a hat. When we started A Minor Consideration back in January of 1990, we had no idea that our mission would grow so. Our initial thought was to help any past kid stars, that were in trouble. It kept growing and growing, because it wasn’t just the kid stars we are all familiar with from the past, it was the kids who are working today. The rules are not what people think they are.
For example, only in the state of California is there a thing called the Coogan Account. Most kids working before 1990 were working for money that did not belong to them. There were no provisions for a savings account. As our mission began to grow, to not only take care of our own, there were also the currently working kids. We began to notice that there were some real structural problems within the entertainment business. The most telling of which is that kids in the entertainment business are exempt from Federal Child Labor Laws. People say “That’s not possible!,” however it is. It’s been that way since 1938. There is an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act which covers most of us and also covers kids in agriculture and that is 800,000 kids and that is where the trouble starts. If you don’t work in a state like California or New York, which has pretty good child labor laws, you are at risk. It’s been a remarkable journey.
Paul Petersen: Interestingly enough it wasn’t my own travails that motivated me. It was the problems that my friends were having. I wouldn’t wish anybody my twenties, it was a difficult time for me until I caught my balance and I got out of Hollywood. Every time I would come back and visit with my fellow kid star friends I would keep hearing echoes of some of the things I went through.
It dawned on me that we should have been talking to each other honestly during the times of our troubles because who better to talk to than another former kid star. That’s why we put this structure together. Our meetings are just amazing because here is a room full of people and we get to talk about things that very few people understand. Things like dealing with stage parents. The loss of fame when the work dries up, how do you handle situations where everybody knows your name, but holds your previous success against you. How do you cope with losing your health care benefit? How do you wait fifty years for pension benefits? These are the things we discuss.
Paul Petersen: Yes, but at the time you’re not aware that you are missing anything. You’re life is so full with work and personal appearances and preparations. You have concerns like, ‘How does my hair look? I’ve got a personal appearance to make.’ You don’t think about a normal life, you don’t have any secrets. You don’t think about observing other people and learning lessons in that fashion. It is not until after the work dries up, or a show is canceled, or fame starts to dwindle that you look around and say, ‘Wait a second, why am I different from my contemporaries? What happened to my education? Why was I so focused on performing skills when I should have been learning history or doing better in math?’
You look back far too often and a lot of this, as Sherry would tell you, is prompted by people continuing questioning about something you did when you were a teenager. That is not natural. Sherry got started in show business because of her parents and I got started in show business because my mother was bigger than me. I didn’t drive myself to a Musketeer audition, mom took me. I didn’t want to have three lessons a week singing and dancing and piano. One would have been sufficient. What do you do? The world is what it is and your life is what it is. The trick as Shelly Fabares, says is to learn to make lemonade.
Paul Petersen: It is very difficult to get people outside of show business to understand there is a difference between the parts you play and who you are truly. Look at what actors do. Actors lie about their feelings and speak other people’s words. That is different from ordinary experience. It’s not healthy. For a child, the confusion sets in very early. No one, in looking back, would ever accuse the cast of The Donna Reed Show cast of thinking we were perfect. We were setting an example, we were establishing an ideal. It was “mother knows best.” In twenty two and a half minutes we tried to pass along a little moral lesson. Between you and me and the gate post, life was better then. It was positive. It was upbeat and America knew who it was in those days. Sadly we have lost our way.
Paul Petersen: It depends on the era. At age twelve I got to spend seven months with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in a movie called Houseboat. That was one of the great show business experiences of my life. This was a big budget high profile picture that was filled with real professionals. What a great time we had. Five months in Washington D.C. And another two months on the Paramount lot. It was a great experience. But I have done other things I have been equally proud of. There was the Universal movie called Journey to Shiloh with a great cast, James Caan, Harrison Ford, Don Stroud, Michael Sarrazin, Jan-Michael Vincent and me. Holy smoke, what a good time we young actors had.
Paul Petersen: It did at the time. That was a big transition period. I was very lucky to get a book contract with Simon and Schuster. I first wrote a book, High Performance Driving which kind of broke the ice. Writing was very therapeutic. I had a lot of things to sort out in my life. Number one was “Who am I really?” It is easy to be content with fame and earning big money. But, that doesn’t necessarily make you happy.
My grandfather, with whom I shared a bedroom when I was young, noticed I was not the boy he thought I could be. He said, “Paul, you have to find a job you love and then you’ll never go to work a day in your life. It will not seem like work.” I thought, when I was writing my books, that it was very satisfying and more fulfilling than being a kid on a television show.
Then I moved into A Minor Consideration and when we began to hit our stride and have meaningful legislation passed and traveled the country to help educate people about the way the deck is stacked against kids, that has been so fulfilling I wonder why I even was an actor except for the lessons involved. Life is a continuum. As long as you can feel that sense of joy when you get up in the morning and you’re kind of reluctant to go to bed at night, then your doing what is good for you,
Paul Petersen: This was something that was unavoidable. As the years went by, working in the A Minor Consideration structure, more and more of the older kid stars were having troubles with retirement issues, pension issues, dealing with social security, dealing with disability issues and of course major health problems as well.
As I was dealing with that on a daily basis my wife and I were also the primary care givers for five elderly women. In the Spring of 2005 all these older women, age 87 and up, were independent and vital and within two months they all became dependent. Everything from a diagnosis of Alzheimers to needing in-home non-medical care. I started doing a show called Aging in LA, which I didn’t volunteer for, they needed a host. The deeper I got into the senior issues the more frightened I became, not for my former kid stars, but for our country. This reality that 80 million baby boomers started turning 60, one every seven seconds–we don’t have enough beds for them. We don’t have enough assisted living facilities, we don’t have enough trained professionals to deal with the rapidly aging population. Because of me being me and having been trained in the child’s world it was just as natural to take up this interest as well.