The first major celebrity death of 2023 was reported yesrerday, an inevitability that I was hoping–and still piously hope–would be less frequent than last year. That still may be true, but the sting of this one will haunt me for a while.
Like way too many in my age group during my college years, I almost always watched ABC in prime time. There was no FOX, NBC was basically a train wreck, and I honestly despised the CBS prime time soaps. I barely cared when we learned who shot J.R. And besides, both at home and at college the ABC stations were far and away the clearest over-the-air signals. Google why; it’s way too long and boring to explain.
I spent a lot of time alone watching TV, and began to idolize the younger stars who were already in Hollywood where I dreamt of being. EIGHT IS ENOUGH was a light-hearted family comedy-drama that featured an octet of these talents, ranging in age from teen idol to moppet. I had a major crush on Susan Richardson, who had the prettiest lips and could play THE $20,000 PYRAMID as well as anyone at any age. My younger sister crushed on the youngest of the Bradford brood, Nicholas, played by Adam Rich. For the duration of my college years, EIGHT IS ENOUGH was the closest I got to a sappy guilty pleasure, and Adam Rich was the face–and the preferred hairstyle–of almost every young boy and their adoring moms. Before there was the Rachel, there was the Nicholas. Thank goodness I missed that phase; I would have looked horrible with that cut.
I met Adam and his entourage when he did a guest spot on SMALL WONDER, the sitcom that you can blame for my staying in California. By then, EIGHT IS ENOUGH was history, Adam was in his awkward teen stage, and he was a disruptive force on what was otherwise a smooth-running set (at least among the child actors; their parents, a whole ‘nother story). As I later learned, he was already well into drug abuse, and apparently tried to get some of our talent high.
So when news came down that Rich, age 54, had died yesterday, it brought back these distant memories. According to TMZ, which specializes in the sordid, at least in this case, law enforcement sources indicated there were no signs of criminal or questionable activity. But they also reported that that wasn’t always the case.
Throughout his career, Rich struggled with substance abuse, leading to a near-death experience from a Valium overdose in 1989. He was arrested two years later for breaking and entering into a pharmacy. He was ultimately bailed out by his “Eight Is Enough” patriarch Van Patten. Rich spent years in rehab before being arrested again in 2002 for driving under the influence.
Rich did recover physically, but sadly was yet another example of child actors who peak so quickly their ability to maintain their stardom–and income–is often insurmountable. Like far too many of these teen magazine idols, their public fame was often offset with internal turmoil. And as Sherry Gaba, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who has worked extensively with child actors, has written, drugs were often the only way they could maintain the highs they got from the adulation they received in their youth.
Child stars in the movie and television industry seem to be particularly at risk for alcohol and drug addictions. This may be because of the intense public adoration that is placed on kids at a very young age. Children struggle to try to find a “normal”, which often means they have to continually get that big part, continue to do well in life and be all things to all people. This pressure, combined with readily available drugs, can be a deadly combination.
The sad fact for many of these young stars is that the adults in their life that are supposed to protect them may be at the heart of their addiction. Parents, managers and co-stars often promote the use of drugs through their own behavior and addiction issues. They may turn a blind eye to their child’s drug use because keeping the child happy means ensuring a huge income; allowing them to live the life they desire.
SMALL WONDER was hardly the most egregious example of this kind of behavior, but there was enough that I saw to give me pause. Rich’s brief stint caused more commotion that usual, but I would see some of the parents milling around behind the scenes acting like divas, critiquing their kids’ lines, badgering even people like me about whether or not the show would get renewed and, of course, pad their bank accounts that much more. On occasion, the kids and their tutors would actually chat with me about the pressure. And, surprise, surprise, I sort of identified.
I was blessed with an opportunity to be what some people consider to be a top executive in my 20s, something that simply doesn’t happen today unless you are an entrepreneur who is blessed with a rich family and a Ponzi scheme. I was significantly younger than many of the other “suits”, and I loved being on sets, so perhaps I was more accessible. I’d see what kind of pressure these kids were under, which was nothing compared to the notoriety that Rich got. And as Gaba continued, his was far less than many others’, who had more tragic results.
While many child stars are still battling drug addiction in very public ways, others have had their lives ended far too early because of the addiction or a combination of drug and alcohol abuse. This list includes such celebrities as Corey Haim, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, Judy Garland and Dana Plato to name just a few. Looking at the names it is easy to see this is not a new problem and drug abuse and child starts has been an issue for years.
Fortunately, I never was inclined to turn to drugs, but I certainly had more than my share of demons and addictions. Some might say I still do. The fact that Adam Rich recovered enough to make it to 54 was sobering to many child actors who tweered support and respect for his memory yesterday, because they knew first hand what he was dealing with, and certainly hinted (or overtly said) that they related. As TMZ added:
Rich’s death spurred tributes from numerous fellow former child stars, including Corey Feldman, Todd Bridges and Chad Lowe. “There was no bigger child star in his day,” Lowe wrote on Twitter. “Later in life, he was very open about his mental health struggles. Through it all, Adam was always such a sweet kindhearted guy.”
Bridges, the former “Diff’rent Strokes” star who had a long period of public struggles after that long-running NBC comedy ended in the 1980s, saluted Rich with an all-caps message: “Adam Rich. RIP My friend you will be missed.” Actor Jill Whelan, who was barely a teenager when she began playing young Vicki Stubing on ABC’s “The Love Boat,” also paid tribute on Twitter.
Occasionally, I meet show biz kids and their parents (in some cases, grandparents) these days. It’s a much different world now. You can gain global fame from Instagram, You Tube and Tik Tok, and control more of your own narrative. Pop idol magazines barely exist. For the most part, parents seem to be more grounded. At least on their parentally-managed social media accounts, they seem well adjusted.
Well, Adam Rich sure seemed to be. Susan Richardson wound up living in a trailer park in later life, penniless. Erin Moran, Joanie on HAPPY DAYS (another crush of mine) had a similar fate. She didn’t make it past 56. There’s plenty of other examples of child talents that peaked too early that have struggled in one way or another.
I wasn’t quite that famous, nor that young when I arguably peaked. I’d like to still think I didn’t. Sometimes, I wonder. Days like yesterday bring that feeling into focus.
I wonder if any of you have ever felt that way as well?
If the answer is yes, I’m here to listen. I kinda hope you might be open to a conversation with me as well. I shouldn’t be as shaken up as I am by this news, but I;m kinda surprised myself that I am.
And if I’m that upset by this, I can only imagine what those who posted with verified blue check marks were feeling yesterday.
There are resources available for those of us who have these feelings. Thankfully, I have my own therapy check-in this morning. It’s nowhere near as expensive or as auspiced as that of the link below, which might be a bookmarkable site for any parent or child who is dealing with the pressure of early fame. But it’s something.
And, hopefully, at least that will be enough.
Until next time…