Child actors get a bad rap. In fact, even Flavorpill isn’t immune to making fun. But we have to admit that a good number of them have managed to avoid the stereotypical fate (drugs, nervous breakdowns, reality TV) and carve out pretty inspiring lives for themselves. For this list, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite former child actors who have done awesome things as adults; they aren’t all Hollywood A-listers (although some definitely are), and some aren’t even in the industry at all anymore, but they’re all making a great contribution to pop culture or the world at large. Check out our list — and tell us who we missed — after the jump.
In his earliest roles, on Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons, Jason Bateman was the kind of baby-faced kid who was hard to imagine as an adult actor. The transition certainly wasn’t seamless — he did a lot of TV movies and guest appearances in his 20s — but Bateman has had a career renaissance in the 21st century. After making a few mediocre comeback films, he turned things around by starring in the wonderful Arrested Development as the embattled straight man to a family of loonies. Soon enough, he was all over the big screen in slightly left-of-center (but also very popular) movies like Juno and Up in the Air. By now, Bateman is so well-loved that we can even forgive him for The Change-Up.
Everyone loved Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. After the show wrapped, she never quite found her niche in grown-up roles; she did a lot of guest starring on TV shows, and had perhaps her finest post-Wonder Years run in a recurring role on The West Wing. But that’s isn’t what makes her awesome — it’s that McKellar went UCLA, where she co-authored an important scientific paper and graduated with the school’s highest honors. Since then, she’s made it her mission to get young women involved with math, publishing three books on the subject for middle- and high-school girls.
Although he already had a long film (A River Runs Through It, Angels in the Outfield) and TV (Roseanne, Dark Shadows) resume before landing the role of alien/teenage boy Tommy Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun, that’s where Joseph Gordon-Levitt first caught our attention, holding his own among seasoned pros like John Lithgow and Jane Curtin. For a while, it looked like he’d go the teen heartthrob route. Instead, he went to Columbia and then dropped out to cultivate a serious acting career, beginning with fantastic independent films like 2004’s Mysterious Skin and 2005’s Brick. Since then, he’s split his screen time between indies and (mostly quality) big-budget fare. He also heads up hitRECord.org, an awesome, collaborative multimedia production company.
It’s utterly possible that we have a tendency to admire brainy ladies, because Mayim Bialik’s story is somewhat similar to Danica McKellar’s. After finishing up her role as the eponymous, precocious heroine of TV’s Blossom in 1995, Bialik largely disappeared from the screen. Like McKellar, she went to UCLA, where she finished her PhD in neuroscience in 2008. Having earned her geek bona fides, she now plays a neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory — making her one of very few actors who can say that she’s a doctor and plays one on TV.
There came a time in the mid-’90s when every Boy Meets World-loving tween girl had to make up her mind: Did she have a crush on Shawn Hunter or Eric Matthews? These days, it would seem that those who chose Rider Strong’s Shawn made the correct bet. While he only occasionally pops up on TV or in mainstream movies, Strong is still very much a part of the industry. The Columbia grad is deeply entrenched in the low-budget horror world, as both an actor and a director. He and his brother, Shiloh Strong, have screened a few of their shorts — 2008’s Irish Twins and this year’s The Dungeon Master, about adults reliving their D&D-playing youth — at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Unlike many of the other former child actors on this list, Alyssa Milano has had a remarkably consistent acting career, moving from Who’s the Boss? to Melrose Place to Charmed, with a recurring role on My Name Is Earl and scads of film credits to boot. But it isn’t just her professional work that endears us to her; Milano is also well known for her philanthropic work, for organizations like UNICEF and Charity:Water. She’s also an active participant in the life of the Internet — she’s fantastic on Twitter, where she’s got about 1.8 million followers and is always tweeting interesting links.
Let’s be honest: For a while there, it did not look like things were going to go so well for Macaulay Culkin. The once-adorable Home Alone star began to fade in the mid-’90s, and that’s when the weird news started to flow. He was estranged from his father, he was hanging out with Michael Jackson, he was getting married at 18 — what could possibly have come next? In fact, Culkin returned to public life in 1998, with an appearance in the video for Sonic Youth’s “Sunday.” By the early ’00s, he was making campy indie films like 2003’s Party Monster (in which he portrayed real-life club-kid murderer Michael Alig) and 2004’s Saved! He was even dating Mila Kunis! (They broke up earlier this year.) These days, Culkin seems to be working on his own terms and according to his own taste. His most recent role? A part in ex-Moldy Peaches musician Adam Green’s experimental iPhone film, The Wrong Ferrari.
While we’re praising child actors who went on to star in Party Monster, why not Seth Green? He was adorable in movies like Can’t Buy Me Love and Pump Up the Volume, and went on to play the consummate alterna-teen in late-’90s cultural touchstones like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Austin Powers. In the 21st century, in addition to providing the voice for Chris Griffin on Family Guy and other scattered TV and film work, he has devoted himself to Robot Chicken — a stop-motion Adult Swim staple that he co-created. The pop culture-lampooning sketch show is a cult (read: geek) favorite, which has boasted guest appearances by boatloads of Green’s famous friends.
This one is pretty obvious, right? Elizabeth Taylor was a magnetic child actress, carrying movies like National Velvet and Little Women. But that’s really nothing compared to her legendary adult career, which took her from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to BUtterfield 8 to Cleopatra to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to… well, you get the idea. Of course, she’s notorious for her serial marriages, but we think Taylor’s final legacy is her most touching — a lifelong friend to and icon of the gay community, she was a committed anti-AIDS activist who raised hundreds of millions for the cause and left much of her $600 million fortune to it.
Neil Patrick Harris
What, you thought we’d leave out NPH? After Harold and Kumar? And Dr. Horrible? And How I Met Your Mother? And his courageous coming out and subsequent gay-rights activism? Ha! Never!