Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Puberty: death of the child star?

Cute boy actors turn into box office poison when voices break and facial hair starts to sprout

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

No matter how many laughs a television show can squeeze from an impish boy, cracking wise and bugging out his eyes at various oppressors, a sudden end to the laughter looms. The comedy often stops when puberty starts.

Boys becoming men tend not to play so well on camera. Fox's Sunday night hit Malcolm in the Middle is the latest series to confront the reality of a star hitting adolescence, with all its attendant restructuring of face and physique and vocal cords.

"Frankie Muniz's voice changed, and we went through that thing of `Well, now what do we do?'" recalled Linwood Boomer, the show's creator, of its main star.

The problem is persistent, with so many sitcoms and dramas based on a nuclear family with a precocious boy as a necessary ingredient. Still, the marketing impulse is clear: The kid should stay in the picture.

Like Family Matters and The Wonder Years before it, Malcolm in the Middle is a valuable franchise, unsettled by a star's surging hormones. Networks spend tens of millions to produce and promote such a series. When one has received as much help from critics and award shows and post-Super Bowl placement as Malcolm, Fox naturally hopes for something closer to the status quo ante than nature allows.

In this case Boomer instead chose to take a hard look at Malcolm's adolescence. That and a later time slot meant a 19-percent decline in the key demographic of viewers 18 to 49 in its fourth season's ratings. Muniz begins the fifth season as a 17-year-old playing a 14-year-old, and while the cast is young looking, the show couldn't keep masking the mounting evidence of Malcolm's actual age and those of the three actors who play his brothers.

On the set Muniz had sipped water with lemon to prevent voice cracks when they first were heard, but now the show has adjusted to his advancing age. "We kind of felt like no one is going to buy us artificially trying to pretend these kids are younger than they are," Boomer said.

The problem is gender-specific. Girls generally grow up on camera without losing the audience.

Boys, however, get roped off from view, as if behind scaffolding while under construction. Those actors who have had success as child stars and later as teenagers have had the blessing of good looks on both sides of the process. But even Ron Howard went into a little dormancy before adorable Opie could re-emerge as handsome Richie Cunningham.

Cody McMains, who played the kid brother in the film Bring It On (2000), went through a hormone-induced extreme makeover.

"He's a completely different person," said Joseph Middleton, a Los Angeles casting director. But sometimes the change is good for the actor, if not a specific project. Jerry O'Connell, the boy of the film Stand by Me (1986), is now the trim heartthrob on NBC's Crossing Jordan.

Middleton reminds directors that kids on the cusp of adolescence can change drastically at any point, with varying degrees of recognizability. Reshoots are not uncommon six months after principal filming. Not every acting family is like the Culkins, who seem to have another little jaunty blond boy always at the ready, like Russian nesting dolls: Whenever one grows too big for a certain role, his younger brother gets hired for it.

The cautionary tale among casting directors is that of Jared Rushton, the boy in the film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, who did just the opposite of what the title suggests. "He grew like six inches and his voice dropped an octave during the shooting," Middleton said. "In my circles it was like, `Oh, what a nightmare!'"

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