SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – He did his first commercial when he was 5 and made his starring movie debut — in "The Champ" — just two years later. Then he got richer by playing a rich kid in the TV series "Silver Spoons." (search)
Today, says Rick (not Ricky) Schroder (search), "I can't really remember not being famous."
We've come to expect former child stars to have adult troubles, that those who spend their formative years surrounded by sycophants will melt down after puberty when they discover they need an assistant to match their shoes with their shirt.
Dana Plato tried to hold up a video store, then overdosed on painkillers. Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman and Danny Bonaduce all have prior arrests; the latter was once accused of beating up a transvestite prostitute. Barry Williams traded in "The Brady Bunch" for celebrity boxing — against none other than Bonaduce. And 2005's top two celebrity defendants — Michael Jackson and Robert Blake — were both child stars.
But Schroder is that rarity — the exception that proves the rule.
These days, at age 34, you'll find him living quietly in the well-tended suburbs of Phoenix, in a sun-drenched house with his wife of 14 years, their four entirely un-bratty children and a floppy little dog named Cookies. He grills steaks in the back yard, drives the kids to soccer practice and reads to them at bedtime. And he's still a sought-after actor.
He's signed on to join the cast of the Lifetime drama "Strong Medicine" and direct several episodes. And he has just released his first screenwriting and directing project, a drama about an American Indian boxer called "Black Cloud" in which he plays a leading role. He funded the project by recruiting Indian tribes as co-producers.
"I'd been waiting for the right script, the right story, and it just wasn't coming my way," Schroder says. "So I decided I had to take the bull by the horns and make it happen."
He began writing the script shortly after leaving "NYPD Blue" (search) and moving his family to Arizona. "Id heard about these boxers that were American Indian kids. And I thought, I'd love to make a movie up where John Wayne and John Ford made all those Westerns," he explains.
He cast himself against type in the role of a troublemaking rodeo cowboy, then chose country music star Tim McGraw to play the sheriff.
Directing, he says, was even more fun than hed imagined it would be. "I grew up on a set, you know? So I was like a fish swimming underwater."
Although Schroder won the best director award at the San Diego Film Festival and the film won the presidents award at the Nashville Independent Film Festival, no studio has offered to buy it. So Schroder simply set about distributing the film himself.
"I never planned to start a film distribution company," he says. "But you just do what you have to." The film opened in seven cities last weekend, with plans to expand wider.
When he spins the story of his early fame, it becomes clear Schroder's parents were determined to create pockets of normalcy within his extraordinary childhood, and perhaps thats contributed to his success as an adult. Though he spent adolescence playing a TV kid with a miniature railroad running through his living room, Schroder's own upbringing was less ostentatious.
"My mom and dad never treated me like I was special. They just treated me like a kid," he says. "They worried about me, never gave me too much freedom, kept the reins pretty tight when I was growing up. I had to answer to who I was with and where I was going, which is important."
Sheenah Hankin, a psychologist who has counseled Ron Howard ("The Andy Griffith Show," "Happy Days") and his family, says the kind of discipline Schroder received is vital. "The kids who come from families that have very good values take those values into adult life," she says. "Ron's father was a strict disciplinarian."
But how easy can it be to exert authority over a child who happens to be the family's breadwinner?
Howard once told Hankin that he never cost his family any money: He began working at age 3 and never stopped. If a 9 year old brings in $10,000 a week and lives with parents who have never earned anything close to that, the power imbalance can be enormous. And trouble often erupts when stardom fades and that power disappears.
"These children are people who have not really needed to recognize authority in other people," says Dr. Margaret Jarvis, medical director of the Marworth Chemical Dependency Treatment Center, where a number of celebrities have sought counseling. "If they're making a film, they walk out of their workplace and there are literally people standing there with bags of cocaine."
But like Howard, Schroder has had the good fortune of working continuously. And he doesn't mind that every role hasn't been high-profile.
"On every actor's resume, with the exception of major stars, you have the roles that stand out, and then you have lots of other movies that people don't even know they did," Schroder says smiling. "And that's OK."
But Schroder's run of 40 roles in just over 25 years is a rarity. Have you seen Emmanuel Lewis ("Webster"), Dustin Diamond ("Saved by the Bell") or Tina Yothers ("Family Ties") on television lately? Or have you heard Wil Wheaton — Wesley Crusher of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — talk about how that role derailed his career?
"If you really want to be an actor, becoming a star as a teenager is probably the worst thing to do," says Douglas Perry, co-author of the just-released book "The Sixteenth Minute," which explores the struggles of the formerly famous.
"Schroder will always be the kid from 'Silver Spoons'," he says. "And even when Schroder joined NYPD Blue, it became part of the marketing campaign: Look — cute little Ricky Schroder grew up and now he's carrying a gun!"
Rick (not Ricky) Schroder seems unconcerned by such talk. At the moment, he's too busy working to consider whether fame is a permanent birthright.
"I have an incredible perseverance in my personality, whether I'm playing tennis or hiking a mountain," he says. "That overachieving kind of drive is one of the main factors in why I made it through. I just really never give up."