Then and Now: Child Stars From the 80s, 90s and 00s


When most of us were kids, our greatest achievement was managing to not fall asleep until 4:00am when our friends came over for a slumber party. But child actors are not like most of us. From an early age, their acting skills put them directly in the spotlight and they end up with millions of fans even before they’re legally able to drive a car. Then they grow up and a lot of them vanish, either by choice or because they’re not cute anymore. But that’s not always the case. In fact, many childhood stars continue to make an impact in the entertainment industry while others have found success in other careers. Here’s a look at 10 actors who were huge as children and what they’re up to today.

1. Dylan and Cole Sprouse

The twin actors got their start when they were 8 months old as the “stars” of a diaper commercial. They got their first break in Hollywood when they shared the role of Julian in the Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy. But they achieved huge success in the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, which made them the wealthiest child actors of the mid-2000s, commanding as much as $40,000 an episode. They took a break from acting to attend New York University. Today Cole plays the role of Jughead Jones in the CW series Riverdale while Dylan works as a brewmaster and owner of a meadery in Brooklyn.

2. Mara Wilson

You might recognize Wilson from the 1994 Robin Williams vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire where she played the daughter Nattie. After her mother died of breast cancer, she lost her passion for acting and left in 2000. She’s returned to do a bit of voice acting, but she has stated that she’s done with acting and now wants to focus on writing. Her cousin is conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, who blabbers in a tone that sounds reasonable, but if you actually pay attention to what he’s saying it really is a bunch of nonsense.

3. Macauley Culkin

One of the biggest childhood actors of all time, Culkin really made a name for himself in Home Alone, which has since become an annual Christmas movie-watching tradition. Although his child acting roles began to dry up once he made the terrible biological choice to, you know, grow up, he’s still enjoying life out of the spotlight. He is very selective about the movies he acts in these days since, as he has put it, he doesn’t need the money. He is also busy hosting a popular comedy podcast Bunny Ears.

4. Anna Chlumsky

Chlumsky co-starred in My Girl alongside Culkin and again in My Girl 2: The One Without Culkin. After taking a hiatus from acting to attend college at the University of Chicago, she has flourished on television, starring in the hit comedy Veep, for which she was nominated for 6 Primetime Emmy Awards.

5. Dakota Fanning

At the age of 7, Fanning became the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work as Lucy in the movie I Am Sam. She subsequently acted in major roles in such movies as Hansel and Gretel, The Cat in the Hat (a really awful film, but not her fault), and War of the Worlds alongside that weird Scientology guy. She continues to have success, having starred in Quentin Taraneto’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Her current movie, The Nightingale, which also features her younger sister Elle, is currently filming.

6. Jake Lloyd

When Lloyd was 9 he was given an entirely impossible task: to play a young Anakin Skywalker in one of the most hyped movies of all time – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. His performance was almost universally panned, although George Lucas is the one who deserves 100% of the blame. Lloyd was bullied in school as a result, and his subsequent life has been tragic. He’s had several brushes with the law, and in 2020 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that had long been suspected for years.

7. Haley Joel Osment

Coincidentally, Osment was also up for the role of young Anakin, and is probably grateful that he didn’t get the part. Instead, he made a name for himself at the age of 10 as the psychic child in The Sixth Sense for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Although that was perhaps the pinnacle of his acting career, he still appears quite a bit in movies and TV shows, and has voiced characters in the video game Kingdom of Hearts for nearly two decades.

8. Hilary Duff

Duff first gained popularity when she starred as the titular Lizzie McGuire in the Disney Channel series. She also released several pop albums and solidified herself as one of the top teenage entertainers of the early 2000s. Today she continues to act in movies and on television. Her most recent film release was The Haunting of Sharon Tate, for which she was also executive director.

9. Danica McKellar

McKellar played Winnie, Kevin’s (Fred Savage) on again, off again girlfriend on the late 80s/early 90s hit The Wonder Years. Since then, she has become more notable because of her math knowledge. In fact, she has written four best-selling math books aimed at children, and even has a theorem partially named after her after she co-published the scientific paper titled “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin–Teller models on Z².”

10. Melissa Joan Hart

Hart has the rare feat of having starred in not one but two hugely popular teenage sitcoms, the first being Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All and the ABC hit Sabrina the Teenage Witch. For 4 seasons she co-starred in Melissa & Joey alongside Joey Lawrence. She has also done several Christmas-themed movies on the Lifetime Network, including “Dear Christmas” which aired this past year.