Gary James' Interview With
Paul Peterson

Paul Peterson gained fame in the role of Jeff Stone on the Donna Reed television show. He also recorded a number of highly successful records, including "My Dad".

These days, you'll find Paul Peterson traveling the country, talking about child actors and actresses, their ordeals in Hollywood and his organization, A Minor Consideration, which has committed itself to changing the working conditions for today's performers.

Q - Paul, you've said, "Fame in the star business is not a career, it's a sentence." What did you mean by that? It's not as if someone puts a gun to your head and says "Show business or else."

A - You don't think that happens to kids? That's the problem. It happens to kids. It's not a gun they put to your head. It is parental aspirations for their youngsters. When you're young, you don't control your own career, and one day, and it's happened to me and it's happened to a lot of kids, you get a job that takes away the next eight, ten, twelve years of your life and changes things forever.

Q - I thought child actors were protected under the Jackie Coogan Law*.

A - The Jackie Coogan Law was passed in 1938 and over the next 60 years, came to cover fewer and fewer kids. Remember, it was only for long-term contracts. Plain and simple. In other words, work a day kids who did parts in movies, who did commercials, who did guest-starring roles in episodic television, they were never covered by the Coogan. More importantly, the status of the ownership of the money was never fixed until we got around here. The parents of a working child always owned the money. That was true in Jackie Coogan's day and in Gary Colman's lawsuit. The parents were always able to claim "hey, how can we steal money? It was ours anyway?"

Q - How about McCauley Culkin, the star of "Home Alone"?

A - Same thing. The only money that was actually his, was the money that the court set aside in a trust account and even that was raided after his parents not only spent the 20% they were paying themselves as managers, but they spent all the rest of their money too.

Q - So, it's possible this kid's got next to nothing.

A - Well, I can sort of promise you that after the divorce, 'cause remember, he's divorced now, and after the judge ordered him to pay his parents and siblings $350,000 a year to maintain their lifestyle, no provisions for re-payment. Nothing of the sort. I keep telling people, when you have big money, it's just more to lose.

Q - You were tutored on the set of the Donna Reed Show for three hours a day. You did get a lot of individual attention didn't you?

A - Absolutely. If you have a good teacher and your adult co-stars insist that education is important, you can get a good education. It's a different education, because you don't get the socialization skills that are so important, and you'll forever be alienated from your peer group. None the less, in terms of education, you can get a good one. Here's the problem though: if you have adult co-stars that pay no attention and a pressure packed production schedule, things can go wrong. Things can go horribly wrong. "Different Strokes" is a perfect example, because education was not paramount. The kids would go months with no education. The teacher just looked the other way. Remember, the studio teacher is paid by the producer. Remember that.

Q - Take it from someone who went to a public school and had to put up with the daily interruptions of school work by other kids, tutoring seems preferable to that.

A - I understand. Remember, I'm not contrasting this rather extraordinary circumstance of show business with public education. I'm not. I'm simply telling people what it is. Our rule of thumb on the Young Performers Committee for AFTRA and SAG is: unless somebody really cares, and I mean a producer or a star like Harry Anderson cared when he did "Dave's World" Donna Reed Michael Landon cared; if you don't have that emphasis on education, every kid on a series, will, every two years, fall one year behind in school, and that's sort of proven to be true. The latest example we have are the boys that were in the group Take Five. In four years of work, and they worked a lot, the youngest boy went back into the public school and is two years behind in his schoolwork. It happens all the time.

Q - When you went to college, you couldn't sit in a classroom because you were recognized. What would happen?

A - Well, it was just very unpleasant. If you didn't know the answer, you would be singled out and depending on the professor's view of you, you would either be humiliated or you'd be taken to the side and asked "Didn't you ever get this in school? Do you know how to do this work? Did you ever have this kind of work?" So, it kind of depended on the professor. But, the resentment of your peer group was palpable. "What are you doing here? You're an actor. How can you be that stupid?" It's not just that you had the wrong answer in class that everybody forgets about two hours later. It's "hey, Paul Peterson didn't know the answer. Ha ha ha." That's what people don't understand about fame. You don't get to make mistakes. You don't have secrets and you can't be silent. Now, at the end of my education career, there was a wonderful difference between my History professor, who loved the fact that I had a very unusual childhood because it gave me what he called "a unique perspective", whereas my English professor was deeply resentful that I was already under contract to Simon and Schuster. He's a 29 year old English professor who can't get published. So, it can be good. It can be bad. You sort of learn to deal with it.

Q - Was it fun in the beginning anyway, being on a weekly TV show?

A - Oh, it was fun right 'til the end. Of course it's fun. There's nothing wrong with being rich and famous, believe me. You're talking about having a great time. But, things come to an end. The very work that got you famous, starts to work against you. There is a reason so many former kids stars are unable to sustain their career and unable to find a place even in the industry that raised them.

Q - Do you think we would all be better off if children were not used in TV shows or films?

A - No, no, no. Children have always had a place in the workplace. What's changed is, we're not careful with their health and welfare. If you've been to our website at, you can kind of see how the work has steadily increased in scope and importance. It has led to me being a delegate at the U.N. for the World Safety Organization. I have been personally appointed by the last two presidents to serve on the Child Welfare Commission. Here's the truth - we're effective, this collection of former kid stars, when we speak on child labour issues, our credibility is unquestioned. We worked as children. And even though we can't get our childhoods back, we understand what it feels like. There's a great deal of pride for children who work when they know they are bringing home enough money, say to fee the family one night. But, it can also be excessive and that's what we must guard against in this culture. I love to see young athletes like anybody else, but, when I found out that all seven of our girls on the Olympic Gymnastics Team had advanced osteoporosis, had never had a menstrual cycle, and all seven had eating disorders, that 's where you gotta draw the line. The girls now admit it. We finally turned the corner on that. People are telling the truth. These kids in preparation for the Olympics are working 80 hours a week. That's what it takes and that's abuse. There's just no other way to say it. It's the same abuse you can see on a Little League field on a Saturday afternoon or Friday night football.

Q - And, it's the...

A - Parents and adults.

Q - They think they'll get rich and famous.

A - Well, that's what they think. The odds are terribly against ya. You have a better chance and, I've been on the podium with many prominent black athletes and when they look at their fans, they tell young black boys and girls - you have a better chance of becoming an attorney than playing in the NBA because the guys who are playing in the NBA are not going to give you their jobs...not without a fight. There's only 560 of those jobs. And there are 50,000 black attorneys.

Q - Everyone seems to be reaching for that Brass Ring

A - Well, it's so curious because , for many of these parents, if they invested the same money and energy and time in their careers, their professional careers, the whole family would be better off. But, there are many parents out there who would rather watch their child slave away, than do the work themselves.

Q - To change the subject for a moment, did you ever realize that "My Dad" would become as popular as it did?**

A - I gotta tell you, the answer is yes. It was a special song from the moment Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil brought it in. Originally, Barry and Cynthia wrote it in the past tense, you know, "He wasn't much in the eyes of the world". And those lyrics had to be changed so it was appropriate to sing on the show. But, it was a profound experience. I really cared about Carl Betz and as the years have gone by, it is very satisfying to me that I had a part in what amounts to a classic song.

Q - So, your life centers around this organization of yours, A Minor Consideration?

A - Yes, well, it's led to many other endeavours. Safety issues are really important to me, because we have a new category of kids in this business called "the stunt kid", believe it or not.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* Jackie Coogan is the namesake of California's so-called Coogan Law (enacted 1939), aimed at protecting the earnings of child actors.
With the release of Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" in 1921, at age 7, Coogan became Hollywood's first child star of the screen era.
At age 24, Jackie filed a lawsuit in April, 1938, against his mother Lillian and stepfather Arthur L. Bernstein, also his manager,
accusing the pair of cheating him out of $4 million in earnings. In August, 1939, a settlement was awarded... half of what was left of his estate -- $126,000.
Many fans remember Coogan for playing Uncle Fester in TV's "The Addams Family" from 1964-66.

** "My Dad" rose to number 6 on Billboard's singles chart in December, 1962.
Peterson's earlier effort, "She Can't Find Her Keys" had made it to number 19 the previous March.

Paul Peterson
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection