Last winter, Paul Petersen was awakened by a frantic call. "It was this kid calling from the Roxy," recalls Petersen, 48, an author and onetime child actor who played Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show" from 1958 through 1966. "He said he saw River Phoenix in one of the nightclub's bathroom stalls shooting heroin."
Petersen, who for four years has been organizing support groups for former child stars and the pressure they face in an often indifferent Hollywood, sprang into action.
A few days later, he and a group of other former child actors knocked on the front door of Phoenix's Los Angeles home and confronted him with the story.
"I told him we'd all been there," he says. "But he just told us there was no problem." Phoenix closed the door, cutting off the attempted intervention.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 22, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Marital status-- A Jan. 5 article about a support group for former young actors was in error when it indicated that one of the group participants, Julia Benjamin, was divorced. Benjamin's divorce is pending.
In late October, when Petersen heard of the 23-year-old Phoenix's heroin and cocaine overdose, he was neither surprised nor especially upset. "At least we'd tried to intervene; we gave him an option," says Petersen. "I could sleep after hearing about River, but I couldn't after I heard about Rusty."
"Rusty" was Rusty Hamer, who played Danny Thomas' son on "The Danny Thomas Show." In January, 1990, Hamer, then 42, shot himself to death, ending a life of poverty and depression near New Orleans.
Hamer's life had been sadly similar to those of many child stars, never living up to those moments of fame bestowed at a young age. Once he grew up, Hollywood was no longer interested. He had no skills, no money and no education. His life spiraled downward through drugs, alcohol and depression.
"What bothers me about Rusty was that I could have helped," says Petersen, who can still cause pedestrians on his Gardena street to stop and squint their eyes in recognition.
"I didn't get involved even though the book I was working on at the time--to be called 'A Minor Consideration'--was about the problems of child actors. The morning I heard, I said to my wife, 'Rana, it's time to do something.' "
Petersen never finished the book, but he took its title for his nonprofit support and advocacy group. "A Minor Consideration is a support and intervention group for anybody who's ever been a child actor," he says. "You don't have to sign up; if you were a child actor, you're already a member. And we're also an advocacy group. There are a lot of laws and practices we'd like to see changed.
"They say children in this industry are protected. Bull----. Hollywood would save Bosnia before the life of a single child actor."
Contrary to his easygoing small-screen persona, Petersen, he is the first to admit, is not a reasonable advocate of change. He is, he says, "an in-your-face militant" on the subject of children in Hollywood.
His anger is always close to the surface, a result, he says, of seeing no positive changes in a system that treated him and his contemporaries, as well as child actors today, "as nothing more than chattel."
Growing up in Iowa and Southern California, Petersen was, briefly, one of the original 16 Mousketeers. A number of commercials and a star turn in "Houseboat" with Cary Grant landed him, in 1958, the role of Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show," a character he would portray for the next eight years.
Petersen's own crises didn't happen while he was actually a child star. "Whatever dark period I had came after the show," he says, though he admits that running around Hollywood with pals Ricky Nelson, Tony Dow ("Leave It to Beaver"), Don Grady ("My Three Sons") and Johnny Crawford ("The Rifleman") in fast cars while imbibing large amounts of alcohol was not exactly a normal childhood.
"In 1966, I worked 16 weeks; in 1968, four weeks; and in 1969, I didn't work at all. By then, I was a complete basket case."
It was advice from another former child actor that sobered him up. "I was living in Encino in a house I could no longer afford when, one day, Mickey Rooney showed up. He told me that Hollywood wouldn't hire me again for another 25 years. He told me to go find another life."
Petersen moved to Connecticut, attended Yale and began a new life as a writer. He has 16 books to his credit, including "Walt, Mickey and Me," an account of the lives of the original Mousketeers after they turned in their ears, most of which, he says, "were pretty desperate."
"I had no plan when I started," he says. "At that time, Danny Bonaduce ("The Partridge Family") was in jail in Florida on drug charges, Todd Bridges ("Diff'rent Strokes") was going to court on attempted murder, Gary Coleman ("Diff'rent Strokes") was about to sue his parents and Jay North ("Dennis the Menace") was tormented by personal problems."
The roar of the crowd watching Miami's two-minute drill against Pittsburgh on "Monday Night Football" is timid compared to the child-actor bull session in Petersen's small living room.