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They Wanna Be in Pictures : TV Pilot Season Transforms Complex Into Boot Camp for Child Actors

March 05, 1995|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brandon French hit town four weeks ago, one more aspiring actor aiming to make his mark in the cutthroat, high-tension world of Hollywood.

*

But he had to bring his mother with him.

Setting up shop at the Oakwood apartments near Burbank, the blond-haired Coloradan spends long afternoons tirelessly stalking auditions from studio to studio, meeting countless rejections from movie producers and commercial casting directors with poker-faced aplomb.

Each morning, aided by Mom and her laptop computer, he studies things like algebra and American history. Brandon is an 11-year-old boy with a briefcase, who sees himself as an actor first and a sixth-grader second.

Like so many other up-and-coming young actors, he's a well-mannered kid who some say has mortgaged a piece of his childhood for something he considers much more valuable:

Stardom.

"I know I'm just a kid, but I know what I want," he said softly, pausing from his studies in the Oakwood's cafeteria. At that, Sheryl French looked up from her morning paper.

"Speak up, Brandon."

The boy leaned forward: "I want to be an actor. What's wrong with that?"

It's pilot season in the television industry, the busy months between January and May when the networks stage massive casting hunts--or kiddie cattle calls--in search of that new face and attitude, the lucky youngsters who will populate the fall season's new shows.

Each year, some 350 out-of-town child actors--from 9 months to 18 years--transform the Oakwood apartments into a sitcom boot camp, converging on Tinseltown with sparkly high hopes.

And those, of course, of their parents.

The Burbank Oakwood each year mails brochures to some 700 talent agents nationwide advertising the sprawling apartment complex, located within walking distance of Warner Bros. studios, as headquarters for visiting child actors and their families, and makes available a range of extra-fee programs that include tutoring, acting and singing lessons.

Youngsters are enticed to follow the lead of child stars who bunked at the Oakwood while taking their first shot at Hollywood, including Fred Savage of "The Wonder Years," Neil Patrick Harris from "Doogie Howser, M.D." and the child stars of hit films like "Little Rascals" and "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids."

"Pilot season is a zoo, the best time for a newcomer to come to Hollywood," said Judy Savage, owner of the Savage Agency, which handles child actors.

"Usually, when a producer has a guest star role, his budget is so small and his schedule is so fast-paced, there's no way he's gonna audition a new kid for the role. He . . . goes to someone he already knows, somebody proven. But pilot season is different. . . . instead of just seeing five kids, that same producer will see maybe 300."

And so, year after year, the wide-eyed kiddies come--some torn between a sense of professional duty and an instinctive drive to be carefree children. Many weigh the longing of missing Fido and their best friend back home against the hope of doing that daylong commercial shoot that will pay enough money to put them through college.

On slower days, they look critically at the Hollywood culture "that just makes you want things," comparing the picturesque back roads of, say, rural Kentucky with the L.A. smog and gridlocked freeways.

"Heck, back home in Kentucky we get on the freeway to go to another state," observed 14-year-old Susanne Shropshire. "Here you do it to go down the road and visit a friend."

By day, young actors turn the Oakwood's two clubhouses into a jam-packed study hall. After dark, teen-age dance parties break out around the clubhouse pool--a scene of booming rap music, good-looking girls flirting with star-quality boys while 8-year-olds play tag.

For these driven young professionals, it's a rare moment of childish exuberance, a break from the quest to be anointed the next Macaulay Culkin. They know that morning will bring the pressure of another audition, heightened by Mom's hand-wringing.

And for some, success is more than just a dream, it's a necessity. Some mortgage their homes to fund the Hollywood trips, local agents say. Mothers quit their jobs, leave their remaining children with friends, all for the frenzied audition months.

Probably for nothing because agents warn that only one child in 100 will realize the goal of regular work. Come May, the others return home to Denver or Seattle, exchanging their dream of stardom for the all-too-mundane work of being just a regular kid again, at least for this year.

"The biggest gambles are taken by the first-timers whose parents sell furniture and borrow money from friends to bring their child to Hollywood without knowing what to expect," said Joni Rodenbusch, the Oakwood's entertainment account executive, whose desk is framed by a wall of publicity shots featuring kids with the well-oiled smugness of miniature adults. "For them, the potential for rip-off is great."

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