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Tougher Rules for Teachers of Child Actors Applauded

August 12, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask any of those cute little tykes who grew up before our eyes on "Flipper" and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and countless other TV series: Acting careers don't last forever.

That's why former child actors and leaders of the Screen Actors Guild were rejoicing Monday over new state regulations they say will improve the education that young performers receive in classrooms set up at television and movie studios.

State officials disclosed a plan to toughen requirements for teachers who work with child actors by requiring them to have multi-subject, secondary-level teaching credentials as well as special training in labor law.

In recent years, instructors with as little as a single teaching credential in a non-academic subject such as physical education could be licensed to teach in trailer classrooms at studio lots all over town.

Complaints that studio schools were being "dumbed down" prompted a lawsuit by the studio teachers union that has led the state's Department of Industrial Relations to set new standards, which will be announced today.

Former child actors have lobbied for the tougher requirements, arguing that most pint-size actors grow up to be unemployed unless their education has readied them for life outside of lights and cameras.

"Maybe five out of 100,000 will make it," said Paul Petersen, former child star from "The Donna Reed Show" who now assists 400 other former actors through a Gardena-based program he runs that is called "A Minor Consideration."

"Name me 20 former film stars who are still in front of the camera and I'll be astonished," Petersen said. "By definition, a childhood career comes to an end. That's why education is the core."

Nineteen-year-old Chris Allport--who started acting at age 7 and graduated to voice-over work as he got older--said studio teachers make or break young actors.

"You have to have a good one or you get left way behind," said Allport, a Simi Valley resident who now attends Cal State Northridge.

"I have a lot of friends who are behind. I don't know how they will turn out," Allport said. "I'm preparing for the day the industry doors close. I hope it doesn't happen. But I'm preparing."

Former child actress Jeanne Russell, who played Margaret on the series "Dennis the Menace," said actor Roddy McDowall warned her mother to make certain she got a good education in studio schools.

"He told my mother about his transition," said Russell, 46, now a chiropractor in North Hollywood. "I thought I'd always be an actress. But luckily I was able to go on and keep up with other students later."

State officials said letters from former child actors about the importance of studio school helped motivate them to boost teaching requirements. They said the rules will be implemented over a three-year period to give current studio teachers time to comply.

Of the state's 430 licensed studio teachers, 211 will need to obtain additional training, said state Labor Commissioner Jose Millan.

"We could not ignore that sentiment," Millan said Monday. "We're beefing up academic requirements so studio teachers will have to have an academic credential in either English, math, social studies or foreign language."

In the past, teachers "with PE credentials would be tutoring algebra," Millan said.

"We've seen the errors of our ways. Studio teaching is different from [regular] classrooms. Things are accelerated and fast-paced."

Rosalie Zallis, senior policy advisor for Gov. Pete Wilson and who helped work out the new regulations, said Monday the change will end confusion over studio teacher certification without putting new pressures on film studios.

Officials of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who helped hammer out the new rules, were unavailable for comment.

But actor Fred Savage--whose "Wonder Years" role made him a child star--said he's investing in his education, even as he starts a new NBC series next week.

Now 21, he is a junior majoring in English and creative writing at Stanford University.

"I want to be an actor," Savage said Monday. "But I want to be prepared for life."

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