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California and the West

Bill Would Protect Child Stars' Earnings

Legislation: The measure, which also covers athletes and singers, would require that 15% of the money be put in a trust.

April 25, 1999|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The plot goes something like this:

Child becomes a Hollywood star. Child makes a lot of money. Child turns 18 and--you guessed it--there's no money left.

It happened to former actress Mimi Gibson, and now she's pushing for a law to make sure it doesn't happen again.

A bill before the state Senate would require that 15% of a child star's gross earnings be set aside in trust until the minor turns 18. It would also make a child actor's income the legal property of the minor, not the family, as it is under current law.

The measure also covers minors in the professional music and sports worlds, from ice skaters to singers and tennis players.

"When you find out that you've worked all those years and you have nothing, the despair you feel is horrible," said Gibson, who estimates she earned $100,000 from performances in 35 movies and 100 television shows before turning 20. "This is a great way to protect kids."

Written by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the bill would update a law named for child actor Jackie Coogan, a popular silent film star whose $4-million fortune was squandered by his mother and stepfather.

The Coogan Law allows a court considering a minor's contract with a studio to order that half of the child's net income be set aside until he or she turns 18.

Enacted in 1938, the law initially worked quite well. But today, very few child actors--as few as 5%, by one count--perform under contracts approved by a court. Typically, studios seek court approval of contracts only to prevent major stars from backing out of a movie or television series deal.

"The work patterns in the industry have changed," said Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild. "Now, most children work on a freelance basis" as day players in commercials, movies and television shows.

That means the majority of child stars find their income is at risk if their parents have free-spending habits--which, apparently, many do.

Take Gary Coleman, former star of television's "Diff'rent Strokes." In 1993, a court awarded Coleman nearly $1.3 million in a lawsuit that alleged that his parents improperly profited from his financial success.

And how about Shirley Temple, perhaps the most famous child star ever. Temple, the smiling tap dancer whose likeness inspired an Ideal doll that became a collector's item, was said to be worth $4 million by the time she was 12. When she reached adulthood, there wasn't much left.

"Whether siphoned off as expense or investment, my salary checks had ended up in other purses," Temple wrote in her autobiography. "Through all those hoary [financial] records one human theme pulsed loud and clear: Keep dancing, kid, or the rickety card house collapses."

Gibson had an agent before she turned 3, and began appearing in movies shortly thereafter. She had roles in "Houseboat" with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, as well as in "The Children's Hour" and "The Three Faces of Eve."

"I worked constantly," she recalled. "My father died when I was a baby. My mother brought me and my sister to L.A. and we all lived off my income."

When Gibson turned 18, she learned that her earnings had all been spent: "My mom felt really bad, but she wasn't very good with money. I was very angry and upset."

Instead of obtaining a college degree, Gibson "got married at 20 to get away from my mom." The two later reconciled, but the experience has gnawed at Gibson over the years, throughout her career in real estate--even after the death of her mother.

Now Gibson is striving to help future generations of child performers through the Screen Actors Guild and an advocacy group called A Minor Consideration. It was founded by Paul Petersen, a child actor best known for his role as Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show."

Petersen said there are many "quality parents who do what's right for their children," but "thousands of horror stories" as well: "For many kids, there is a day of reckoning, when you look your parents in the eye and say, 'Where's the money?' All too often the answer is, 'It's gone.' "

Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), a child actress who played Zelda on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," confirmed that many of her friends in the industry "ended up with nothing."

"I was very lucky," said Kuehl, who is coauthor of the Burton bill. "My parents grew up quite poor and had no love of money. So they put all my earnings away."

Masur of the Screen Actors Guild said a child's earnings do not always dwindle for illegitimate reasons. Single parents, for example, often find they must give up their jobs in order to support a child star's career.

"When a child works in this industry, a parent is required by law to show up at every audition, every work site," Masur said. "This can put a tremendous strain on a family's income . . . and may mean there is no principal earner in the family other than the child."

Burton's bill, he said, would "ensure kids are protected through a mandated contribution" to a trust fund or savings account. In the event of an emergency, parents could petition the court for access to the money.

The bill would also make another significant change in the law, shifting legal possession of a child's earnings from the parents to the minor. Parents would have the right and responsibility to spend the income to care for the child, but a minor could sue later to recover funds he or she considered ill spent.

"This is important," Masur said, "because it means the funds have to be accounted for and the child has a real legal claim to take action if they feel they have not been well served."

The legislation, which has no organized opposition, has passed one committee and is awaiting action by the full Senate.

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