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For silver spoon scions, the claims of fame

As any child of celebrity's close-knit clan can tell you, membership has its privileges. Just beware of the dues.

July 16, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

YOU can't choose your parents too carefully. This useless bit of advice is usually uttered behind the backs of people who have inherited something widely considered desirable -- wealth, talent, charm, superior intelligence or good looks. The cliche is pregnant with the envy and contempt often reserved for those whose genes and circumstances seem to put them at the head of life's race. And in a ridiculous way, it implies that any upwardly mobile zygote would pick Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw or Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe to be its mom and dad, if it could.

It isn't that Gwyneth Paltrow's parents were better than yours, any more than Kiefer Sutherland's, Charlie Sheen's, Breck Eisner's, Alison Eastwood's or Colin Hanks' were. But they have reached the summit of the entertainment mountain, and could make their kids' ascent easier. Or so the assumption goes. For most people, the most cherished of American fantasies, the one that combines riches and renown, is the impossible dream. Small wonder, then, that when an offspring of well-connected parents achieves stardom -- or anything close -- family ties get credit.

Second-generation Hollywood professionals and their civilian siblings -- especially those from tight-knit, loving clans -- aren't asking anyone to cry them a river, but they know the drawbacks as well as the benefits of their heritage. It can take patience to explain to outsiders how things really are, how not getting recognition for your own hard work, perseverance and creativity can make a pedigree feel like a liability. For someone who's trying to step out of the shadows of famous parents, even mentioning the folks can be self-defeating. And the danger of sounding like an ingrate or a whiner looms. The safe route is to avoid anything that might smack of trading on a well-known surname.

For this story, though, a number of children with a comma permanently attached to their names (, daughter of ...) agreed to explore the attitudes and experiences that qualify them for membership in a special clan. Welcome to the tribe.


The fraternity

"WHEN your parent is famous, you're part of a fraternity," says Sean Astin, son of Patty Duke and John Astin. "If you're one of the celebrity drivers in the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach and there's another guy who's famous and who's the kid of someone famous, you have more in common with each other than with all the other drivers. When you begin your conversation, you're already four or five levels past where other people begin their interaction. There's an understanding of what your common experience is. If you grew up in L.A., you probably went to the same school." (Astin attended Crossroads in Santa Monica.)

Even talking to someone 20 years his senior, Astin says, there's an ease. "We know the same families, we've driven the same streets, we have the same reference points on the Westside."

Members of the tribe can commiserate about artistic parents who were perpetually childlike, about narcissism as an occupational disease. They can complain about the spoiled, rude monsters with unwieldy senses of entitlement whose behavior is seen as the norm. Many learned early about how precarious finances can be in a notoriously unpredictable business, and the fleeting nature of fame. For better or worse, naivete isn't a tribal trait. There is respect for talent and achievement, but proximity to celebrities behaving badly has a way of discouraging hero worship.

Tribe members can admit to one another that, to a kid, reflected glory can taste sweet, and being perceived as strange, sour. In fundamental ways, they aren't that different from people in other tribes, but for them, intergenerational competition, a young adult's struggle for identity and the long-running need for approval -- the sort of parent-child problems that fill any therapist's day -- play on a jumbo-sized, high-definition screen.

Tribal identity trumps geography, religion, politics, age or race. English is the tribe's first language, but members can rely on a wordless shorthand, and if they divulge feelings about their backgrounds, they're likely to do so among their own kind. Clusters of friendships among tribe members develop, because, they say, "We feel we have similar lives." Joely Fisher counts Mariska Hargitay and Laura Dern among her good friends. Dern is tight with Isabella Rossellini and Cecilia Peck.

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