Television audiences today recognize Paul Petersen from speaking out regarding child actor advocacy on shows like E! True Hollywood Story and Child Stars: Their Story (along with other child actors including Danny Bonaduce, Patty Duke and Fred Savage in the latter), and with good reason. The Glendale native got his start on the original Mickey Mouse Club and spent his teenage years as Jeff Stone on the massively popular The Donna Reed Show television series, which can still be seen to this day in reruns on a variety of channels. As a former child star, Petersen was forced to face his demons early on. These days the Southern California resident campaigns for working children worldwide as president and founder of A Minor Consideration. He still counts other child stars from back-in-the-day as friends including Stan Livingston of My Three Sons fame and Leave It to Beaver’s Tony Dow. He continued acting with a recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital and feature films like the David Spade starrer Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star where Petersen was asked to play himself! The accomplished writer (he has over a dozen published books under his belt) has also served as a board member for both unions, S.A.G. (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and agreed to sit down at The Tolucan Times for this exclusive interview.
Ames: How did you land your role on The Donna Reed Show?
Petersen: It was actually three years after I started in the entertainment business. I was one of the original Mousketeers, which was my first professional job, and I built a body of work, which gained the attention of people in the industry, including the film Houseboat with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. When I auditioned for The Donna Reed Show in April of 1958, I was already an experienced actor.
Ames: What was it like co-starring with Cary Grant?
Petersen: It was great! He befriended me, and I thought he was the epitome of the Hollywood “star.” And of course working with Sophia Loren was fantastic. We actually started friendships, which lasted, in Cary Grant’s case, until he died.
Ames: How did The Donna Reed Show change your life?
Petersen: It led to undeniable celebrity, hit records and broad on-sight recognition. Every Thursday night at eight o’clock we came into America’s living rooms at a time when there were only three options, and that was it! There was such a sense of family, and we had a great cast. I was there from ages 12 to 20. When you get an acting job that lasts eight years that is pretty remarkable!
Ames: What made you start the child actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration?
Petersen: It formally started in January of 1990, but I had first written about the subject of kids in show business in a book called Walt, Mickey and Me in the spring of 1977. That is when my eyes were opened to the common threads among kid actors. A Minor Consideration from that formal date really has taken on a life of its own. It led me into areas that I would never have guessed like advocating for all working children; at the end of the day that is what a kid actor is: a working child. I discovered many similarities with other working children like the kids that pick our crops, the 3,000 children in athletics and the 1.5 million that sell products door-to-door. The fundamental thing they share is an exemption from federal child labor laws. If you come from a state like California, an aggressive state with protection, that is one thing, but if you grow up in North Carolina and you are a working child, even in show business, you have no laws to protect you! Once I got involved in this type of advocacy it has continued to grow in its importance, leading to the place where I am now. I am a delegate at the United Nations for the World Safety Organization where I discuss the health and safety of 250 million children 17 and younger who go to work every day. About 90 million of those children are not in school, and they should be! Who do we think is going to run this world as we get older? Uneducated children? That is a pretty big risk.
Ames: What was the number one issue for a child actor when you were one?
Petersen: The ownership of the money was the primary issue and one that deserves a national solution. I believe that in principal the person who does the work should own the money, though in common law the parents own their children. The old law said, “The parents of a working child are entitled to its custody, income and services,” and that makes for a lot of bad feelings as the child reaches adulthood and sees that all of his or her work was really for the benefit of others. That law was changed Jan. 1, 2000.
Ames: And the number one issue with child actors today?
Petersen: I think they are a terrible risk because we seem to have lost moral standards. Younger children are being exposed to things that they are not prepared to cope with. And if you are pushed by an ambitious set of parents and/or a management team, bad choices can be made, and the consequences of that frankly, can be deadly. The first four months of this year certainly proved that from Anna Nicole Smith to Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan, Nicole Richie…how many lives do we need to see impacted negatively before we say, “Wait a second, we [have] got to get a handle on this”?
Ames: What advice do you have for parents of child actors?
Petersen: I support children working in the entertainment industry, but parents need to understand that there is a history and predictable consequences to life in the arts and rather than thinking they [the parents] are smarter than us, they ought to talk to us! A Minor Consideration offers its services free of charge and has been doing so for 18 years. We want children and their families to be safe. What about the impact of the non-famous siblings? That can disrupt a family and throw it off balance. I have seen over and over again the negative effects on the non-famous family members, the suicides and addictions. That is a part of the business I see and a “rookie” does not.
Ames: What do you think the solution to this is?
Petersen: Education, education, education for the parents. They should talk to the people who have been there, not other parents, but quality management people explaining laws, for instance, the fact that a child will miss seven months of school to shoot in Romania because the law there does not provide it. There is help at both the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, which have a very active young performers committee.
Ames: How did you turn out so well?
Petersen: Well I wouldn’t wish my 20s on anyone! I had a really tough time then. The troubles in my life have been awfully public, but by the grace of God I got sober.
Ames: What was your biggest accomplishment as a board member of S.A.G.?
Petersen: I think the passage of our legislative program has been, by any measure, remarkable. In 1995 we had a special gathering of about 600 young performers, and we identified the 10 areas that needed to be fixed [the most]. This included the ownership of the money, preventing premature babies from being hired, straightening out the educational needs of kids and keeping it consistent. It is not national yet, but I think after S.A.G. focuses on these things, it will be realized that we need international standards for children in the entertainment business.
Ames: What do you do for fun?
Petersen: I have a lot of friends in car racing, and I still host the Route 66 Rendezvous in San Bernardino. It started with a few thousand people years ago and now we get 600,000 attendees! Also, much to my surprise, I have started to say “yes” again when people ask me to get involved in their television and movies projects. That has been very satisfying.
Ames: What goal would you still like to accomplish?
Petersen: I am very proud of my television talk show, Aging in L.A., which I do for the Department of Aging. It focuses on senior issues on the City Channel 35 three times a week. I would like to see more attention surrounding seniors in the media like housing issues and healthcare, extended work-life and the like.