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Spotlight can burn children of the famous

There is a special challenge for a child of a star or stars in coping with the harsh glare of the spotlight while looking for his or her own niche. Plenty of high-profile stories illustrate that.
/ Source: contributor

When Adam Klugman was an adolescent, his dad, the actor Jack Klugman, was arguably at the height of his fame. The elder Klugman had already distinguished himself over the years in films like “12 Angry Men” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” and in a host of television series such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Fugitive.” In the early 1970s he became a household name playing sportswriter Oscar Madison in the television version of “The Odd Couple,” opposite Tony Randall’s Felix Unger.

When Adam Klugman was a teenager, his father’s presence was again all over the small box, in the title role of the series “Quincy, M.E.,” which began in 1976 and ran on NBC for eight seasons. While Jack Klugman was being nominated 10 times for Emmys over the years, winning three, his son was struggling to find his place in the world.

“The glare of somebody else’s personality outshines you,” said Adam Klugman, who became a successful film editor and now runs a business called Progressive Media Agency in Portland, Ore., where he lives with his family. He has also written a screenplay about growing up as the child of a celebrity. “When you have a famous parent, it’s hard to get a good look at yourself, because the glare of the fame is pretty great. You’re struggling with issues of identity anyway as a child, as an adolescent ... .”

Not all children of famous parents wind up as well-adjusted and content as Adam Klugman, as two recent high-profile suicides illustrate. Michael Bryan, the 18-year-old son of Marie Osmond, jumped to his death from a Los Angeles apartment building on Friday, Feb. 26. Reports afterward said Bryan was struggling with depression.

Actor Andrew Koenig, the 41-year-old son of “Star Trek” star Walter Koenig, was found dead in a park in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, Feb. 25, after taking his own life. The former “Growing Pains” star was “obviously in a lot of pain” his father said, and stopped taking antidepressant medication about a year ago.

Meanwhile, Redmond O’Neal, the son of Ryan O’Neal and the late Farrah Fawcett, has been in and out of jail on drug charges. Charlie Sheen has carved out a Hollywood career that probably surpassed the one his father Martin has enjoyed, but he also is known as much for brushes with the law and marital issues as he is for “Two and a Half Men.” And the list goes on.

Of course, there are countless progeny of famous stars who have managed to grow up without incident and lead productive and happy lives. And naturally, offspring of parents who are not famous and were not raised in a fishbowl certainly are prone to having issues.

But there is a special challenge for a child of a star or stars in coping with the harsh glare of the spotlight while looking for his or her own niche.

“I think when a parent who is identified as being special in some way, who has celebrityhood, that can be a standard of comparison for that child,” explained John Altman, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who has treated many children of famous parents. “The child may feel that he or she won’t be able to measure up to this hyperidealized version of the famous parent.

“And some of these kids themselves are often given special attention not for who they are, but who their parents are. They can end up with a greater built-in sense of entitlement or importance that they haven’t established themselves.”

There is often confusion with the real parent and the one on the movie or television screen, Altman said. “I had one kid whose father was a character actor in a lot of movies,” he said. “He recalled one tragic scene where his father died in the movie, and the patient of mine told me he’d weep and cry and thought his father died. He never was sure whether it was real or not.”

Carole Lieberman is another Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who is herself a media personality. She said stars often possess personality characteristics that make parenting more difficult.

“One of the issues is that celebrity parents are more narcissistic and self-absorbed than the average parent,” she said, “and therefore during childhood the celebrity children get less nurturing, less attention, less love, because the parents are absorbed with their own careers. This lack of attention and nurturing leaves a hole in them, leaves an emptiness, which causes a lot of them to turn to drugs and alcohol to fill it up. It leaves them depressed.”

The Douglas family certainly can attest. Eric Douglas, son of legendary Hollywood star Kirk and half-brother to Michael, died of a drug overdose in 2004 after years of difficulty. And although Michael Douglas rose to become as big a star as his father, he also fought many demons, battling an addiction to alcohol and enduring a failed marriage before finally becoming sober. In the April issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Douglas speaks candidly about how he put his own career before the raising of his son, Cameron.

Lieberman said fame often takes a personal issue between parent and child and presents it for everyone to see, which in turn creates even more pain. “A good example is Alec Baldwin, when he left that phone message for his daughter,” she said. “The whole world found out about that, about how her father demeaned her.

“When celebrities have affairs or go through divorces or use drugs or whatever it is, it’s very hard for the children to go to school, where they are often taunted by other children.”

In that regard, the media can be a willing conspirator in exacerbating conflict between famous parent and child and making matters worse, noted Robert J. Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University who specializes in television and popular culture.

“We perceive famous people almost in the same mode as the Greek gods were perceived,” he said. “If you have parents from the pantheon, then the kids are interesting by the very fact that they have such spectacular genes.

“Does the media cause such problems? Of course. When we say fame, we’re talking about fame created by media attention. That’s how one becomes famous, by being in movies, by becoming rock stars.”

Thompson explained that simply being the children of famous parents doesn’t necessarily promise that trouble is ahead. “It’s hard to make a generalization,” he explained. “It depends on the parents and how they interact with the media. You have one extreme in Jon and Kate Gosselin, who use their kids as the prime source of the whole creation of their celebrity identity. But then you have a lot of children of celebrities who are really famous who we would not recognize if we ran into them.

“We get a disproportionate sense of celebrity kids if they get into trouble, because every time they get into trouble we hear about it.”

Adam Klugman managed to avoid that trap, although for a time he sought the limelight also. When he was 18, he went off to live in New York and trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to become an actor like his father. Eventually, he decided he was too private a person to pursue that life. After years of living in Los Angeles, he moved his family to Oregon, where he found that a more stable home life and an environment that didn’t include show business translated into contentment.

“Unless someone is making a concerted effort to forge a reliable family structure, it tends to be an unstable environment for children,” he said. “That’s more the issue than anything.”