ANDREA PLATE WRITES — Forget about Naomi Osaka, for a moment. For all the whining-and-dining out by the press on the tennis superstar’s mental health struggles, and her difficulty facing their not-so-friendly post-game fire, she is, after all, just one international superstar. One.
Forget, too, about Britney Spears, if you will, with her curmudgeonly, hard-drinking conservator dad hulking over her fabulous funds, draining both her financial and fertility resources (what would Texas legislators say about Spears’ conservancy-mandated IUD so as to prohibit her bearing more children)?
Think, instead, about Matthew Mindler, Paul Rudd’s child co-star in the 2011 hit film “Our Idiot Brother,” who committed suicide last week at age 19.
Does anybody care? Apparently not.
Mindler, a freshman at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, was found dead last weekend (August 29) after a forty-person search team located the body in a wooded place near the campus. Pennsylvania’s coroner ruled the death a suicide. At this writing, we don’t know how he did it…except that he did it to himself.
Mindler also appeared in the TV soap “As the World Turns” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” But, said his mother in a recent press report, he hadn’t worked in years.
There’s nothing unusual to this tale. Child stars have been killing themselves throughout history – first, proverbially, by premature, preternaturally hard work (the pressures of the press; the pains of maintaining a public image; the casting calls; the inevitable rejections; the tyranny of ratings-intense work that would challenge the mental and physical health of an adult actor); and later, alas, in real-life, they die by their own hand.
Think Rusty Hamer, everyone’s favorite son on the 1950-‘s-60’s TV show “Make Room for Daddy,” who killed himself at age 42; Jonathan Brandis, the six-year-old Buster Brown model-turned-soap star (“One Life to Live”) who hung himself at age 27 in 2003; Disney Channel TV star Cameron Boyce, who died during a seizure in his sleep one July day in 2019; and more.
Let it be said: There are indeed child stars who survive, and thrive, in adulthood: Ron Howard, the “Andy Griffith” TV star-turned superstar director and producer; and Jane Withers, the mini movie moppet who caricatured that most monstrous child relentlessly tormenting goody-two-shoes Shirley Temple; Withers died recently at the ripe age of 95 (then again, she did re-rocket to fame as the Comet cleaner commercial icon Josephine the Plumber, thereby rising from the cinematic dead. Surely that boosted her mood). But there are also the inevitable child star casualties.
We feel for Britney, perhaps especially, because her dramedy has been acted out to such extremes (can anyone forget that image of the songstress with the shaved head whacking a car with an umbrella)? We feel for Japan’s Osaka too, of course. Too much, too soon and all of that (despite her “Sports Illustrated” cover, her documentary, her recent luxurious real estate acquisitions and her personal fashion brand roll-out). Osaka’s spontaneously weepy post-game press melodramas seem particularly discomfiting, given the trend, still, for Asian cultures to lob mental illness off the court of public awareness.
We feel, too, for all those K-pop stars who preferred suicide to superstardom, South Korean-style, such as Sulli and Goo Hara.
This is a world-wide, tragic phenomenon.
But the American child star suicide syndrome stems from an industry that is uniquely democratic. Kid stars aren’t thrust upon a South Korean-style assembly-line of matching haircuts and clothes. No great shame is associated with mental illness (who doesn’t see a psychiatrist)? The name of the game is the cutthroat competitiveness at the very heart of capitalism. You can be free to be “you”-whether Miley Cyrus in various teeny-bopper and sex bomb incarnations or Jodie Foster playing a child prostitute, a rape victim or an FBI agent-in-training. Those are the lucky, living ones.
Mindler was no superstar. His career went bust. He sank into obscurity, slunk off to a public university and ended his life at the start of a semester. But surely, with his last, fateful act, he ensures his place in that pathetic pantheon of child stars who prefer death to fading stardom. Lights…cameras…action! Can we re-write that final scene?
AMI Senior Editor, who teaches in LMU’s Sociology Dept., is the author of a critically acclaimed book on child actors, Pretty Babies.