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Child Actors Who Returned With Memorable Roles After A Lengthy Acting Break

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There are multiple trajectories that a child actor can take, and not all of them are positive. Time and time again, we have seen kid stars devolve into a life of struggle — familial issues with overzealous stage parents, substance abuse, problems with the law. Sadly, it is also not uncommon for some child actors — from River Phoenix to Brad Renfro to Jonathan Brandis — to die far too early, often times from the pressures and effects of growing up in Hollywood.

An alternate path for child actors is leaving the business altogether, which many of them do once they age out of adolescent roles. "Matilda" star Mara Wilson, for instance, left the business after she was no longer "cute" enough post-puberty (via The Guardian). "iCarly" star Jenette McCurdy not only retired from acting after her mother died, but she has said she is "so ashamed" of her past roles (via "Empty Inside"). For every young actor who has continued acting post-adolescence, there are likely two or three who have left the business altogether. Less common are those child thespians who step away from acting for a break and later return with a memorable role (or more than one). For a kid actor, a lengthy break can totally disrupt the flow of one's career, perhaps even more so than for an established adult actor. Here are 15 child actors who returned with memorable roles after a prolonged absence from the business.

Anna Chlumsky

Anna Chlumsky won America's hearts when she starred as Vada Sultenfuss in the 1991 film "My Girl," only her second project after a tiny part in 1989's "Uncle Buck." Chlumsky followed that up with a less successful but still charming sequel ("My Girl 2") and plumb roles in films like "Trading Mom" and "Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain." Things started to dry up for Chlumsky around 1997, and she stopped acting entirely in 1998 when she went to college. "As a kid, you're just along for the ride, but it can be extremely damaging," she told People magazine in February 2022. "[In college] I had this out-of-body moment where I realized, 'I don't have to do this anymore.'"

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Chlumsky told People that she did not immediately return to acting, instead taking on entry-level journalism jobs like fact checker (at Zagat) and editorial assistant (at Harper Collins). But she found she could only stay away for so long, and eventually enrolled in acting school before jumping back into the craft fulltime. She returned to the business with a short film in 2005, but hit it big in 2012 when she scored a main role in HBO's political comedy "Veep." Chlumsky received six Primetime Emmy Award nominations for playing Amy Brookheimer in the show, and it remains the highlight of her career. She has since starred in the Netflix miniseries "Inventing Anna," and can next be seen in Peacock's original film, "They/Them."

Sosie Bacon

It is not at all uncommon for the children of big-name celebrities to appear in some of their parents' projects. We have seen this happen time and time again, with actors like Maude Apatow (daughter of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann), Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), and Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) — all of whom now have established careers as adult thespians. One celebrity spawn who gets less attention is Sosie Bacon, daughter of actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. Bacon started acting in 2005, when she appeared as the 10-year-old version of her mother's character in the film "Loverboy." She then appeared in four episodes of her mother's show, "The Closer," in 2009, after which point she stopped acting for a while.

According to Business Insider, Bacon attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, through at least her senior year. In 2014, she was named Ms. Golden Globe, which is around the same time that she picked up her acting career. She had nine projects in 2014 and 2015, with the most pivotal one being a small role in "Scream: The TV Series." Bacon has continued to work steadily in the years since, and has had a number of memorable roles. These have included appearing as Skye Miller in the early seasons of "13 Reasons Why," a main role in the one-season HBO series "Here and Now," and a heartbreaking turn as a struggling young mother in the HBO miniseries "Mare of Easttown."

Mayim Bialik

As far as child stars go, Mayim Bialik has always seemed to have her head screwed on straight. The popular actor began in show business before she even hit her teens, appearing in TV series like "Webster" and "Molloy" before becoming super famous as the titular character in the sitcom "Blossom," which aired from 1990 to 1995. Despite her success as a kid actor, Bialik has expressed mixed feelings about children acting professionally. In a post for her website Grok Nation, Bialik discussed how she sees theatre as valuable for kids, but how performing on cue can take an emotional toll. She also said she does not consider herself a "child actor" because she started in middle school (we disagree, clearly).

Bialik largely stopped acting for a decade, from 1995 to 2005, except for some voice work and two or three small guest spots in low-profile shows like "Welcome to Paradox." She had a memorable three-episode stint on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in 2005 and played a doctor in 10 episodes of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," but it was Bialik's casting as Amy Farrah Fowler in "The Big Bang Theory" that completely altered her career. She joined the show in 2010, appeared in more than 200 episodes, and received four Primetime Emmy Award nominations in addition to other accolades. She currently has her own sitcom, "Call Me Kat," and has been guest hosting "Jeopardy" in her "spare" time. Perhaps most impressively, Bialik utilized her time away from Hollywood to earn multiple degrees, including a doctorate in neuroscience that she completed in 2007 at UCLA.

Thora Birch

Thora Birch is now approaching middle age, but if you remember her as a precocious youngster, you are not alone. Birch took on her first film role at the tender age of six, when she appeared in "Purple People Eater." She then went on to film multiple television shows, including "Day by Day" and "Parenthood," but really established herself as a child star with her film work. Her early films include the Halloween classic "Hocus Pocus," coming-of-age drama "Now and Then," and the comedy "Monkey Trouble." She continued acting throughout her teenage years and garnered much acclaim with roles in critical faves like "American Beauty" and "Ghost World." Then the actor somewhat vanished.

Per her IMDb page, Birch had only seven onscreen acting credits between 2006 and 2017, and she appears to have stopped acting entirely from 2012 to 2016. This is not entirely surprising, given that the actor's father was notoriously heavy-handed. According to the New York Times, Jack Birch was allegedly intrusive on sets, even after his daughter reached adulthood. He was apparently on set when his daughter filmed a sex scene in 2007, at age 25, and even got her fired from a play in 2010 when he threatened one of her co-stars. Given her innate talent, Birch has thankfully returned to acting in recent years. She dipped her toe back in with smaller film roles and recurring parts on shows like "The Colony" and "The Walking Dead," and has a main role in the upcoming Netflix series, "Wednesday."

Macaulay Culkin

When it comes to child actors, Macaulay Culkin is arguably one of the most famous there ever was. Culkin was just five years old when he made his first (uncredited) appearance in a film but became massively famous at age 10 with his iconic role as Kevin McCallister in the 1990 film "Home Alone." Over the next handful of years, he racked up many credits, starring in films such as "My Girl," "The Good Son," and "The Pagemaster." After appearing as the title character in the "Richie Rich" film in 1994, Culkin stepped away from acting for nearly a full decade (save for a couple of music videos).

Culkin "retired" from acting in his early teens because he no longer wanted to do it, but also because it allowed him to stop bankrolling his parents. He became emancipated at age 14 and has said his father was abusive. "I had been wanting to take a break for a while and eventually I was like, 'I'm done guys, hope you all made your money because there is no more coming from me,'" Culkin told comedian Marc Maron on his podcast "WTF" in 2018. Culkin returned to the screen on his own terms in 2003, with an acclaimed role in the film "Party Monster." He has since had memorable parts in movies like "Saved!" and in television series such as "American Horror Story."

Kieran Culkin

Given how successful Macaulay Culkin was as a child, many people forget that his siblings Rory and Kieran both acted as children as well. Kieran, in particular, has been able to achieve tremendous success as an adult after a time away from the limelight. Kieran – who is two years younger than Macaulay – began his acting career with a small part in "Home Alone," after which he worked steadily in films like "Only the Lonely," "Father of the Bride," and "Nowhere to Run." He notched more than a dozen screen credits by the time he turned 18 in 2000 and, two years later, established himself as a budding adult star with an acclaimed role in "Igby Goes Down," for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

After "Igby," Kieran did not appear on screen for six years — though he did have a few stage roles during that time. "I would not have been able to handle whatever kind of success or attention came from that. So I quite literally ran away from it," he told The Hollywood Reporter. Kieran Culkin returned to acting full-time in 2008, and his career hit new heights in 2018, when he originated the role of Roman Roy on the successful HBO show "Succession." For his work on the series thus far, Culkin has been nominated for one Primetime Emmy Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and one individual Screen Actors Guild Award (he also won a SAG Award as part of the "Succession" cast in 2022).

Brooke Shields

She is nearly 60 now, so younger generations probably do not know how big of a star Brooke Shields was back when she was a wee one. Per Women's Wear Daily, Shields was less than a year old when she got her start in modeling — for Ivory Soap, in that instance — and she continued to model throughout her early life. Shields was famously part of a provocative campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans as a teenager, is the youngest person ever to land on the cover of Vogue (per Bravo TV), and her eyebrows alone have inspired many a beauty article. But Shields is not just known as a model, and her acting career began similarly early. She controversially played a child sex worker in the 1978 film "Pretty Baby," and as a teen, appeared in fare like "The Blue Lagoon," "Endless Love," and "Sahara."

After professionally working for literally her entire life, Shields took some time off between 1984 and 1988 to attend Princeton University, from which she graduated with honors (per The Chicago Tribune). She re-entered Hollywood upon her graduation and, in 1996, landed her biggest role to date, the lead in the sitcom "Suddenly Susan," which aired for four seasons and earned Shields two Golden Globe Award nominations. Shields has continued to work steadily in the years since her sitcom ended, appearing mostly in television. Her adult credits include "Lipstick Jungle," "Jane the Virgin," and "That '70s Show."

Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett has become an incredibly controversial figure within the last few years, after his 2019 arrest for filing a false report after allegedly staging a hate crime. He was found guilty in December 2021 (per the BBC) and is facing an uphill battle for a career resurgence — though he has convinced BET+ to host his directorial debut, "B-Boy Blues," according to Variety. Prior to his arrest, Smollett was on a career high after many years in the business. 

In fact, the actor had not even reached the double digits when he made his screen debut in the 1991 TV movie, "A Little Piece of Heaven." Smollett was never a huge deal as a kid actor, but he worked steadily throughout the early 1990s, including on the one-season TV series "On Our Own," which co-starred his actual siblings (sister Jurnee is the most successful of the clan). He stopped acting in 1995 and did not return to the screen for more than a decade, dipping his toe back in with a short film in 2009. He rose to fame in 2015 when he was cast in a lead part on "Empire," the Fox musical drama that lasted for six seasons. His character was phased out of the last couple of episodes of the fifth season, and did not appear during the final season of the show at all as his scandal made headlines.

Mackenzie Phillips

As the daughter of a famous singer, actor Mackenzie Phillips was born into a Hollywood family and it is not surprising that, like her younger half-siblings Bijou and Chynna, she ended up in the entertainment business. But the eldest Phillips' early start led to a life filled with struggle, including much-publicized addiction issues and an incestuous relationship with her own father (which she discussed in her book, "High on Arrival"). Fortunately, Phillips has in her later years found stability and happiness, and she is now working as a counselor for others struggling with substance addiction.

Phillips began her acting career in 1973 with a small role in a TV film, "Doris," and a part in the classic "American Graffiti." She rose to prominence a couple of years later as rebellious teenager Julie Cooper on "One Day at a Time," which remains her most significant role to date. Phillips was 25 by the end of the nine-season run, and she left acting for music a year later in 1986. It was not until 1994 that she returned to the screen, mostly for guest spots on shows like "Melrose Place" and "Caroline in the City." In 1999, Phillips finally found another memorable part, playing a rocker mom in the Disney show "So Weird." She has also had noteworthy roles on "Orange Is The New Black" and the "One Day at a Time" reboot series.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Haley Joel Osment

The list of children who have been nominated for Oscars is short, so Haley Joel Osment's 2000 Academy Award nod for his work in "The Sixth Sense" is significant. Osment was 11 years old at the time of his nomination, and he remains one of the youngest nominees of all time (per The New York Post). The actor had already been in show business for half a decade, starting with commercials and very quickly transitioning to film. One of his first parts was playing a young Forrest in "Forrest Gump," and he also had main roles on the television series "Thunder Alley" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show."

Osment had nearly two dozen acting credits before "The Sixth Sense," but that is the role that took him to the next level. After his Oscar nom, Osment had high-profile leading roles in films such as "Pay It Forward" and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." He never officially retired from acting, but Osment took on only voice work between the years of 2005 and 2012 (with one exception). Though he got into a bit of trouble with a DUI at age 18 (per People magazine), Osment got things back on track and graduated from New York University during his acting hiatus (per The New York Times). He started appearing on-camera again in 2013, starting with the television series "Alpha House," and has established himself well as an adult thespian with roles in television series such as "Future Man" and "The Kominsky Method."

Cole Sprouse

Twins have always been really popular amongst child actors, particularly babies and toddlers, as labor laws limit the amount of time very young children can spend on a set. Along with the Olsen twins and the Mowry twins, the Sprouse twins are up there in terms of fame. But while both Dylan and Cole Sprouse worked as child actors, only one of them – Cole – has come back to acting full time since they both took a hiatus to attend college. Even then, he once told Teen Vogue that he almost quit for good.

Sprouse made his acting debut before he was even a year old, when he started appearing as Patrick Kelly in the sitcom "Grace Under Fire." He and his brother shared this role, much like they did with other big gigs like playing Ross's son Ben on "Friends" and Adam Sandler's adopted son Julian in the comedy "Big Daddy." To kids of their generation, the Sprouse brothers are perhaps best known as Zack and Cody Martin, mischievous twin brothers featured on the Disney program "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" and its spinoff "The Suite Life on Deck." Cole Sprouse did not act at all between 2011 and 2017 (save for one appearance as himself), mostly to attend New York University and study archeology (via Teen Vogue). He is now more famous than ever, due to his role as Jughead Jones on The CW's "Riverdale," which was recently renewed for its seventh season.

Andrea Barber

Andrea Barber started her career in 1982, at age six, when she began appearing as Carrie Brady on the soap opera "Days of Our Lives." She remained on "Days" until 1986, during which time she also did guest stints on other television series. Her true claim to fame, however, is her scene-stealing role as D.J. Tanner's best friend and neighbor Kimmy Gibbler on the iconic sitcom "Full House." Per her IMDb page, Barber appeared in 146 episodes of the show between 1987 and 1995 — and then left the entertainment business. "I know a lot of people who play outlandish characters like this do struggle with typecasting or just being seen as that. I never struggled," Barber told E! News in 2020. "I left the business at 18 just because my heart wasn't in acting anymore ... I wanted to go to college and learn new things and just do other things besides acting."

Thankfully for us "Full House" fans, Barber was willing to come out of retirement to return to the role that made her famous when Netflix launched a spinoff, "Fuller House," in 2016. The show ran for five seasons, but Barber may stick with acting this time, telling E! News, "I've got the bug now. I would love to continue if it's still doing comedy because I think that's my sweet spot and I love it so much." Barber has since appeared in guest roles on two series, "Minutiae" and "That Girl Lay Lay."

Diane Lane

Diane Lane has been a Hollywood heavyweight for decades. The actor started her screen career in the film "A Little Romance," back in 1979 when she was only 13 years old. She had already been acting in the theatre before that (per Esquire) and became a teen star, with roles in films such as "Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains," "The Outsiders," and "Rumble Fish." After making two movies in 1984 — "Streets of Fire" and "The Cotton Club" — Lane decided to step away from acting at the age of 19.

According to Hello magazine, Lane moved to Georgia during her hiatus from Hollywood. While some sources, like The Herald, have suggested Lane retired because "The Cotton Club" was a flop, others have said it had more to do with rebuilding her relationship with her mother. "I hadn't been close to my mom for a long time, so we had a lot of homework to do. We had to repair our relationship because I wanted my mother back," Lane told the Los Angeles Times. Two years after her 1987 return to acting, she received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for her work in the miniseries "Lonesome Dove." She has since been nominated for many awards, including an Oscar for her role in the film "Unfaithful." Other standout projects include "A Walk on the Moon," "Trumbo," and playing Superman's Earth mom, Martha Kent, in "Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

Gaby Hoffmann

Gaby Hoffman has lived an unconventional life for sure. The popular child star grew up in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, and started acting at age four to help pay the family's bills (per The Guardian). Her movie debut was in 1989's "Field of Dreams," after which she starred with Hollywood giants in films like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Man Without A Face." She was also successful as a teenager, with performances in "Now and Then," "Everyone Says I Love You," and "200 Cigarettes." Hoffmann continued appearing in films until 2001, at which point she decided to step away from the screen.

"I always was planning on giving it up. I never set out to be an actor," she told NPR. "I always knew, since I was seven or eight years old, that it was a means to an end and that I wanted to go to college." After attending Bard College, Hoffmann was ambivalent about getting back into the business, but eventually decided to try things out as an adult. A decade later, she found major success with a recurring role in the TV series "Girls," for which she received one Primetime Emmy nomination, and a main role on Amazon's "Transparent," for which she received two. Hoffmann has also done some amazing work in smaller films, such as "Obvious Child" and "C'Mon C'Mon."

Alicia Goranson

Alicia (Lecy) Goranson is mostly known for playing the original Becky Conner on the sitcom "Roseanne," which she started doing in 1988 at age 13. She remained with the show for five seasons, eventually leaving to attend Vassar College. In addition to "Roseanne," Goranson appeared in "How to Make an American Quilt," but she was not as prolific as some other child stars of her era. After leaving "Roseanne" in 1992, Goranson appeared on the show a few more times through 1996, but did not act again until 1999. "I really missed just having a regular life," she told Parade in 2019. "I craved being in a real classroom and not just a studio schoolroom and having the opportunity to be around my peers."

Goranson returned to the business with a juicy role in the heartbreaking film "Boys Don't Cry," but disappeared again until she popped up with a guest spot on a 2004 episode of "Sex and the City." She continued to work sporadically, but mostly in small guest roles that received little notice. In 2018, Goranson returned to prominence when "Roseanne" was rebooted. After the real-life Roseanne was fired, the show was renamed "The Conners" in an attempt to refocus on the rest of the family but preserve what worked. ABC has renewed "The Conners" for Season 5, and Goranson's Becky remains a big part of the spinoff's focus.