Parade Magazine - Sunday, March 5, 2000
'I Had A Chance To Finally Break Free' - An Interview by Tom Seligson
It wasn't just that Rick Schroder needed the job -- it was a chance to finally break free.
'I Wanted This So Bad, It Hurt'
There have been times I alsmost got a persecution complex," said Rick Schroder. "I felt like people wouldn't let me grow up. They always saw me as a smiling kid or goofy teenager, no matter how much I'd changed."
When he was only 8, "Ricky," as he was then known, was cast alongside Jon Voight in Franco Zeffirelli's remake of The Champ. His tearful performance won a Golden Globe Award and made him an international star. Them, from age 12 to 17, he starred as rich kid Ricky Stratton in the popular sitcom Silver Spoons. After the series ended in 1987, Schroder faced the problem of all former child actors -- the pressure to find work as an adult and to begin leading a normal life offscreen. The difficult adjustment has caused many to resort to drugs, crime, even suicide.
But Rick Schroder has survived, even flourished. At 29, he's happily married and the father of three. And in 1998 he won the coveted role of Detective Danny Sorenson on NYPD Blue, the character created to replace Jimmy Smits. Schroder was well received by critics and fans alike.
How, I wondered, had Schroder succeeded when so many other former child performers fail? And what has success meant for him the second time around?
We met on the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles, where NYPD Blue is filmed. Tall and athletically thin, Schroder appears older than his years, the lines on his forehead and cheeks adding character to the deep blue eyes and expressive features that distinguished him as a child. He is friendly and down-to-earth, and as we sat in his trailer, Schroder was open about the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a star while in second grade and what enabled him to handle the challenges he has faced ever since.
Schroder was born on Staten Island, the least urban borough of New York. "My parents knew one another from junior high school," he said, the traces of a New York City accent still evident in his voice. "My father was a phone repairman for AT&T who worked his way up to management. My mother also worked for the phone company but quit after my sister and I were born."
Schroder started going on photo shoots when he was only 3 months old and was successful right away. "I was very outgoing," he said. "And a good-looking kid. I started doing all the catalogs. I made 60 commercials by the time I was 6. I must have been a natural, because I never took an acting lesson."
Did he enjoy it? "I never had any bad memories of it," he said. "My mother was the best mother. I remember when I was doing The Champ, I was playing on the ground, getting grass stains on my pants. The wardrobe person told me to sit down and behave, that I was in wardrobe. My mother rushed over and said, 'Well you better get threee changes of pants for him, because there's no way he's going to be expected to act like a little robot. He's a little boy, and if he gets dirty, so be it.' That was her attitude. She protected me and tried to keep it all as normal as possible."
But it was hardly normal for a 9-year-old to win a Golden Globe for "Best New Male Star of the Year" or to go on a three-month publicity trip around the world. "I met the Queen, the Pope, and we went all over Europe and Asia," Schroder recalled. "I just wish I was older when I did all this. Then I could appreciate it more."
Schroder's success in The Champ led to other movies and then to Silver Spoons, which required him to move to L.A. "My father kept his job in New York and flew back and forth every weekend," he said. "My parents weren't together five days a week. They really sacrificed for my career."
Schroder now realizes he made his own sacrifices. "I left school in the third grade," he said. "I had a private tutor on the set. I always thought I had a problem socially, because I was pulled out of school so early. I had a tough time talking to other kids and being comfortable with them."
When Silver Spoons ended, Schroder's parents enrolled him in Calabasas High School near Los Angeles, hoping to give him a taste of real life. "It was hard," he recalled. "The other kids didn't know what to think of me. I didn't know what to think of them. We just didn't mix. And there were all these things I wasn't used to. Like being in class for six hours a day. And having to raise your hand to speak. When I was with my tutor, I didn't have to raise my hand," he said, laughing.
After high school, Schroder spent a couple of years drifting. We talked about how hard it is for so many child actors to carve out new and fulfilling lives once they no longer are in demand. "I think one of the things that saved me is that I never put all my eggs in one basket," Schroder said. "There are a lot of other things I enjoy in life."
When he was 20, Schroder bought a 15,000-acre working cattle ranch near Grand Junction, Colo. "I really fell in love with ranching and farming and the wildlife," he said. "You know, if I weren't an actor, I'd be a wildlife biologist or forest ranger." But he never completely stopped acting. "I'd work once or twice a year in a TV movie," he said. "Just enough to keep my toe in the door."
It was in Canda, while shooting the TV movie Blood River (1991), that he met a student named Andrea Bernard. "I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," he said. "And we became good friends. She's one of the only people I've ever been comfortable enough to just talk to and be myself. She's my first real adult love."
Schroder was only 22 and Andrea 20 when they married. They now have two sons and a daughter. "I always knew I was going to be a family man," he said emphatically. For eight years, Schroder hung out on his ranch and helped raise his kids, leaving only to do the occasional TV movie. "I thought I could be totally happy and satisfied like that," he said. "But then it started to scare me that I'd become so complacent. What had been so important to me all my life -- acting -- was no longer a priority."
(photo caption: "When I learned I got the job on NYPD Blue, I felt myself fill up with happiness and pride. That I'd stuck it out, and it worked out. It was very sweet.")
(Schroder with his wife, Andrea, and their children (l-r) Holden, 8, Luke, 6, and Cambrie, 3).
But Hollywood didn't exactly open its arms. Many in the business still saw Schroder as a child star. "There were times I couldn't even get an audition," he said. "I refused to let it get to me. I'm not a quitter. I never have been. I've also come to learn that if you make goals, you can turn your thoughts into actions."
(photo caption: From age 12 to 17, he starred in TV's Silver Spoons with Joel Higgins as his father. After that, he did only occasional TV movies, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, again with (Jon) Voight.)
His goal was to get back on a weekly series, preferably a cop show. When word got out that Jimmy Smits was leaving NYPD Blue, "I told my agent I gotta get in on that," Schroder said. He was able to land an audition. Three months went by before the producers finally called back. They'd auditioned 40 actors, and the list was now down to three.
"I wanted this so bad that it hurt," he said. "I could taste it. It wasn't just because I wanted the job. For me, this was an opportunity to finally break free of the chain that I felt had been around my neck. When I learned that I'd made it, I felt myself fill up with happiness and pride in myself. That I'd stuck it out, you know, and it worked out. It was very sweet."
Schroder said he has no intention of putting his own children in front of the camera. "If they want to become actors when they're a lot older, then I'll support them, but not before," he explained. "It's difficult being a child actor. I don't think everything beautiful has to be exploited. Some things can be beautiful and left beautiful."
There was a knock on the door. Schroder was needed back on the set. As we walked from the trailer, I told him he seemed remarkably mature. "I don't know why it is," he said, "but sometimes I feel like I'm 60. It's like I've been around for a long time. I felt that way even when I was 8."
And as for how he has succeeded when so many others haven't, he had a ready answer. "I've been very blessed. My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted. When you grow up in a household like that, you learn to believe in yourself. Consequently, my ego and self-esteem have never been locked up just in acting. So, when I'm succeeding or failing, I'm still the same person." He smiled. "This is merely what I do. It's not who I am."
© 2000, Parade Magazine