Child stars paying it forward
By: Jim Longworth
As a child actor starring in The Rifleman, Johnny Crawford had to memorize lines at a grueling pace. As an adult, he had to memorize lyrics to the songs he sang while conducting his own orchestra. Today at age 73, Johnny’s memory skills have been significantly diminished by Alzheimer’s, and the care he receives is expensive. That’s why his friend and fellow child star Paul Petersen (Jeff on The Donna Reed Show), along with members of Petersen’s support organization, “A Minor Consideration,” started a GoFundMe campaign to lessen the financial burden on Johnny and his wife, Charlotte.
I first met Johnny at the 2014 Western Film Festival and have kept in touch ever since. He and Paul, however, have been friends since 1955 when they were both cast by Walt Disney to be in the original group of Mouseketeers. I spoke with Paul last week about Johnny’s condition, and about the fundraising effort.
Jim: When did you first know that Johnny had Alzheimer’s?
Paul: Last Summer, my wife and I, Tony Dow, Johnny and others were at the Hollywood Museum to honor Annette (Funicello), and we noticed that something was amiss with Johnny. He seemed to be a little confused, but we covered for him because that’s what you do for friends. Later when Charlotte had to put him in a facility, we knew what it was and how severe it was.
Jim: When did you start the GoFundMe campaign?
Paul: Well, we had to get approval from my board of directors, and most importantly we had to get permission from Charlotte because it would be a public affair. She was grateful for the help, and frankly kind of surprised because Johnny had always been the one helping other people, and now, here was the whole bunch of former kid stars taking care of one of their own. So we started the campaign formally about five weeks ago, and it just exploded right out of the gate because people know who Johnny is. He’s like everybody’s brother because we had all watched him grow up on The Rifleman.
In recent years, GoFundMe pages have come to the rescue for people in special circumstances. Last fall, for example, following complications from knee surgery, Dawn Wells, star of Gilligan’s Island, was faced with staggering medical bills. Paul and his gang of former child stars contributed to that fund, which raised over $200,000.
Paul: It’s rare when you try to help someone that all of the monies end up going to the person who needs it. GoFundMe did right by Dawn. And while fundraising efforts like those for Johnny and Dawn offer financial assistance, that’s not the main focus of “A Minor Consideration,” a group that Paul and his wife Rana formed in 1991 to advocate for the rights of child actors and offer them guidance and support as they transition into adulthood.
Paul: In too many instances the parents take the money (that kids make). In fact, in 50% of all the troubles when it comes to high-profile kids, whether it’s sports or music, or the film business, the parents are at fault. They have not prepared the children, and that’s a shame. In other cases, kids are cheated by managers and agents. In the other half of problems, chalk it up to kids who make bad decisions.
Paul knows something about the pitfalls of fame at an early age, and not long after his successful run on The Donna Reed Show, an award-winning former child star took the time to offer him support.
Paul: Mickey Rooney showed up at my front door, barged into my front room, took over my couch, and said, “Paul, you’ve got to get out of town, get your education, and find something else to do because they won’t let you work for 25 years.” And I said, “What the heck are you talking about, Mick? Why are you saying that?” And he said, “Because Paul, it happened to me.” Mickey paid it forward to me, and I have paid it forward by having that same kind of conversation with other prominent kids.
Paul’s pal Johnny Crawford has paid it forward over the years, too, and now, as fans, we can repay Johnny for the great joy he has given us over the years. To donate to the Johnny Crawford Alzheimer’s Fund, visit www.gofundme.com. To learn more about A Minor Consideration, visit www.aminorconsidertation.org.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).