The 80s seemed to be a golden era for “that kid,” young actors whose familiar faces, if not particularly familiar names, always seemed to pop up on one TV show or another. There was Meeno Peluce (Silver Spoons, The Bad News Bears, The Love Boat, countless other sitcoms), Ronnie Scribner (Fantasy Island, Little House on the Prairie, Ralphie Glick in the TV movie adaptation of Salem’s Lot), Matthew Labyorteaux (The Love Boat, Little House on the Prairie, Amazing Stories), among many other names that nowadays are only brought up in advanced bar trivia competitions.
Then there was Dana Hill, who appeared in neither The Love Boat or Little House on the Prairie. You might not immediately recall her name, but you’d definitely recognize her–her best known role was probably the second Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but she also had memorable dramatic roles in Shoot the Moon and Fallen Angel, the first TV movie to address the scourge of child pornography. If Dana Hill seemed like a world weary adult in the body of a kid, she sort of was–type-1 diabetes stunted her growth, allowing her to play characters years younger than she actually was. Sadly, by the late 80s the illness began to take a toll on Hill’s appearance, limiting her to voiceover work, and in 1996 she passed away from a diabetes-related stroke. Unlike her male counterparts Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, Hill wasn’t aggressively cute and cuddly, instead giving her roles, even in light comedies, a uniquely melancholy touch.
That melancholy touch is downright unsettling in 1980’s What Are Friends For?, one of the more bizarre episodes of ABC’s Afterschool Special. Essentially a cautionary tale for parents–don’t get divorced or your kids might lose their fucking minds–it’s about two mismatched young girls who (at least temporarily) ignore their differences and bond over their respective broken families.
Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever to follow a celebrity’s decline. Even celebrities no one cares about, such as Kardashians in-laws or former cast members of The Bachelor, get 24 hour coverage, and the more often that coverage catches them doing something undignified, the more entertaining it is. Britney Spears looking fit and happy at the People’s Choice Awards? Borrrrrrring. Britney Spears crying in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot while power eating a Thickburger? Now you’re talking. We’re nothing if not a bit sadistic, particularly when it comes to misfortune befalling the people we envy.
Though tabloid culture certainly existed sixty years ago, it didn’t have that play by play discussion of every failed relationship, coke binge, and nip slip that exists today. Without Perez Hilton around to draw spurting penises on their foreheads with MS Paint, yesterday’s stars fell a little more slowly and quietly, but with no less sadness.
Orson Welles’s career trajectory wasn’t so much sad as it was puzzling. How do you go from writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane to narrating a song on a Manowar album? Despite being one of the finest actors and filmmakers in the golden age of movies, Welles, particularly in later years, couldn’t get a nickel tossed in his direction for his projects, most of which, if they ever got off the ground at all, were never completed due to either lack of finances, interest, or both. It’s mind boggling to imagine Orson goddamn Welles having to scrape together his own resources to finance projects, when today producers continue to throw enormous piles of money at people like Adam Sandler, despite ever diminishing returns. Nevertheless, old Hollywood, while more glamorous, was also rather more cutthroat, and Welles, while a critically acclaimed auteur, was never a smash at the box office. If he wanted something done at all, he had to do it himself.
If such a thing can possibly be “trendy,” there was a strange but necessary uptick in TV shows and movies about child molestation during the mid-80s. Like eating disorders and domestic violence a couple years earlier, it was a significant real-life issue that Hollywood just seemed to sort of discover one day. In addition to the critically acclaimed Something About Amelia, normally lighthearted sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes, Webster, and Mr. Belvedere all had episodes dedicated to a young person being sexually abused by an adult they’d learned to trust. Naturally there was an ABC Afterschool Special on the subject as well, as young people with problems to overcome were the very lifeblood of the series.
Needless to say, Don’t Touch is a jarring change of pace from The Day My Kid Went Punk. It’s like eating a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, and then the next bite has horseradish in it. But let us bravely proceed…