The difficulty in selecting who should be considered among the 10 best American child actors lies in determining who should be considered a child actor. Technically, teenage actors are child actors. But, teens often play roles that entail adult themes. Accordingly, this list of ten best American child actors includes only children who achieved fame during their preteen years. These actors may have had significant teen careers that merit consideration, but their later success was built on popularity from performances when they were indisputably children.
Shirley Temple. Temple is easily the best American child actor in movie history. Her career began at the age of three. Blockbuster movies such as “Bright Eyes,” “Heidi,” “Curly Top,” “The Littlest Rebel,” and many others made her an enormous studio asset. Temple's adult movie career faltered, but she flourished as a public servant.
Jackie Cooper. Cooper's big break came when he was selected to play in the “Our Gang” comedies. Cooper received an Oscar nomination at the age of nine for his performance in the movie “Skippy.” His achieved his greatest fame as an American child actor for his numerous collaborations with actor Wallace Berry, particularly “The Champ” and “Treasure Island.” As an adult, Copper has done some acting, but he has really made his mark as a talented entertainment executive.
Ron Howard. Howard was an integral part of the success of “The Andy Griffith Show.” He also appeared in movies and starred in the TV show “Happy Days.” Eventually, he pursued his dream of directing and producing movies and became one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood.
Macaulay Culkin. Culkin rose to fame starring in the blockbuster hits “Home Alone,” and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” As an adult, he has sometimes struggled in both his personal and professional lives.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Although most lists of American child actors count these two twins separately, their careers are so intertwined that they should be listed together. Both girls began their careers as infants on the popular and long-running TV show “Full House.” As adults, they have demonstrated business savvy by parlaying the Olsen brand into a multimillion dollar fortune.
Drew Barrymore. Barrymore is part of a famous acting family and began acting at age three. Her role in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” made her famous, and she has continued to work steadily up till the present day. As a child, Drew led a chaotic life, but has had a successful adult career as an actress, director, and producer.
Jerry Mathers. Mathers played the title character in the popular TV show “Leave It to Beaver.” He has done some acting work since the show ended, but Mathers has primarily focused on successful business endeavors. Nearly 50 years after the last new episode was broadcast, “Leave It to Beaver” is still in reruns despite being filmed in black and white, and Mathers is still an international celebrity.
Natalie Wood. Natalie Wood had a very successful career as an American child actor that transitioned into an equally successful adult film career. Her breakout role was the little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Even as a child, directors recognized and commented on Natalie's consummate professionalism.
Gary Coleman. Coleman became famous for his role as Arnold on the hit TV show, “Diff'rent Strokes.” Unfortunately, he never achieved success as an adult in either his personal or professional life. Eventually, a lifelong kidney condition took his life at a relatively young age.
Jackie Coogan. Best known today for his role as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family,” Coogan was arguably the biggest American child actor of the silent film era. His big break came when Charlie Chaplain selected him to co-star in his movie, “The Kid.” Coogan sued his parents after they stole his film earnings, resulting in laws to protect American child actors. As a young adult, Coogan allegedly participated in the lynching of two men who kidnapped and murdered one of his best friends.