Terry Sue-Patt dead: Grange Hill actor's death reveals the price of fame for child stars

The pressure of success at a young age can lead to issues

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Pictures of smiling child actor Terry Sue-Patt in character as Grange Hill pupil Benny Green, will bring back warm memories of a late-1970s innocence for many people who grew up with the ground-breaking BBC children’s drama.

The contrast with his death at the age of just 50 makes those images more heartbreaking.

Sue-Patt, whose body was discovered in his east London flat on Friday, is the third former child star to meet an early death in recent weeks. Last month, Sawyer Sweeten, star of hit US show Everybody Loves Raymond, took his own life, aged 19, while in March, Lil’ Chris, who rose to fame in Channel 4’s Rock School was found hanging at his home in Lowestoft, Suffolk.

The 24-year-old, whose real name was Chris Hardman, had struggled with mental health issues and depression, his family said.

Sue-Patt had been fighting problems with alcohol and was pronounced dead after police “forced entry” into his Walthamstow home. His death is not believed to be suspicious, police said. Reports suggested his body may have lain undiscovered for a month.

From Michael Jackson, through to Drew Barrymore, Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan and one of the first child film stars, Judy Garland, the pressures of fame at a young age have long come with a price to be paid in adulthood.

“Fame should be wonderful in theory,” said Dr David Giles, a reader in media psychology at the University of Winchester.

“You get to travel, meet  fascinating people, and do something quite out of the ordinary. It should be a  fantastic experience.”

But while it can bring enormous rewards, he said there can also be a downside to a life in the spotlight. 

“There is very little room for child stars to have the freedom to change or experiment with relationships,” he added. “So they are constrained by the demands of their public role to live out a persona that you will inevitably leave behind.”

Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’

Clinical psychologist John Mayer said child stars are at particular risk because they often form their sense of self in the public eye.

“These kids are kept from the developmental skill-building that most kids go through to make them capable adults,” he told The Independent. “Such things as learning about loss, rejection, transitions, and the process of identity development are in limbo while the production companies unknowingly shelter them from those natural struggles a child or teen needs to  go through.”

It can be even worse for people who grew up with fame and then lost it because it “runs counter to everything we expect from life” – namely getting an education and developing as a person so that you can go on to achieve fulfillment as an adult, according to Dr Giles.

 At worst life can become “meaningless and intolerable, which is why there are suicides”, he said. “We don’t have an alternative life script whereby you achieve your goals as a child and then gradually sink into dull routine as an adult.” The role of parents is crucial to ensuring child stars do not go off the rails as teenagers, and that they become balanced individuals in later life, he added.

The danger is that child stars could be seen as “cash cows or a passport to a celebrity  lifestyle by proxy” by some parents who might “allow things to spiral out of control... wringing every drop of money and fame from their children that they can get”, he claimed.

Caring parents, such  as  those of Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, “withdraw their child from the limelight as soon as they can, in order to get on with normal life until the next film”, added Dr Giles. 

He concluded: “I think the real answer is that stardom is something best experienced later in life.”

Burn brightly: Actors who made it

Emma Watson: After the Harry Potter series, Watson, 25, has split her time between film projects, being a United Nations goodwill ambassador and studying. She graduated from America’s Brown University in May.

Drew Barrymore: After melting hearts in ET The Extra Terrestrial aged just seven, Barrymore, now 40, had a troubled childhood. However, she has gone on to a fruitful career both on screen and behind the camera.

Jodie Foster: After winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver at 14, Foster, now 52, has had a long and distinguished career across three decades. She has also directed a number of films.