Erin Moran died, broke and homeless, of a suspected heroin overdose last week at age 56. How did a woman who was, as a teenager, a popular character on one of the most popular TV shows of all time, die penniless? The answer is a complicated one and touches on a lot of the problems that have plagued child TV and movie stars over the years: exploitation by unscrupulous executives, inability to manage money, and plain old bad luck.
The Hollywood Child Star “Machine”
These days, it’s probably easier to name former child stars who haven’t done well as adults than it is to name one who has. For every Will Smith, there are a hundred Dana Platos, Danny Bonaduces, and Lindsay Lohans. It’s easy to see the problem: take a child or teenager, thrust them in front of the cameras for a few years, and then, when the attention and money are gone, forget about them, leaving them to fend for themselves.
It rarely ends well.
For Erin Moran, who was just 13 years old back in 1974, when she signed on to play younger sister Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days, another complication would develop: according to The Telegraph, the show’s producers, she says, tried to “sexualize” the fresh-faced young teenager as the series went on.
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When Happy Days ended in 1984, Moran had been a part of the “machine” for ten years. She would later tell Sitcoms Online that, during that time, there had been “mental and physical abuse” in her family, though she didn’t elaborate. She did insist that she was never abused “in the business.”
When The Cameras Go Off And The Money Dries Up
By the middle 1980s, Erin Moran had gone from a star of one of the most popular television shows of all time to an out-of-work actress who had been woefully typecast. She puttered around the entertainment industry for a few years, taking small roles here and there, but, for all intents and purposes, her career was over.
With the end of Happy Days came the end of Erin’s money stream. Those huge weekly checks soon became smaller residuals checks. Further, as she would later claim in 2012, CBS (the owners of the rights to Happy Days), was unfairly denying her and her co-stars money that should have been theirs for their images being featured on merchandise — Happy Days lunchboxes, posters, toys, and so on. According to People, she and her co-stars sued for millions in unpaid royalties; a judge granted them only $65,000 each.
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What happened to Moran and her money between 1984 and 2012 isn’t clear, nor is it clear how much there was to begin with (the specifics of her Happy Days contract are not public). However, unable to get further work in Hollywood, and lacking marketable job skills, by 2012 she was broke and facing eviction from her California home.
Final Years In An Indiana Trailer Park
By this time Moran had married Steven Fleischmann. Once evicted from their home, the couple had nowhere else to go, so they went to Indiana, to live in a trailer park with Fleischmann’s ailing mother. Moran was to take care of the elderly woman while Steven worked at Walmart.
That, however, didn’t last: following an altercation with Fleischmann’s mother, the two were kicked out, and were even homeless for a while.
Through it all, Moran always had a good attitude, said neighbor David Holt.
“She didn’t have an attitude, or let on that she felt she didn’t belong here. It was just, ‘You’re on top one day, and then you’re on the bottom.’ But I do think she was still hopeful.”
That’s not to say that she wasn’t offered help. Her former Happy Days co-stars had reached out to her, several times in fact, trying to help her find roles or get her other help. Paul Petersen, who runs the child-actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration, had also offered Moran help.
“Erin had friends and she knew it. Abandonment was not the issue. The perversity of human frailty is at the root of this loss, not failure. We did our best with the resources available to us, but it was a very dark room. Some don’t find the light switch in time.”
Whether it was from pride, the ravages of mental illness, drug addiction, or simply resignation to her fate, Erin Moran never accepted the help she was offered. Instead, she died just as she had lived the last decades of her life – another child star who failed to make the transition to successful and well-adjusted adult.
[Featured Image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]