Television land is Kiddie Land.
Ad agencies drag kids in to sell everything from tires to Ravioli-O's. Kids are added like chemicals to formulas for situation comedies and other shows, to raise the cuteness quotient and share more viewers.
These kids are the victims of television even more than the more addicted of TV-watching children are. And we are victims of them.
And yet, among the hundreds of children's faces plastered across television screens every week, some belong to kids who have managed, even while being manipulated, to retain their dignity as children.
By luck, through perserverance, or just because they are superior to the others, these children can still convey the integrity of innocence. Even if their incomes are approaching six figures a year and they are thinking of getting a better agent. And they have a pilot in the can. And they read the trades by the swimming pool.
These are the great kids of television.
It's worth enduring all the others to come across the likes of them. Mason Resse
"Kids need TV," says TV star Mason Reese. "They really do. They need something to watch besides their parents.
Mason, now 11, is the dean of American children, the grand oil man of tots. HE is just under 70 inches tall but has the enlightened countenance of a philosopher, and seems also to possess an incredibly incisive perspective on what it menas to be a kid. Especially a superkid.
First skyrocketed to pudgy fame with an award-winning Underwood meat spread commercial in 1973, Mason went on to be a frequent cohost on "The Mike Douglas Show," the youngest reporter in the history of WNBC-TV in New York and the star of an unsold comedy pilot, "Mason," shown earlier this week on ABC. Currently he is the national spokesman for Dunkin' Donuts and the living motif for a new Bird's Eye campaign that has begun in print and hits TV in the fall.
Of course, like all of us, he would like to be on TV regularly - "if I had my own series." He prefers to play himself. "I don't think I could do a "Police Story.' I don't play cops very well. I play myself very well," he says. Could anyone play him better - say, Robert Redford? "Maybe. If he cut his legs off."
Mason is just as unquestionably a pro as he is unquestionably a kid.Boston ad man Bob Schmalenberger, who put Mason in the Underwood spots and handles the Dunkin' Donuts campaign, marvels at Mason's ability to read lines perfectly the first time and advise directors on camera techniques and light placement. "He'll say, 'That light is a little too high,' and he'll be right," says Schmalenberger. "He doesn't mean any harm.He's just bright."
Yet for all the sophistication, Mason remains vulnerable. He didn't like it when People magazine recently called him a "media brat." And though he pitches donuts called "Munchkins," he isn't too thrilled about being referred to as a Munchkin himself.
"At first I thought it was kind of cute," he says. "Everybody was callin' me Munchkin. Now, since I realized I am small and I am kind of weird looking, it now seems to bother me, the word 'Munchkin'. It's not something that people say meanly, though. It's kind of a compliment, I suppose.
Schmalenberger says the fact that Mason doesn't look his age is an asset to his career - he can still pass for 7 or 8. But Mason complains that he is four inches shorter than he should be.
"The doctor I'm going to is very concerned with my growth and for some reason or other the allergy shots he's been giving me are making me grow. I'm allergic to almost everything. But the shots I think are just for pain. To give me a little pain. I told the doctor he'd better get off his butt and start making me grow a little more."
As for People magazine and its cracks, he says, "They have the right to do it, but really, the right should be taken away from them. No, I'm just kidding."
Acting is only a temporary gig. "What I'd like to do when I grow up is I think be a writer for comedy. I've had a bit of experience wirting comedy because I've written some stories for my class. Mostly satires. Let's see. i wrote one - 'Airport '37,' no. it was '86 - and I did one called 'Superjew.' It was about a guy who goes into a delicatessen, eats two kosher pickles, goes into the bathroom and turns into Superjew. Superjew can leap tall kreplachs at a single bound. He can dive into matzoh ball soup. He can hold up Hebrew books. Not that many kids in my class are Jewish, but there are a few Jews and they all understood my jokes."
Mason lives in Manhattan with his parents. Of them he says, "I like my mommy. Except when she says 'no'. Then she's just a problem. That's when I lock myself in the bathroom." MIKEY
Advertising history was made in 1971 when two little boys, confronted with an untasted cereal called, Life, used their brother "Mikey" as a guinea pig. "He likes it." one exclaimed as the silent Mikey munched the oats. The commercial was a sensation, resulted in a sequel referring to "the cereal Mikey likes," still plays on network and local television six years later, and got Mikey's picture placed prominently on every box of Life.
Where is Mikey otday?
In the first place, the kid's name is not Mikey. It is John Gilchrist of Yonkers, New York. He was 3 when the commercial was made and he doesn't even remember making it. When he sees it on TV now, he says, "I laugh."
His two brothers, Tommy, now 14 and Michael, now 12, are the other two boys in the commercial. But John is the one most often recognized as the immortal Mikey.
"When we went to Disney World," his mother says, "people got more excited at seeing 'Mikey' than they did about Disney World. It happens so often."
John still "works" a little, his mother says, doing commercials, but one knowledgeable Madison Avenueer says the kid has already made at least enough money to put himself through college. At the very minimum, the Life spot brings the Gilchrists $12,000 every year itson.
Mrs. Gilchrist is shy about "publicity" and says she usually turns down interviews for John. But, coaxed, she calls him to the phone. He was in the back yard. Playing baseball. Just like a real kid.
Asked if he would klike to stay in acting, John says, "Yeah. I like the business." He would like to be a singer, too. When he is asked for an autograhp, he says, "I sign it 'John Gilchrist' and then in parentheses I put 'Mikey.'"
Fame does not seem to have ben a burden for him.
Mrs. Filchrist and her husband Tom have six kids. "We're trying to keep them very normal," she says. "We try not to make too big a thing out of any one of them. John's just a regular kid and we want to keep him that way." BUDDY
Kristy McNichol got her start in an Opel commercial. "I was 7. I thought it was great." Now 14, she plays the continuing role of Buddy in the popular ABC prime-time drama series, "Family."
Burt Reynolds called me and he wants me to do a movie with him," she casually mentions when reached at her Sherman Oaks, Calif., home. Her mother has been cautious when answering because Kristy has been getting crank calls from over-zealous fans.
Still, Kristy has no doubts about the show-biz life and doesn't think she's missed much by not having a normal childhood.
"I think that I've gained, not lost. In all ways," she says. "I love acting. Everything about it. It doesn't get boring. I've done billions of commercials. At least 50. I've done Hostess Twinkies, and McDonald's and Kraft Cheese. A lot of them. When I have free time, which is hardly ever, I go off and do a commercial.
"But now I'm too busy to work on anything but 'Family'. I'd like to do more 'Afterschool Specials,' but it's just a rat race. I don't think I can."
Kristy is asked if acting is good for her ego.
She says, "What's ego? It doesn't make me feel better, seeing myself on TV, if that's what you mean. I usually just crack up. I sit on the floor and watch myself and I just crack up laughing."
Kristy McNichol is blase. Rev. Jimmy
"I've never taken advantage of being a star," says 9-year-old Marcus Gordon Issoglio whose professional name is Sparky Marcus. "I'm not really a star yet. I'm just an actor now. I don't really see how acting could go to my head. It's just a job. If you have it, you gotta do it. It's like owning a house. If you have it, you gotta pay the taxes on it."
Sparky has appeared in Afterschool Specials, movies like "Freaky Friday," and TV specials like "The Night That Panicked America." But the role that brought the young lad with othe over-intelligent face to prominence was Rev. Jimmy Joe Jeeter, the pint-sized evanglist, on Norman Lear's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
He stayed up late to watch Rev. Jimmy expire on the show - electrocuted, as the script went, when a TV set fell into his bathtub.
"Instead of dropping a TV, they threw water balloons into the bathtub," he explains from his home in suburban Los Angeles. "The first time I got in the tub they had pure hot water in it - well, not that hot, but after about five minutes my head was getting wet, my shoulders were sweating, ny knuckles were sweating - ugh!"
Sparky's mother, Lylene, put him in show business when a friend insisted, "Sparky should work. Sparky should work." Sparky went to work.
"I can remember as far back as I think, 5," he says. "I did a McDonald's commercial and then some other commercials until I was around 7, and then I really hit it HOT."
But hitting it hot doesn't mean you get carried away with yourself. Not if your head is where Sparky's is. Oh, he admits to reading Variety, and his mother says that after a few weeks without a job he'll say, "Hey, Mom, we'd better see what's going," but this able actor has already come tor grips with the star trip.
"You see," he explains patiently. "I went to this interview one day, and they were going to pick the kid for this job on the same day when we were all there. We were interviewing for this Dick Van Dyke commercial. And then the lady came out and said, 'All you kids were great, but we were only able to pick one. The only one we were able to pick was -' Uh, I can't think of his name right now. Jimmy something.
"Anyway, I went over and congratulated him and shook his hand. Sure! I was very happy for him 'cause business wasn't that hot for him."
Wasn't he disappointed not to get the job himself? "Yeah, but not very much. I've had my share."
Sparky, 48 inches tall and irked when "people call me 'small'" says he watches television every day, but not the violent shows. "It's very disgusting, the violence. All the bloodshedding is for nothing. What does fighting slove? Nothing! You know what I mean?"
He watches the Saturday morning kiddie shows and guest-starred in one of them. "I did six weeks of 'SIgmund and the Sea Monsters.' My parents woke me up at 7:30 in the morning to watch it. I was supposed to be a sea genie and then the genie went away and then he was walking down the beach - I think his sister was at a fat farm losing weight - and, anyway, I played a little brat. I whacked my uncle's whammy, and I turned Sigmund into a chicken. And Fran Ryan into a pig.
"And millions of other crazy things."
Sparky is asked if he is enjoying life. "Yes," he says convincingly. "I certainly am. Without life I wouldn't even be talking to you." And if he could have any life he wanted? "I'd be living in a mansion with maids all over the place." Melisa Gilbert
She is lying on the floor of her Los Angeles home in her ballet clothes, having just returned from class.
"Oh, I just dropped a shoe on my face," says Melissa Gilbert, 13, into the telephone. "It's a plastic shoe. It's a new kind of shoe. And - oh, there's a hole in my stocking. No, two holes. My God, the whole thing is coming apart! Now there's a third and a fourth hole. This is a play-by-play description . . ."
For three years, Melissa has been stealing scene after scene as Laura Ingalls on the low-key NBC pioneer saga, "Little House on the Prairie." Melissa plays Laura not just as a cute little girl, but as a cute little girl with intelligence and brass. It is one of the best continuing jobs of acting on series television.
But Melissa sounds quite unfazed by her celebrity, even by the mysterious fans who sends her crystal champagne glasses in the mail (she calls him a "nutto") and, indeed, she is a veteran, having first acted in a diaper commercial at the age of 2. "Then I retired."
Now, a hit series part of her everyday life, she also manages to do things other girls do - falls out of trees and collecrs wooden doll house furniture. And watches television.
"I'm a TV weirdo. I'm a TV freak," she says. "I LOVE television. My mother is constantly yelling at me not to watch it, I say, 'It's educational, Mom.' She says, 'Is "I Love Lucy" educational? Is "Gilligan's Island" educational? Is "Charlie's Angles" educational?" I say, that all depends on how you look at it. I love television. It doesn't take too much energy to watch it. And um, you can plug one in anywhere if you find a socket."
She watches "Little House" every week, she says. Her favorite episodes: "The one where the baby died and I climbed a mountain and found Ernest Borgnine at the top" and "The one where the racoon bit us and we thought we had rabies."
Utterly uuimpressed by success, casual even about the fact that she regularly eats lunch with Fonzie (Henry Winkler) because "we both shoot at Paramount," Melissa isn't worried about her future or that of her series.
"Oh, it'll vanish eventually, and I'll go on to bigger and better." she chirps. "I like everything. I'll be on anything. What do I wanto to be when I grow up? Oh, a nurse, a doctor, I'd like to perform open-hear surgery. That is, of course, if I can make it as an actress."