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13 Teen Idols Who Successfully Transitioned Into Respected Actors

February 11, 2021 874 votes 128 voters 5.6k views13 items

List RulesVote up the former teen idols who became legitimate actors.

The Hollywood landscape is littered with child actors who were never able to make the successful transition to adult actor. These teen actors who are still acting are the anomalies - the lucky ones.

For every Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio, there are a hundred Edward Furlongs and Corey Haims. There are a million reasons why young stars do not become successful adult actors. Perhaps, they fell into bad habits. Maybe they got hit with so much fame at such a young age that they didn’t know how to handle it. Perhaps, they simply just decided that acting and all the hoopla that goes along with being famous was not something they wanted to be a part of for the rest of their lives. 

These teen stars who became successful adults bucked the odds. Most made it a point to avoid roles that would further typecast them. Others simply had so much talent that they would not be denied a career that lasted past the age of 18. Vote up the most impressive transitions from teen fame to legitimate Hollywood staying power.

  • Perhaps no teen idol graced Generation-X female lockers and bedroom walls more than Johnny Depp. The Kentucky-born actor became an instant teenage sensation when he landed the role of Officer Tom Hanson, an undercover cop, on the hit drama 21 Jump Street

    When the series ended in 1990, Depp wanted nothing more than to put his teen idoldom behind and become a serious dramatic actor. His press agent Jeff Ballard even said, "I hope this isn't going to be about that teen-idol bullsh*t. We're really sick of that sh*t."

    "I don't want to make a career of taking my shirt off," Depp said in 1988. "I'd like to shave off all my hair, even my eyebrows, try it that way. I don't fault the TV stars who do teen magazines. They took a hold of their situation, took offers that gave them the big money fast - but they were dead in two years. I don't want that."

    Depp found the perfect filmmaking partner in Tim Burton. The quirky and dark director cast Depp to star in several off-beat movies like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, which helped shatter any preconceived notion of who Johnny Depp wanted to be in Hollywood. In fact, the three-time Oscar nominee appeared to make it a point to star in movies that were more counter-culture than Hollywood mainstream. Depp further mixed up the tone of his career with strong performances in Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chocolat, and Blow

    The actor hit the big-time from a box office perspective when he signed on for the role of Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. As of 2021, the Pirates franchise consists of six blockbuster films and is in the top 20 of the highest-grossing franchises in film history.

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  • Leonardo DiCaprio scored bit parts on early 1990s television shows like Roseanne and Parenthood. His breakthrough came in 1991 when the teenager landed the recurring role of Luke Brower on the popular TV sitcom Growing Pains. With his piercing blue eyes and blond locks, DiCaprio became a staple of teen magazine covers across the country. 

    DiCaprio could have been just another cute pinup boy, but the LA-born thespian had real-deal acting chops. DiCaprio revealed in a 2014 interview that he competed with over 400 young actors for the role of Tobias Wolff in This Boy's Life. In the biographical coming-of-age dramaRobert De Niro plays Tobias's abusive father. De Niro championed DiCaprio and fought for him to be in the movie. 

    It wasn't long before DiCaprio's career took off with impressive starring roles in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. In 1997, DiCaprio became the most famous movie star in the world with his romantic/tragic turn as Jack Dawson in Titanic. The actor grew so overexposed from the hit movie that a giant fall seemed inevitable.

    However, DiCaprio proved time and time again that his talent demanded an audience. The actor continued to be a giant box-office draw and critical success well into the 21st century. DiCaprio developed into Martin Scorsese's new muse in the acclaimed films Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his powerhouse performance in 2015's The Revenant.

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  • Photo: ABC / CBS

    Playwright Mark Medoff spotted a teenage Neil Patrick Harris at a drama camp. He cast the actor in the starring role in the 1988 movie Clara's Heart. Harris earned a Golden Globe nomination at the age of 15 for his performance. Just one year later, the New Mexico-born actor scored the title role in the TV series Doogie Howser, M.D. Doogie is a 16-year-old whiz kid who becomes a respected doctor. 

    Overcoming a character named Doogie can be a tall task. When the series went off the air in 1993, Harris could have easily become typecast as Doogie and had a hard time finding adult roles. However, the now-adult actor stayed busy in the 1990s playing smaller parts in films like Starship Troopers.

    Harris revealed in an interview when he was 24 that he takes issue with teen magazines like the ones he regularly graced. "Kids don't need to be exploited," he said. "Kids need to be acting. If they're poster boys, then they're going to be a flash in the pan."

    After he revitalized his image as a coked-out version of himself in the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Harris's complete career resurrection took place in 2005 when he landed the role of wise-cracking womanizer Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. The popular sitcom lasted nine seasons and showed off Patrick's impeccable comic timing.

    Harris has proved to be a multi-faceted talent. He can host the Academy Awards and star on Broadway. He can also play a creep, as proven by his performance in David Fincher's Gone Girl.

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  • Zac Efron burst onto the tween scene thanks to his role as Troy Bolton in the High School Musical trilogy. Efron is perhaps the perfect 21st century teen idol. He's ridiculously handsome, he can sing and dance, and he became a key cog in the Disney idol-making machine. Troy Bolton is also the young man of every teen gal's dreams. The basketball captain is the most popular guy in school, who also happens to be super friendly and genuinely kind. 

    When the final film in the trilogy wrapped, Efron initially made more films with his teen fanbase in mind. In 2009, he starred in the PG-13 high school comedy 17 Again. The following year, he appeared in the PG-13 fantasy romance Charlie St. Cloud. But by the end of the decade, Efron seemed to make the decision to move more into adult roles to avoid being typecast forever. He explained why he turned down the opportunity to be in the 2011 musical remake Footloose

    I'm sure Footloose would have been a huge challenge, but the actors that I love and the actors that work really hard in this industry are always shaking things up, trying new genres, acquiring new skill sets. That's what’s always going to appeal to me: the unknown.

    In other words, he wanted to stop taking "high school" roles and transition to something more adult. Efron pumped up his physique and took a shot in the adult comedy department with 2014's raunchy, R-rated comedy Neighbors, opposite Seth Rogen. Efron's character, a frat guy with trouble on his mind, is a far cry from Troy Bolton.

    Neighbors helped audiences to see Efron as something more than a Disney child actor. Efron took his transition to adult roles a giant step further when he played real-life serial killer Ted Bundy in Netflix's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

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