13 Teen Idols Who Successfully Transitioned Into Respected Actors

Voting Rules
Vote 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.

  • 1
    169 votes

    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.

    • Age: 59
    • Birthplace: Owensboro, Kentucky, United States of America
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Lionel Viland, Yogi Victor, Rob Cameron
  • 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.

    • Age: 48
    • Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Kid Fighting Scout, Garry Buckman-Lampkin, Mason Capwell
  • 3
    137 votes

    When Will Smith was 16 years old, he teamed up with Jeff Townes to form the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. The group made a concerted effort to keep their lyrics clean and family-friendly. In 1990, Smith successfully crossed over into acting, while bringing some elements of his own life into the narrative thread, for the hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The series stayed on the air for six seasons on the strength of Smith's charismatic personality, good looks, and natural talent.

    After the series wrapped in 1996, the teen idol could have easily been labeled as the "Fresh Prince" for life. However, the actor's transition to the big screen turned out to be just as successful as his transition from rapper to TV star.

    Smith quickly became the biggest movie star of the 1990s. The actor had a string of '90s blockbusters that cleaned up at the box office, including Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State. Both Bad Boys and Men in Black turned into lucrative franchises. 

    The actor proved he could also carry his weight in the drama department. He earned Academy Award nominations for his performance as Muhammad Ali in the biopic Ali and in the tear-jerker The Pursuit of Happyness. After inflation, Smith's films have grossed around $9 billion worldwide.

    • Age: 54
    • Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Themselves, Themselves, Themselves
  • Jason Bateman
    Photo: NBC / Netflix
    109 votes

    In the mid-1980s, television audiences witnessed Jason Bateman's breakout performance as Ricky Schroder's mischievous best friend on Silver Spoons. Two years later, he landed a co-starring role as David Hogan on The Hogan Family (also known as Valerie and Valerie's Family). The part made Bateman a teen idol, and his face became a regular on tween and teen magazines around the country. 

    Bateman took over Michael J. Fox's role in 1987's Teen Wolf Too, which turned out to be a box-office failure. His career cooled off when Valerie's Family left the air in 1991 after six seasons. He still worked steadily in the '90s, but failed to find a hit movie or TV show that cemented him as anything more than a "working Hollywood actor."

    That all changed in 2003 when Bateman starred as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. Michael is the lone voice of reason among a family of narcissistic crazies. Bateman won a Golden Globe in 2005 for his performance as the Bluth patriarch.

    His talent and popularity brought the actor over to the silver screen, where he initially played supporting characters in the comedies Dodgeball: A True Underdog StoryThe Break-UpJunoHancock, and Horrible Bosses. Leading man roles eventually followed. Bateman scored box-office and critical success starring in the comedies Game Night and Bad Words, the latter of which became his feature-length directorial debut.

    Bateman worked his way back over to the small screen in 2017. He stars in the acclaimed Netflix drama Ozark. Bateman directed several of the show's episodes and won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 2017.

    • Age: 54
    • Birthplace: Rye, New York, USA
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Bateman, The Bad Spy
  • Neil Patrick Harris
    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.

    • Age: 49
    • Birthplace: Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States of America
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Black Manta, Prince Gumball, Bill, Two-Face, Executive
  • Christina Applegate
    Photo: Fox / Netflix

    Christina Applegate played Kelly Bundy on the raunchy but seminal Fox sitcom Married... with Children for 11 seasons. Kelly is the token attractive "dumb blonde" teenager, who gives her father (Ed O'Neill) the fits because of her outward promiscuity.

    Applegate was singularly known as Kelly Bundy when the series ended in 2002. It probably seemed impossible for TV viewers to see her as anything except "a dumb blonde" type. In fact, Applegate made it a point in her post-Married career to avoid further typecasting. She even turned down the part of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde, a decision that was probably the right choice at the time, but one she also regretted.  

    "The script came along my way... I got scared of kind of repeating myself," revealed Applegate. "What a stupid move that was, right?"

    Thankfully, Applegate was able to make the transition away from TV teen idol and onto the big screen. The talented actress adeptly showed off her comedic timing in films like The Sweetest Thing, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Hall Pass, and Bad Moms

    The actress also starred as the title character in the sitcom Samatha Who?, as Rachel Green's sister on Friends, and in the short-lived sitcom Up All Night. Perhaps the Emmy-nominated actress's most impressive small-screen performance has come in the popular Netflix dramedy Dead to Me. Now in her 40s, Applegate is playing the perfect TV character for her skill set, showing off her impressive range as both a dramatic and comedic actress. 

    During a 2018 interview, Applegate discussed how she was able to make the transition from a child to an adult actor: 

    I have a very grounded family unit, and because of that, I'm still here, and because of that, I'm still working and I'm functioning, you know, as an adult. And I've had the ebbs and flows like everybody else. Even if you are doing this for a living, you are still a human being, and you still have all of those things that you go through... I was lucky that I had a family that allowed me to live that out and not just be this machine. But, having been the machine, I've learned how to be responsible and professional, and I'm on time and all of those things. That's because I did work through my childhood, I think.

    • Age: 51
    • Birthplace: Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States of America
    • Nationality: United States of America
    • Characters: Samantha Newly, Kelly Bundy, Reagan Brinkley