IN AN ERA when Hollywood was still establishing its traditions, Shirley Temple created the template for the meteoric child star. Generations of young actors (and their pushy parents) have dreamed of following the trail that Temple blazed in 1934, when as a 6-year-old she rode to national fame atop black-and-white hits like “Little Miss Marker” and “Bright Eyes.” Unfortunately, the other example that Temple set — how to move on gracefully when the celluloid runs out — has never seemed to catch on as well.
Temple, who died on Monday at 85, spent far more of her life as an ex-actor than an actor, and few entertainers have managed the transition so smoothly. Temple “retired” at age 21, when her movies stopped drawing crowds, and never looked back. She found that her acting skills lent themselves to diplomacy, and served as an ambassador for two US presidents. Temple, who went by Shirley Temple Black off-screen, won praise from career diplomats for her work as US envoy to Czechoslovakia during the fall of communism in 1989.
Tragedy, sadly, has marked the adulthood of many former child stars, and not every young film sensation will find a second career that’s as inspiring as Temple’s. But if every young sensation kept the same kind of healthy perspective that Temple always had toward her own stardom, it would save a lot of tabloid pages, and maybe even a few lives.