Starring as Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show from 1958 to 1966, Paul Petersen portrayed a character you don't see a lot of on television these days: a well-behaved, impeccably groomed and respectful teenage son.
One of the show's most memorable episodes featured Jeff singing a ballad extolling the virtues of his father, portrayed by Carl Betz. "My Dad" became a pop smash after the episode aired in 1962, hitting No. 2 on the charts and turning Petersen into a teen heartthrob.
Petersen, who began his acting career as one of Walt Disney's Mouseketeers, recalls an atmosphere on the Donna Reed set that felt a lot like a real, loving family. His TV mother, Donna Reed, really was like a mother, he recalls, to Petersen and his younger sister Patty, who played his TV sibling, Trisha. "She was interested in our character and education. That was far more important than any acting tricks she taught us."
After Donna Reed had run its TV course, Petersen guest-starred in other shows and appeared in several movies. In 1969, former child star Mickey Rooney encouraged him to leave town and get an education. "They're not gonna let you work for 25 years," Rooney told him, painting a grim picture of the challenges Hollywood kids often face when they grow up.
It was a wake-up call for Petersen, who admits to making some "bad decisions" with drugs and alcohol as he rode his TV stardom into early adulthood. "I was not prepared for the wrenching reality that faces most kid stars, which is when your career is over, it's over."
He left Hollywood, got married and became a father himself to three children. He earned degrees in English and history from Yale University and began a new career as an author. After writing a book about one of his passions, car racing, he followed up with 15 other fiction, nonfiction and academic titles.
When another child actor from Petersen's generation, Rusty Hamer from The Danny Thomas Show, committed suicide in 1990, Petersen began thinking about the toll that stardom can take on young people ill-equipped to handle fame's intoxicating rush.
Feeling like he had been "given a task to do," in 1991 he established the nonprofit organization A Minor Consideration, which serves children in the entertainment industry and former child actors through education, legislative lobbying, intervention and other services. It also helps child actors, past and present, to transition out of show business into higher education and careers.
Through his organization, the one-time TV son has become a father figure toand fighter forthousands of young performers.
Dr. Jeannie Russell, who played Margaret on Dennis The Menace and now works as a chiropractor in California, calls Petersen "a tireless activist who cannot just stand by."
Janet Palazzotto, a New York mom and fellow advocate for child actors, says Petersen "provides support for children, parents of child actors and grown-up child actors who perhaps didn't plan that exit strategy when the industry moved its paparazzi cameras to the next teen idol."
Five years ago, Petersen began hosting a Los Angeles TV series, Aging in L.A., adding senior advocacy to his plate of concerns.
With a thick shock of gray hair and a handsome, still-boyish face, Petersen has been married 20 years to his third wife, Rana, a registered nurse for the CBS network's medical department. They live in Gardena, Calif.
"In my 30s," he says, "I believed I'd go to my grave with 'Here lies Paul Petersenyou remember him from The Donna Reed Show.' Now people talk to me about advocacy for young children and care issues with [senior] loved ones," he says. "It's OK with me if governors and presidents still call me Jeff Stone, because at least I'm in their offices.
"I don't want to go to bed and I can't wait to get up in the morning. How cool is that?"