Here’s all the proof you need that classic TV child stars actually are the best kids

"To be as good as he was at the age of 5 was incredible."

TV history is chock full of kids who loaned their talents to hit shows, not just on family sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show or Leave It to Beaver, but also on dramas and Westerns, from Billy Mumy on Lost in Space to Johnny Crawford on The Rifleman. Sometimes these child actors were cast so young, they couldn't even read the scripts they were expected to memorize. At 5 or 6 years old, though, that didn't make them any less serious as costars.

Just ask their castmates and crew. We went back through interviews to see what it was actually like sharing scenes with the youngest kids from early classic TV shows, actors who played iconic characters like Opie, Little Ricky and Cindy Brady. What we found was a continual string of gushes with such phrases tossed around like "natural talent" and "so, so cute." Especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the child stars discussed below emerged as the cream of the crop, the absolute best kids to be around, both onscreen and off.

1. Ron Howard as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show

(Full interviews here)

The Andy Griffith Show writer Harvey Bullock: “We were lucky. We had Opie at a young, lovable age. In fact, for [Ron's]  first year, he didn’t know how to read. … He had a wonderful stage presence because his mother and his father were always present. They’re the nicest people you can imagine.”

Andy Griffith: "Ronny has a wonderful mother and father. That is perhaps the principle reason he turned out as he did. He was always a good kid. And he never considered me his father. He considered me not even a father figure. He considered me his friend. I was playing his father and he knew that.”

Actress Elinor Donahue (Ellie Walker): “Ron Howard was the best child actor I have ever worked with, up to that point. Not to take anything away from any other child actor who I have worked with since, he just had something. He was not acting. You were those people when you were talking to each other. It was thrilling! Always knew his lines. Knew your lines as well.”

Don Knotts: “Well Ron was Opie, Andy’s son, and he grew up on the show. … Ronny was actually 5 years old … couldn’t read yet. He was a nice little boy, and Ron was a natural actor. To be as good as he was at the age of 5 was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. He could do a tearful scene, he could do a funny scene. Whatever you gave him, he just instinctively knew how to do it. Amazing.”

2. Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain on The Rifleman

(Full interviews here)

The Rifleman producer Arthur Gardner: "We liked him immediately.”

The Rifleman director Arthur Hiller: “Johnny was a working child actor and just a pleasure, just very responsive. That’s been true of all the kids I’ve worked with over the years.”

“Johnny was a kid who liked being patted on the back, slapped on the wrist, stuff like that. Part of it is, I think, in creativity, there’s a lot of insecurity, and the hardest job for the director is to give the actors a degree of security that they are doing well. Because they’re always feeling insecure, and you have to give them that while you’re feeling insecure.”

3. Jerry Mathers as Beaver Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver

(Full interviews here)

Leave It to Beaver producer Richard Lewis: “Jerry was a good kid. A funny little kid. … I found Jerry to be ingenuous and fun.”

Barbara Billingsley: “Jerry Mathers couldn’t read a line that wasn’t on the nose, really, perfect. He couldn’t really read when we started, and when we’d sit around the table to read, somebody had to help him, but he could not deliver a line that wasn’t absolutely on the ball. He was remarkable.”

4. Susan Olsen as Cindy Brady on The Brady Bunch

(Full interviews here)

Florence Henderson: “She was just adorable. She had a lisp, which a lot of people thought she put on. She didn’t. She really did lisp. … I think Susan as a child just had this wonderful angelic quality, but she was also very independent. … I always got a big kick out of her.”

Ann B. Davis: “She was so patient. She’s the most patient child I ever saw. I remember one time we were out on some kind of a gathering, all of us were there and we were signing autographs and stuff, and Susan was so small. She looked specifically small because we had police presence there. … She was sitting there signing autographs, and she was getting so tired. First she’d sign it to the person, but then she’s got down to just doing Susan Olsen, then Susan, then Sue. They finally got her out of there, but she would hang in there until the last minute.”

“She was a natural in the sense that she could play herself. She was someone you loved to watch. You couldn’t not. You had to love Susan Olsen.”

5. Mike Lookinland as Bobby Brady on The Brady Bunch

(Full interviews here)

Ann B. Davis: “He’s so cute. So cute. … Everybody loved Mike. He was awfully easy to love because he was perky.”

Florence Henderson: “An adorable kid. Sweet, wonderful. … He was always an absolute delight, wonderful to deal with.”

6. Keith Thibodeaux as Little Ricky on I Love Lucy

(Full interview here)

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's daughter Lucie Arnaz: “Keith was about three or four years older than Desi [Jr.], and I always, for a long time, I thought he was related to us, because he went everywhere with us. He was Desi’s best friend. Because of Keith, Desi learned to play the drums, and he was a terrific kid. He still is. And my mother kind of adopted him in a way. He would go on weekends and come down to my father’s ranch. Keith is in all of our home movies.”

7. Bill Mumy as Will Robinson on Lost in Space and various characters on The Twilight Zone

(Full interviews here)

The Twilight Zone director James Sheldon: "Billy Mumy was this marvelous 6-year-old actor. I did two Twilight Zones with him. … He’s just a natural, and his mother was the nicest lady."

Bob May (The Robot): "He was 12 years old going on 40 when we did the show. He never missed a line. Never was tardy on the set or school. He cut up a lot with Mark [Goddard], but he was a great person."

Jonathan Harris: “Oh, very good kid actor. Excellent, excellent. We got on very, very well together, and we worked very well together. Because he was such a good actor. He was, what was he, 12 years old? And oh, perfect. He understood about acting.”   

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jackhammer1968 5 months ago
I'm shocked that Rusty Hamer of "Make Room for Daddy" is not on this list. I think he should be at the top even above Ron Howard. His timing and delivery were way ahead of his age.
Lucyneenah19701 5 months ago
It's sweet that Keith Thibodaux was friends with the Arnazes.
Great article!
gatorgirl 5 months ago
i would have thought bill mummy would have grown up to be an award winning actor. he was just so good as a child actor. i remember an episode of him on perry mason that was beyond wonderful. not a good actor but great in my opinion. did he not pursue acting as an adult? i heard he was into music.
garykevinware gatorgirl 5 months ago
Billy Mummy was all wrapped up in something; Billy Mumy, not so much. Is your Shift tab broken?
cherylgafner gatorgirl 5 months ago
Billy MUMY played a small role in the latest rendition of Lost in Space on Netflix. You have to be a super fan to catch it, but I did and it's AWESOME! Dr. Smith being a woman is a fun twist and Billy's character is the catalyst of this happening!!!
daDoctah gatorgirl 5 months ago
I was a little worried when after LIS the first two things I saw Mumy in were "Bless the Beasts and Children" and then the TV series "Sunshine", where he was sort of a hippie counterculture type in both. But he straightened out later and was one of the better things about Babylon 5.
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