For a child more used to stealing bases than scenes, Ricky Schroder should have felt bush league, all right, in the face of the star power assembled for his movie debut in The Champ. The actor playing Ricky’s boxer dad (yes, this was a remake of the 1931 Jackie Cooper classic) was Jon Voight, in his first part since his Oscar-winning Coming Home. Another Oscar laureate, Faye (Network) Dunaway, had the female lead. The director was Italian Franco Zeffirelli, a veteran of films with the likes of Richard Burton and Sir Alec Guinness.
All that would have daunted most tykes, but the towheaded Schroder, who turned 9 last month, made out like a thief anyway. Thanks largely to his cry-on-cue ability, The Champ milks more emotion out of its weepy plot than any pug epic since Rocky. More remarkable, Ricky managed both to impress critics and to leave his upstaged co-stars with feelings of genuine affection. “We were all learning from that boy,” says an admiringly maternal Dunaway. “He has something not based on cuteness but enormous talent.” Voight—who reportedly agreed with Faye about little else—admitted from the start that Ricky “was doing a better job than I was.” According to Zeffirelli, who claims to have considered 2,000 others, “Ricky is just an extraordinary kid, both wise and innocent, with great soul and spirit, but obviously not an angel. A wonderful instrument.”
Schroder has been before cameras ever since his parents put him into a Macy’s diaper ad at the age of 3 months. In subsequent TV commercials he cavorted with Florence Henderson and Nancy Walker’s Rosie the waitress and pitched for everyone from Campbell’s Soup to Kodak.
Ricky was preceded into showbiz by his older sister, Dawn, now 12, who started commercials herself at the age of 7 months. If both kids have kept a sense of reality about life, it’s due to the efforts of their parents. His dad, Richard, 35, a personnel executive with New York Telephone, sluices all of Ricky’s earnings into investments for the boy. “Jackie Cooper’s mother had to live off his salary,” says Ricky’s mom, Diane, 32. “We’re lucky that we don’t have to.” The Schroders still live in the modest development house on Staten Island they’ve owned for 12 years. (They’ve house hunted in Connecticut for about two years, notes Diane. “Faye has a house there and keeps saying, ‘Come up and be my neighbor.’ “) Ricky attends third-grade classes at his local P.S. 32, but reads at a fifth-grade level. His pride these days is a science project in which “I did the human body, showed all the organs and how John Wayne [his biggest hero] got his new stomach.” He sometimes arrives at school in a limo, but reports that his classmates “don’t care that much for the movie. They treat me the same as before.”
“When people talk to us about winding up with a Judy Garland,” says Diane, “we can answer with Shirley Temple Black.” She and Dawn accompany Ricky to all locations and Dad flies in on weekends. The whole family turned out for last month’s Academy Awards to watch Ricky and Shirley Jones present the Oscar for Best Art Direction. At the ceremony, his pop Richard relates, he was challenged by a woman who asked, “Aren’t you afraid of your kids’ future?” Mr. Schroder replied with the same question. “Yes, but it’s different,” she maintained. “Well,” retorted Ricky’s dad, “my children are here with me tonight. Where are yours?”
Such stability is getting harder. Ricky is now handled by not one but two agents at William Morris. They’ve turned down a long-term contract dangled by MGM and instead signed for Disney’s The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark for an estimated half million (Ricky’s allowance remains well within the President’s guidelines at $4 a week). “We don’t want to overcommit him,” Diane explains. “One year he might want to stay home and play baseball.” Either that or indulge his second biggest love: toy trucks. Of course, Ricky’s not imprudent about that passion either. On a recent trip into Manhattan, he was tempted by a $60 remote-control car he spotted at F.A.O. Schwarz. Ricky passed it up. He didn’t want to dip into his savings.