Among the nearly 2,000 fan letters Kirk Cameron, 16, sometimes gets on a single day, this one stands out: “I think you are a playboy and hops to one girl to another,” writes an angry lass from Singapore, where ABC’s Growing Pains is seen on a local station. “You must have done it with many blond girls. It is not uncommon in America because all the stars are like that. I thinks you stink.”
These days you probably have to go as far as the Malay Peninsula to find a Kirk Cameron critic. Even though his hazel eyes usually signal mischievous intent, Cameron is the kind of kid you can’t help liking. Diane Umansky, editor of Tiger Beat magazine, says: “I couldn’t even estimate the mail that we get for him—tons. He sort of snuck up on us in popularity.” But as the covers of America’s zit-mags now attest, Cameron’s lopsided smile (the result of a skiing accident that split his lip five years ago) and bunk-bedroom eyes are making him the hottest pubescent pinup since Michael J. Fox started playing teenagers in his early 20s.
And while long-toothed Fox has taken to talking about his “art,” Kirk is refreshingly modest about his acting. “It’s not like I sit down every day and say, ‘How would [his character] Mike Seaver feel about this?’ I just read the lines. I don’t try to relate it to things. The only time I would try to relate is if it was a crying scene. You think of your mother being chopped into bits. Like, that would make you cry, right?”
Growing Pains’ debut in the fall of 1985 almost made ABC cry. Panned by most critics as a pale clone of The Cosby Show and Fox’s Family Ties, the sitcom seemed destined to be a burial ground for its star, Alan Thicke. But Growing Pains calmly avoided Cosby’s two-laughs-a-minute formula and Family’s glib yuppie angst. Instead, by depicting a father (Thicke) who works at home and a mother (Joanna Kerns) who works outside, the show recalls the wise-dad-around-the-house humor of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. After a shaky start Growing Pains began to surge over the winter, and it consistently hovers around the Top 10 spot in the ratings.
The net effect of success can be seen in the Cameron family’s San Fernando Valley home. “It’s madness just keeping track of the autographed photo requests,” says Kirk’s mother and manager, Barbara, 36, who had to buy a personal computer after going through 6,000 Rolodex cards. Kirk’s father, Robert, 43, a gym teacher at San Fernando Junior High, also has his hands full. Not only must he help raise three daughters (Bridgette, 15, Melissa, 12, and Candace, 10), he too must cope with the consequences of his son’s fame. Robert had to stop teaching a girls’ class last semester because “I got inundated with ‘Can you get me this? Can you get me that?’ It can drive you up the wall. I’d say, ‘Go take a lap. Go to the liquor store. Just get out.’ ”
For Kirk, a professional actor since age 9, prime-time renown means less time for himself. “Sometimes you have other things you want to do, like skate-boarding and skiing,” says Cameron, who had a few small TV parts before landing the Growing Pains role. Attending public school four months a year, he spends five months being tutored on the set. One of his favorite electives, evidently, is Practical Jokes: Alan Thicke keeps finding chewed gum in his peanut bowl, and Joanna Kerns once found one of Kirk’s snakes under a platform. Kirk also keeps three other snakes and a tarantula as pets, dates a few girls and follows a Pritikin diet. Just a normal 16-year-old.
The biggest demands on him are those of his fans. Teen magazine contests, says Kirk, “usually end up with me signing one of my shirts and giving it away.” At a Growing Pains autograph session, girls even tugged at his shoes. “I wouldn’t say he wanted to leave,” says Thicke, “but he would sort of look at me. I’m minding my own business, signing autographs for an orderly group of adults, and Kirk has a hundred teary-eyed girls tearing his Nikes off his body. He looks over at me as if to say, ‘What do I do now?’ All I could answer was, ‘Get more Nikes. Get another shirt.’ ”