Question: I really liked Rick Schroder on NYPD Blue. But I can't remember what show he was on as a little boy. What was it? Kate E., Union City, Ind.
Televisionary: You're thinking of Silver Spoons, Kate, which ran on NBC for four years beginning in September 1982 and continued for another season after that in first-run syndication. Young Schroder played Ricky Stratton, who was raised by his divorced mom before moving in with his wealthy dad Edward (Joel Higgins), a fella possessed of Arthur Bach-esque qualities (except for the excess boozing this was a family show, after all).
As is typical of shows revolving around a photogenic kid, however, Schroder was anything but the "little boy" you refer to, influence-wise. When he spoke, people on the set listened.
Take the time a TV Guide reporter was on the set as a scene was shot with Edward facing off against his dad, played by the esteemed John Houseman (The Paper Chase). Very few actors would tell Houseman how to play a scene, but that didn't stop Schroder from advising him on how to hang his coat, hat and umbrella on Higgins' arm rather than the nearby rack, as it was written. "I've got an idea," Schroder said, stopping everyone. "I think it would be funnier like this." He demonstrated, all agreed and that's how it was shot.
(Full disclosure: It's not like Houseman had much emotional or career investment in the show. When he was asked to do the role, Schroder had already charmed millions in the big-screen tearjerker The Champ and co-starred with Alec Guinness, another star of Houseman's stature, in a TV-movie version of Little Lord Fauntleroy. "Well, if Alec can do it, I better give it a shot," he said.)
Silver Spoons was created as a Schroder vehicle after the success of The Champ and after Schroder earned a 1979 Best New Male Star Golden Globe for his work in that movie. And his adult co-stars Higgins and Erin Gray, who played his dad's secretary and eventual wife, knew it well.
"Spoons is Ricky's show," Gray said in 1983. "He's in the position of responsibility. When he wants something to go a certain way, he speaks up. He's at the helm of the set. He's still a child but he has to assert his authority from time to time."
The downside of that, of course, was growing up on a set and missing out on some of the street smarts other 13-year-olds picked up in everyday life. "It amazes me how naïve he is," Gray said. "People are always telling off-color stories on the set and Ricky listens and is always whispering to someone, 'What does that mean?'"
But even if Schroder was naïve in those years, his mother Diane certainly wasn't. She knew how to look out for him and his interests, and was always on the set, from the time he was three months old and did his first commercial through his ads, modeling, movies, TV-movies and Spoons days. "I work 10 hours a day with Ricky," she said. "I have high demands on him and on everything he is in. The people we work with know that Ricky will never be allowed to say a word or do a scene that would compromise our principles. They know that if they ever tried anything like that, we would be on the next plane home."
Mom's vigilance was justified, judging by what she and her son had to contend with over the course of his early career. For example, the lad was tricked into auditioning for The Champ. "We had been invited to test, but weren't interested because the picture would take 10 weeks and blow the family's summer," she explained. "Then one day Ricky and I went to be interviewed for a toothpaste commercial. When he came out parents are never allowed in with the kids he said, 'Mom, that wasn't for a toothpaste, that was for The Champ'."
After that, young Schroder did a videotaped interview with director Franco Zeffirelli without the actor or his mom knowing it was being taped and then they were pressured to sign a seven-year contract in order for him to get the part. Mom and son threatened to walk, and only then did he get the role without any additional tricks being played. So it's not like Mama Schroder was defensive without reason.
It all worked out in the end, though, with Schroder going on to other, more interesting roles in his adult years (Lonesome Dove was a particular high point). Which is good, since though Silver Spoons was a bonafide hit in its day, it didn't prove to be all that memorable over time (and you'd no doubt agree, Kate, since you couldn't even remember the title).
TV Guide reviewer Robert McKenzie said it best, I think, when he called the series "a half-hour meringue... but once tuned in, it has attractive actors, jokes about sex, some carefully placed hugs... and there goes another half hour."