“Everyone can do a character the way they want to do it, unless the director tells them not to, which isn’t very common. I like to do my character, if it’s not specific in the script, as myself.” Arguably one of the most talented child actors of the 1980s thanks to his outstanding performances in The NeverEnding Story, Cocoon and D.A.R.Y.L., Barret Oliver was well on his way to writing his own ticket in Hollywood when he pulled the plug on his career after three years of stardom. In what’s now considered one of the strangest disappearing acts from Tinsel Town in the last three decades, let’s uncover Oliver’s legacy, his curious departure at only 16 years old, and where life has taken him today!
The youngest of two sons born to Kathy and Kent Oliver, Barret Spencer Oliver was born on August 24, 1973 in Los Angeles, California. With his older brother, Kyle, already interested in acting thanks to a family friend’s connection to show business, the young Barret happily followed his brother into the business as his mother managed their careers while his father worked as an interior designer. Attending Los Feliz Apple School in between auditions, Barret saw his career take off in the early 1980s when he snagged commercials for Jell-O with Bill Cosby and bit parts on television series like The Incredible Hulk and Knight Rider. In 1982, he made his film debut as a child in the supermarket in Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again and appeared in Kiss Me Goodbye and Uncommon Valor before catching a huge break in 1984.
Auditioning against 200 boys for the part of Bastian Balthazar Bux in The NeverEnding Story, Oliver was initially turned away for being far too young for the role but, after six months of endless searching, producers called him back and hired him for the part after Oliver wowed the film’s director, Wolfgang Petersen, with one final audition. The children’s classic was a huge hit and grossed over $100 million at box offices across the country before it hit theaters around the world and made Oliver an international star and a household name in Hollywood. He went on to land the starring role in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie when the former child star turned director, Ron Howard, invited Oliver to audition for his newest project, Cocoon.
By the end of Cocoon, Oliver was a veteran in the industry and was quick to set the record straight on his rise to fame saying, “I didn’t start out with a spectacular movie. Many people think you don’t have to go from nothing to the top, they think you start at the top. I started with a commercial where I didn’t even have any lines and six years later, look where I am. So, it takes a while.” However, “a while” for Oliver seemed like overnight success to many as he became the top choice for the leading role in the 1985 sci-fi flick, D.A.R.Y.L. Despite great expectations, the film was a flop at the box office but, even then, no one could deny Oliver’s talent as he took home a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor and earned a Young Artist Award nomination for Best Young Actor in a Motion Picture.
Going on to reprise his role in Cocoon: The Return in 1988, Oliver grew tired of Hollywood and soon realized that his childhood charm would quickly fade as he reached his teens. “I think it’s fun, but it really is a job,” Oliver said of his career. “In D.A.R.Y.L., there was a part where I had to freeze to death and they didn’t even use it. It can get kind of frustrating, but I don’t regret that I decided to become an actor. Besides, if I don’t like it at any time, I can stop.”
Oliver wrapped up the decade with credits in The Secret Garden, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Tall Tales & Legends and Hooperman before he kept his promise and stepped out of the spotlight for good. He turned down auditions and returned scripts as he focused more on his life at school, which only made fans want more of the young Oliver as rumors ran wild about his curious departure at the height of his early career. With some reporters suggesting he joined a cult or turned to drugs to cope with his overnight fame, other tabloids reported that he became a Scientologist or, believe it or not, was murdered in one of Hollywood’s grizzliest unsolved mysteries. Crazy, right?
The rumors continued as Oliver stayed entirely out of the spotlight until 2004 when fans finally learned that he wasn’t a drug addict, a Scientologist, or—thank goodness—murdered! In fact, he emerged a well-adjusted former child star whose interests in film transitioned to photography and art in college. He studied under artist Stephen Berkman and master photographers Cole Weston and George Tice who introduced him to the 19th century technique of wet-plate photography. Instantly drawn to the style, Oliver adopted the process as his own and has spent the last decade giving lectures and hosting workshops around the country to promote the unique craft.
Publishing numerous articles on the subject under a pseudonym to prevent his silver screen fame from overshadowing his work, the now 44-year-old Oliver looks a bit different from his younger days as one fan attended one of Oliver’s photo exhibitions where she saw the actor turned photographer in person. “He has a full beard, wears glasses and has long hair,” she wrote on one of many dedicated fan websites. “His voice was recognizable, he wasn’t really tall, and spoke quietly.”
Continuing to share his love for the 19th century technique as a photography teacher in his native Los Angeles, Oliver has even published a book of his work titled A History of the Woodburytype. And, while his work is often featured around the world from a Guinness commercial in Ireland to a Romanian film titled Cold Mountain, Oliver hasn’t shown any signs that he regrets his curious departure from Hollywood over three decades ago. In fact, he seems completely content with where life has taken him as he shares his eye for artistry without the unwanted fame and demands of Tinsel Town.