Does the name Leif Garrett ring a bell? It might if you were around during the late ’70s, and were witness to the phenomenal rise and sudden fall of one of America’s forgotten child stars.
Leif was a cute kid who used his Norwegian-American good looks to full effect, first as a child actor in a string of American TV shows, then as a moderately successful recording artist. Like many Australians, my first glimpse of sixteen year old Leif was on Countdown in 1978, as I watched – with a strange mixture of loathing and envy – the video clip for his first single, a soulless, colour-by-numbers re-make of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA”. (If that’s young Leif doing the falsetto in the chorus then I’ll eat my surfboard.) Nevertheless, it climbed all the way to #2 on the Aussie charts and was the 12th highest selling single in Australia for 1978. Here it is:
Garrett’s musical career continued in this same vein – insipid cover versions of hits from the ’50s and ’60s, along with a brief disco phase - for a few more years, until eventually he was let down by his failing looks and inability to mime his way through his many TV appearances. Here’s Leif in 1979, during his boy-man transitional phase, performing “Moonlight Dancin’”:
Garrett’s star rose again briefly in the early ’80s, with a minor role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. This is actually a very watchable film, and featured early performances by a number of up-and-coming “Brat Pack” stars – Estevez, Lowe, Cruise, Dillon, Macchio, Swayze et al.
But this would be Garrett’s swan song. Like many other child stars of the ’70s, personal troubles ruined his career. The spectre of drug and alcohol dependence loomed over poor Leif from a young age. His best friend was left a paraplegic as a result of a car accident in which Garrett was driving while intoxicated. By 1990 the phone had stopped ringing. Attempts to break back into the music industry in the late ’90s stalled almost immediately.
Amazingly, the rise of reality television and a misty-eyed nostalgia for all things retro have led to a resurgence of interest in former stars such as Leif Garrett. He has appeared in recent years on Fear Factor and Ty Murray’s Bull Riding Challenge, as well as other shows in the “Where are they now?” mold. But the monkey is still firmly on his back, with recent arrests for possession of cocaine and heroin resulting in a short jail term. Here’s one of Leif’s more recent publicity photos, courtesy of the LAPD.