Actor Haley Joel Osment in scene from 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied
Actor Haley Joel Osment in scene from 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied

Why Sixth Sense star disappeared

"I SEE dead people."

The hair-raising line in M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 horror movie The Sixth Sensemight be one of the most iconic sentences delivered in modern cinema.

What made those four words even more devastating was that they were breathlessly uttered by a child.

When 11-year-old actor Haley Joel Osment delivered the message to Bruce Willis on screen, the combination of innocence and horror shook audiences the world over.

The movie made Osment a breakout star.

It saw him nominated for an Academy Award and he was swept around the world doing press for the blockbuster movie.

With his astonishing talent and baleful eyes, he looked set for superstardom with Steven Spielberg and even Tom Cruise coming calling.

There were a couple of other big screen roles and then … nothing. Osment largely disappeared from public view.

So, what happened to the boy who was one of the most promising actors of his generation?

Haley Joel Osment with Bruce Willis in scene from The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied
Haley Joel Osment with Bruce Willis in scene from The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied

LA LA LAND DREAMS

Haley Joel Osment's story starts in Alabama where his parents Theresa, a primary school teacher and Eugene, an actor, met.

After tying the knot in their home state in the mid '80s, they headed west to Los Angeles for Eugene to try and break into the industry.

There Eugene founded a theatre company in Santa Monica using his $1800 in savings, but life was far from easy. The Telegraph has reported that the family lived on noodles with tomato sauce before their luck turned around.

Osment had long been obsessed with movies, telling The Washington Post, "I was Donald Duck for several months when I was three."

Eugene thought his son might have a future on the screen, having said, "I was hit up by a number of my friends in the industry who thought that he was quite articulate and would do well in commercials."

However, Osment's big break came in the unlikeliest of places - Ikea. He was shopping with his mum when a talent scout spotted the youngster and invited him to audition for a Pizza Hut commercial.

"It's still sort of amazing," Osment has said. "They call in several hundred kids - and that was just in that one place - and then it ended up being me and this other kid being on camera for just two seconds."

Still, it was the start of big things with the boy next being cast as Forrest Gump's son in the eponymous movie. Then, horror director M. Night Shyamalan was casting for his next spookfest. While other child actors arrived in T-shirts and baseball caps, he turned up in pressed shirt and jacket. The young boy's reading left an indelible impression on the director.

"It was like I had never heard the dialogue before," Shyamalan has said. "He finished the scene and he was crying and I was crying. I could not believe it. I said: 'Oh my God: Who are you?'"

Haley Joel Osment was once his generation’s brightest star. Picture: Supplied
Haley Joel Osment was once his generation’s brightest star. Picture: Supplied

'I SEE DEAD PEOPLE'

The Sixth Sense was the most unusual of movies - both a blockbuster, ultimately bringing in more than $300 million at the box office, and a critical smash, with reviewers universally raving about the incredible talent of the film's 11-year-old star. From London to Tokyo, Osment did interviews, his maturity belying his young age.

His star status was sealed when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor, seeing him put in the same category as heavyweights such as Tom Cruise, Michael Caine, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Jude Law.

It seemed fitting when Osment was soon cast in Spielberg's much-hyped A.I. with him playing a robot to chilling effect. Two years later he shot Secondhand Lions alongside Michael Caine.

And then, Osment pretty much vanished from screens.

Haley Joel Osment in scene from film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Picture: Supplied
Haley Joel Osment in scene from film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Picture: Supplied

HITTING THE BOOKS

The spectre of Macaulay Culkin and the cautionary child star tales loomed large over Osment, with nearly every interview from around the time of The Sixth Sens e's release touching on his parents' efforts to protect their son from the perils of fame.

"We do our best to try to be an average American family," his mum later told the New York Times. "When we come home from work we do everything from doing the dishes after dinner to cleaning up dog poop in the yard."

Whether on purpose or because the roles started to dry up, Osment largely turned his back on Hollywood, focusing on high school where he even took part in school plays, having to contend with roles in the chorus because of age hierarchy.

"A film like The Sixth Sense burns an image of who you are into people's minds," he told the New Yorker. "In the midst of that it can be difficult to know who you are, or who you are becoming. College seemed like a manageable next step, a place where I could figure that stuff out."

'PARTYING TOO HARD'

Haley hit the headlines, this time for the wrong reasons, in 2006 when he crashed his car, broke his rib and faced misdemeanour charges of driving under the influence.

So, had the much-ballyhooed child star curse came to pass?

Not so according to his mother, who came to her son's defence saying he had been partying "a little bit too much" and that "My son's incident was a pitfall of being 18," she said.

(Osment was put on a three-year probation, sentenced to 60 hours of rehabilitation, and paid a fine.)

BIG APPLE-BOUND

Osment later enrolled in an experimental theatre course at New York University.

"There was this five- to six-year period when I was at school (at NYU) and I was not appearing in a lot of things. I did an indie film, I did a show on Broadway when I was in college that was not that successful," he told Vulture in 2017.

Speaking to the New Yorker he has said, "There isn't a lot on the resumé from that time, but it was the biggest investment I'd made in acting to date. It gave me a radically different set of ideas. I was working hard on my craft, just not in a way that was visible to the public."

Part of the reason he says he was attracted to life in the Big Apple was the anonymity it offered, having said, "It was easier to blend in there. The more successful you are, the less you are able to do that."

Interestingly, around this time, his sister Emily was finding fame starring in Hannah Montana and the Spy Kids movies.

SCREEN RETURN

The last few years have seen Osment make tentative steps back into the entertainment biz. While his IMDB page lists a slew of roles they have largely been in indie films or lower budget TV shows. (Osment has forged a career as a voice actor for video games.)

In 2015, he had a smaller role in the Entourage movie and in 2017, the then 29-year-old guest starred on the hit HBO series Silicon Valley, prompting a slew of "Whatever happened to …" stories about the former child star.

Haley Joel Osment in 2015. Picture: Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Warner Music Group
Haley Joel Osment in 2015. Picture: Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Warner Music Group

Smaller roles in the Ted Bundy movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and in Amazon's superhero satire The Boys have followed.

While Osment might have avoided the most serious pitfalls of fame before he was even in his teens, it is hard not to draw comparisons between his career then and now.

Still, the now-31-year-old seems sanguine about his lot, telling The Telegraph: "When you get lucky as I did and work on some amazing films at a young age, one of the career drawbacks is that the image of you as a child is burned into people's minds for a long time.

"Of course I'm proud that the films are still loved and stand a good chance of being watched for many years to come. But for an actor it's important to keep diversifying and hope that people will see the span of your work rather than just that moment in time."

Daniela Elser is a freelance writer.


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