His adolescence was nothing like yours, unless your name happens to be Scott Baio or Justin Timberlake. At the age of 14, Kirk Cameron was receiving 10,000 letters a month while starring as Mike Seaver on the hit sitcom Growing Pains, which ran on ABC from 1985 to '92. For children of the '80s, Mike was the coolest kid on television. Reagan-era children (like myself) were too young to appreciate The Fonz, but we dreamed of having the brown leather coat, the hip parents, and the well-timed wisecracks of Mike Seaver.

Cameron was making $50,000 a week but had to deal with such things as lovesick teenyboppers and kidnapping threats. "Kirk had a couple of ardent fans who kind of went over the top—stalkers, in fact—and that frightened all of us to some degree," says his costar and TV dad Alan Thicke.

In 1986, the kid with the ear-to-ear grin described his life to 16 Magazine: "I'm just going to have to get used to the uncomfortable parts, like not having a lot of privacy. Interviewers want to know if instant stardom is overwhelming and I answer no, it isn't—it is a lot, but I can handle it." This optimistic attitude didn't stop fellow TV star Michael J. Fox from giving Cameron a tip: "Don't let this stuff go to your head. Don't think you're better than anyone else."

Did it work? Ten years after Growing Pains left the air, Kirk Cameron—his boyish good looks still intact, albeit a tad rougher—contemplates that thought while sitting at a booth in IHOP, picking at a ham-and-cheese omelet. "That's a hard question," he sighs. "Even the most arrogant of people would say, 'Well, of course I haven't let it go to my head.' So you probably ought to ask someone else to get an objective opinion. But I think it was good advice, and necessary because it's very easy to let things go to your head. If you give a kid candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, of course he's going to have a warped sense of who runs the world."

Cameron, 32, says he viewed the world as though he were the center of it and began expecting things to be done for him—because they were. "Anything I wanted was given to me. That was what I expected because that was my reality."

'There is no God'

People presumed Kirk Cameron to be the happiest guy on the planet. He was driving around in sports cars. He flew to exotic countries for vacations. He was offered lead roles in movies without having to audition. While all his dreams were coming true, Cameron likens that time in his life to biting into a chocolate bunny on Easter and realizing that it's hollow. "There was this aching, empty feeling that left me very disillusioned with the business I was working in," he says. "What else was there? What else did I have to shoot for? I'd basically reached the top of the ladder, and I was 18."

He sat on the set of Growing Pains contemplating what life was all about. A far cry from the superficial character he played on the show, Cameron was a thinker. "It was difficult to discuss things with people because they knew me on a celebrity level," he says. "You couldn't really get into conversations like that. As a teenager, I wasn't comfortable talking to my parents about it and didn't have any true friends that I could really sit down and talk with."

Although he had only been to church once or twice in his life, the young man had seen hypocrisy and self-righteousness among those who believed in God—so much so that Cameron began to consider himself a "devout atheist."

"As far as I was concerned, thinking people didn't believe in fairy tales," he remembers telling himself. When asked in interviews about God, the teenager would respond: "There's no God. You can't prove that there's a God. Absolutely not. You guys are performing your own lobotomy in order to believe this kind of stuff."