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."

Change of heart

An actor on the set invited the teen star to his church in Fullerton, California, where well-known preacher and author Chuck Swindoll was then pastor. Although he was hesitant, Cameron agreed to go. It was there that he heard a message about God's holiness, about judgment against sin, and the concepts of grace, mercy and the Cross.

"I left the church with my head filled with questions," says the actor. "I felt guilty when he talked about sin."

One day, after dropping off his friend at acting class, Cameron pulled his sports car to the side of Van Nuys Boulevard in Studio City. The thought occurred to him that if he were to die in a car crash that day, he wouldn't go to heaven. This is too important. I don't want to be wrong about all this, he thought. "I prayed the clumsiest prayer that's probably ever been prayed. I closed my eyes, because I thought that's what you were supposed to do when you pray. I said, 'God, if you are there, please show me. If you are real, I need to know.' "

He started studying the Scriptures. "I couldn't get enough of the Bible," he recalls. "I read about this amazing God who sees my thought life, who considers lust to be adultery, who considers hatred to be murder, who sees all the sins that I've committed that no one else knows about—the secret arrogant attitudes. And instead of giving me what I deserved, he's provided a way for me to be forgiven and changed."

Baby-Christian steps

Cameron's newfound Christian faith began to change the teen heartthrob. Unfortunately, not all of the changes seemed that positive to his colleagues on the set of Growing Pains.

"When he came back from [the summer hiatus in 1990], Kirk was very different," producer Steve Marshall told the cable series E! True Hollywood Story. "No practical jokes, very serious. If he wasn't in a scene, he'd go away."

Cameron's TV mom Joanna Kerns agrees. "Kirk kind of pulled away from all of us in a way that made it very odd suddenly," she told E!. "We were all very close, and then we weren't."

"He seemed kind of sad, and we thought that was odd for somebody who had found religion," adds Marshall. "Usually religion brings joy into a person's life, and he didn't seem very joyful."

As he got deeper into his faith, Cameron found himself wanting to be an even stronger role model in the public eye. He now objected to sexual innuendoes, such as a scene that actually depicted a bad dream his mother was having. Mike Seaver was to be in bed, without his shirt on, lying next to a beautiful girl. The writers wanted him to say the line: "Hey, babe. Good morning. By the way, what's your name again?" Immediately his mother, Maggie Seaver, would bolt up, wake from her nightmare, and be thankful it was just a dream.

"You didn't know it was a dream at first," says Cameron. "It was for shock value. At the time, I felt really uncomfortable with that." He told the producers, "Surely we can think of something else that would make Maggie break out into a sweat." But the writers felt like the teen star was exerting too much power.

"That was huge," writer Lelani Downer recalls. "That was the night the writers said we're quitting and going home. We were not going to budge on it. It was like a hostage situation."

Gung-ho about his newfound principles, Cameron began to further ostracize himself from the other cast members. He fell in love with his costar Chelsea Noble—an actress who also was a Christian—and they began spending their free time together. By the time they married in 1991, none of the Growing Pains cast members were invited to the ceremony.

While "cleaning up" the show might have been a gallant effort (even though the show was rather innocuous as far as sitcoms go), the actor admits he made some mistakes common to new believers—such as distancing themselves so far from the world that they do no good for anyone. The show ended in 1992, and Cameron gladly went his separate way.

In time, however, he realized his missteps. In 2000, he rejoined his former cast members for a Growing Pains reunion movie. With a decade of spiritual growth under his belt, he stood in front of his TV family and apologized. "I was a 17-year-old guy trying to walk with integrity, knowing that I was walking in the opposite direction from many other people. I didn't have the kind of maturity and graceful way of putting things perhaps that I would now," he says.

Cameron's fellow actors immediately embraced him. "He is [once again] the Kirk that I remember," costar Jeremy Miller told E!. "He is the fun-loving, playful, generous, amazing person that we all grew to love."

All grown up

Nowadays, Christian audiences know Cameron for his role in the Left Behind films, which are based on the best-selling book series. The latest installment, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, premiered last fall on home video.

Cameron is excited to be involved in Christian films, despite their decidedly lower budgets. "Instead of staying away from a small-budget, independent movie," he explains, "I wanted to get involved and say, 'What can I do to help raise the bar and make it better?' I think we've been able to do that from the first to the second movie."

One of the perks of doing Left Behind is the opportunity to once again work with his wife, who is also featured in the films. Cameron and Noble live in a Spanish-style home on an oak tree-lined acre of property near the Santa Monica Mountains. The house is perfect for their large family.

"Chelsea and I knew we wanted to have a big family," says the happy father of five. "We got talking about the subject of adoption. We decided, 'Wow, there's a lot of kids who need families.'"

The couple adopted their son, Jack, and soon thereafter were surprised to find that Noble was pregnant. "Olivia being conceived—it wasn't something we were planning," he says. "We were very surprised, but at the same time, thrilled." They adopted one baby per year—for three more years—bringing the brood to their present total. And Cameron hints that the family could possibly grow even larger in the future.

In addition to the Left Behind movies, the actor is currently enthusiastic about his partnership with Way of the Master Ministries (www.wayofthemaster.com), a program designed by author Ray Comfort to teach Christians how to share their faith effectively. It's something that might have helped Cameron when he first became a Christian at the height of his popularity. He now writes for the Way of the Master website while considering acting offers, which he admits aren't quite as frequent as they were a decade ago.

Yet Kirk Cameron isn't worried about his mainstream Hollywood career. "My job is my job," he says. "I'd love to be on a hit television show again, but not for the sake of being on the cover of all the magazines. I'd do it simply because I was putting something great into the hands of American families."

Cameron takes a final bite of his omelet and pushes his plate away. "As I've matured as a man and a Christian, I've gone from an actor who's become a Christian to a husband and a father who wants to lead his family in integrity and in living a life of faith."

Not bad for a guy who once basked in the limelight and wore his atheist badge with pride. It was a bumpy journey, but that cool kid with the leather jacket and smart mouth is all grown up.

A Christian Reader original. Dan Ewald is a writer living in Venice, California.Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.