Haley Joel Osment became a Hollywood sensation in 1999 when he starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror drama The Sixth Sense. Then only 11 years old, the young star picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. However, only seven years after shooting to stardom, Osment had mostly disappeared from the big screen and experienced a particularly difficult moment in his personal life.
Child stardom can often be fraught with pitfalls, and many interviews that Osment’s parents have conducted speak to that. And following the release of The Sixth Sense, interviews have often centered around how they intended to keep their son safe and grounded. On that note, his father Michael Eugene Osment told The New York Times in 2007, “We do our best to try to be an average American family.”
Osment’s father Michael went on to talk about the normal domesticity that his family sought to maintain. He said, “When we come home from work, we do everything from doing the dishes after dinner to cleaning up dog poop in the yard.” Despite this, Osment himself has spoken honestly about how people always expected his childhood fame to have come with a dark side.
In 2019 Osment told The Independent that, “I think sometimes there’s an expectation for there to be that darkness. But I think there are a lot more stories of people who had positive experiences working as children… And that’s been the case for me.” Though as we’ll explore later, Osment did experience some hard times as he grew into young adulthood.
Perhaps Osment was able to navigate Hollywood as a child in a relatively straightforward manner due to his maturity at a young age and his family connection to acting. His father Michael, who was a theater and film actor, told The Washington Post in 2001 that he never spoke “baby talk” to his infant son. He added, “I always treated him older than his age… so that he learned just a little quicker than others.”
Michael formed an L.A. theater company in the mid-1980s and worked as a courier to add to any money made from acting. He told the publication that he and his wife Theresa, who are both from Alabama, gave Osment a “good old-fashioned southern upbringing.” And later, their son became an articulate, respectful and well-behaved child with a wide vocabulary.
When director M. Night Shyamalan was casting The Sixth Sense, he saw countless boys read for the part of psychic child Cole Sear. Most of the child actors who auditioned were dressed casually in a T-shirt and cap. Osment, however, arrived for his audition wearing a smart suit and jacket combination.
And Shyamalan has described how he felt watching Osment’s audition. According to the New Yorker, he said at the time, “It was like I had never heard the dialogue before. 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?’”
Osment’s co-star in the 2001 sci-fi opus A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Frances O’Connor, gave her own take on what she thought made him such a compelling actor. She told The Washington Post, “The best actors, their sense of authenticity – it’s like they almost have a moral obligation to be truthful. I think [Osment] is just innately truthful and I think the camera picks that up.”
The newspaper article then attempted to solve the mystery of Osment’s almost preternaturally authentic performances. Writer Libby Copelan wrote about how, “In terms of years, he was a minor, but by other measures he was more like an intense little man. He has been called an old soul.”
Copelan claimed that on The Sixth Sense, Osment hurled himself against a stage wall repeatedly before filming a scene in which he had to appear traumatized. She added that while making Pay It Forward he reportedly asked Helen Hunt, who played his mother, to slap him for real in a scene – instead of a stage slap. This was done, the author wrote, so that “he could feel the shock.”
Osment seemed perfectly well-adjusted and happy off-set, though, with little of the intensity usually displayed by method actors. In fact, when Copelan asked whether he drew on dark life experience for his roles, he was nonplussed. The actor responded, “There’s nothing too intense about what’s happened to my life. It’s all about being able to imagine.”
In 2014 Osment told The New Yorker that he always had the steady presence of his parents in his life – as well as his agent Meredith Fine. The star mused, “I think they worried a lot about what might happen to me along the way. Being the parent of a kid in the industry often causes people to question motivations.”
Osment continued, “They wonder, ‘Are the parents being exploitative?’” However, he was adamant that his parents never did this, as they prioritised normal life more than his acting. “My audition with Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump was memorable not because I was going to meet a Hollywood star but because we were due to go on a camping trip in South Carolina immediately afterwards. At that time the work was easy going.”
The actor did admit, however, that his family’s efforts to live normal lives were put to the test after his quick rise to stardom. Osment explained to the New Yorker, “For the first time I would be recognized in public and I encountered the whole new challenge of maintaining privacy. It was a major change, although my parents probably shouldered that more than I did at that time.”
Osment also spoke of how his career choices at that point were a team effort. He said, “After that movie… we had to think about what smart choices we were going to make. My parents, agent and I increasingly had to work to avoid being attached to the wrong kinds of movies.”
The star believed, ultimately, that his career in the aftermath of The Sixth Sense was characterized by him choosing to work with people he could trust. And one of those individuals was the legendary director Steven Spielberg. Osment added, “[He] made it easy for us. We immediately had the sense that I was in the right hands and doing the right kind of work.”
In 2015 Osment again touched on the positive influence of his parents during his childhood in an interview with The Telegraph. He said, “They emphasised school as the most important thing and really kept my feet on the ground.” The actor then went on to outline the reality of his life at the time – juggling between being a Hollywood star and a normal kid.
Osment went on, “When I was younger, making those movies took about two or three months and for the rest of the year I would be in a regular school. So that enabled me to have friends who weren’t in the industry and a life that was separate from Hollywood.”
However, Osment disappeared from the big screen when he got a little bit older. Was it a case of Hollywood cruelly casting him aside as he began to grow up? Not according to the actor, who said the reason was much less dramatic. He told The Telegraph, “I went to New York University to study experimental theater in 2006 and was there pretty consistently until 2011.”
“I lived in New York for about eight years and I did a play on Broadway in 2008 – David Mamet’s American Buffalo – and made two independent films but it was hard to be in college and do films, too,” Osment continued. “So, for about five years I was basically just in college.”
Osment apparently found university to be an ideal place for him to figure out who he was as an actor and a person. After all, as he told The New Yorker, “A film like The Sixth Sense burns an image of who you are into people’s minds.” The actor added, “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.”
Osment added that his time at the institution was “the biggest investment I’d made in acting to date.” The actor also acknowledged that the world might have felt that he’d disappeared because of his time away from the big screen. But he knew different, saying, “I was working hard on my craft, just not in a way that was visible to the public.”
For Osment, the university gave him the chance to interact with other actors who weren’t necessarily focused on or intimidated by his celebrity status. They knew who he was, of course. But because many of the students weren’t necessarily intent on making it in Hollywood, “That diversity of career goals made things easier for relationships to grow.”
In college, Osment was able to explore areas of acting that he’d never had any experience of as a child. The most exciting thing for him was a newfound opportunity to play evil characters. He told the New Yorker, “There aren’t many roles for villainous [children]. I’m most well-known for being a good kid and the moral center of the movie.”
“So, in college, the most fun I had was to play as bad guys,” Osment continued. “It’s telling that most of my current roles are dark and nasty. It’s not about running away from what I did as a kid, but it’s a way to keep things fresh and challenging. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve done.”
However, before Osment started attending college in 2006, he reached a low point in his personal and professional life. While driving late one evening in Los Angeles, he crashed his 1995 Saturn into the brick base of a mailbox. This caused the car to flip and he suffered a broken rib and a shoulder injury.
Osment was subsequently charged with driving under the influence, and police also found illegal drugs on him, too. As a result, the actor pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to three years of probation. He was also fined and ordered to attend 60 hours of rehabilitation and 26 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Around the time of the accident, Osment refused to place any blame for his indiscretion on Hollywood. According to the website Throwbacks, he said at the time, “With regard to that incident, whatever attention has been given to it, I brought it upon myself. So, I would definitely not say that my childhood in this business caused that in any way but the response to it is definitely something that is affected by my place in the business.”
Osment was clearly aware of the impact his status as a famous child actor had on the reporting of his accident. But he refused to be bitter about the media’s interest in it. The online publication quoted as actor as saying, “… For me it was a good lesson. You can’t blame the press for giving attention to incidents like that.”
“[The car accident] was an extremely important learning experience for me to try and stay in check and do the right things, like I always should,” Osment apparently added. He then began his college course later in 2006 and subsequently withdrew from the public eye for a number of years.
In a 2007 The New York Times published a piece entitled “The Joys and Perils of Teen Stardom,” and Osment’s father was asked about his opinion of his son’s accident. He replied, “My son’s incident was a pitfall of being 18.” He said that Osment simply partied “a little bit too much” and “did a foolish thing” before he left for university.
Michael’s comments came in a piece which focused heavily on his daughter Emily – Osment’s little sister and also a Hollywood child star. She is best known for playing Lilly Truscott, the title character’s best friend in the Disney Channel television series Hannah Montana. She also appeared in the Spy Kids films and even released an album in 2010.
In the piece, Emily spoke of how hard it was to manage all of the publicity that came with working on Hannah Montana. The actress said she tried to be, “normal” for as long as she could, but she eventually had to leave school and be tutored privately on-set. Emily also mentioned not liking it when fans took pictures of her in gym clothes or wrote fake blogs under her name.
Emily was faced with an entirely different side of fame than her brother, however. For the 2007 Emmy Awards, she was offered designer dresses to wear to the event, though she ended up buying a dress from the mall instead. Furthermore, she and her father – who operated as her manager – were weighing up whether to say yes to an advertising campaign for jeans. Eugene told The New York Times that he didn’t “want her to be too sexy” in the adverts.
All in all, the family seemed content to navigate the tricky waters of Hollywood child stardom – with all its highs and lows. And Osment himself did eventually make a return to acting as an adult. However, he made a point to avoid “stunt casting” – something which played on people’s memory of him as a child.
Osment played a portly Nazi in the Kevin Smith’s comedy Yoga Hosers and a foul-mouthed Southern movie financier in the Entourage film. He also had memorable guest spots in television shows like Silicon Valley and The Boys. Then, in 2019 he appeared in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – a Netflix movie about serial killer Ted Bundy.
In 2017 the actor talked to the AV Club about his delight at being able surprise people by taking roles they wouldn’t necessarily associate him with. Osment said that after years of not being in L.A., “coming back and doing kind of unexpected characters” was fun. And he especially loved how he was now getting the chance to do roles with bizarre costumes and props.
Osment continued, “People are like, ‘I didn’t realize this was you until the end.’ And as an actor, that’s some of the most fun stuff, when you can, for whatever reason, kind of disappear into a role.” And when asked whether the actor specifically chose “outlandish characters,” he responded, “I think most actors would say some of the most fun roles are when you’re evil, and that’s been really exciting to be the bad guy in a lot of scenarios.”
Overall, Osment perhaps best described his attitude to his career in his 2015 interview with The Telegraph. Acknowledging the risk of being typecast for some of his early work, he added, “Of course I’m proud that the [earlier] 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.”