(MONEY Magazine) – On a sun-bright March afternoon in North Hollywood, sandy-haired Texan Chad Linley bursts through the gray door marked coast to coast talent group. The office's eight phone lines are squawking, a scruffy actor waits impatiently, and the 60-gallon aquarium seems near to bubbling over. A gold-earringed young man wrestles the switchboard to silence while motioning Chad to the sofa.

On cue, enter Chad's mom, Dallas acting teacher Cathryn Seymour Sullivan, 39. Her younger son Cody Linley, 5, is braced against one shoulder while a satchel stuffed with her two boys' publicity photos and toys swings from the other. "Do you want your crayons?" she asks a squirming Cody. It's hurry-up-and-wait once again for actors Chad and Cody and their dedicated stage mother.

When Chad's agent, Meredith Fine, admits the trio to her sanctum 15 minutes later, she begins by rattling off her accomplishments. "I've sent 13 kids for screen tests this season," brags Fine, "and four of them booked a job. Only two have dropped out. That leaves seven to go." Sullivan listens while slipping eight-by-10 glossy head shots of Chad and Cody into the slots that line Fine's walls--200 pigeonholes in all, one for each pint-size talent represented by the children's division of the agency. Most of the kid actors are signed for TV commercials. Only a select 50, including 13-year-old Chad, are considered special enough to be tapped for TV or film auditions. Ever so casually, Sullivan asks: "Have you heard anything about the Picket Fences callback?" Fine replies evenly: "They went with a more street-wise kid."

Later, back in the cramped, 475-square-foot apartment the family is renting for six weeks (cost: $1,175), Chad takes the rejection with a poker face. But his mom knows better. "He was down to the final four," she says. "That one really hurt."

Welcome to the competitive world of show-biz moms and kids. The Sullivan/ Linley team is a classic example of the thousands of dream-driven Americans who not only fantasize about the big bucks and big screens their winsome tykes might command, but they also actually spend hard time and money pursuing the elusive limelight.

For Sullivan and her sons, this year's pilgrimage to California was inevitable. January to April is the TV industry's pilot season, the time when producers stage massive hunts for a few lucky kids who will be cast in the fall show lineup. Along with 800 or so parents and kids, Sullivan and her boys hit Hollywood for the million-to-1 shot that Chad could become the next Macaulay Culkin, the child star who earns $8 million a film.

Like every lottery, this one had a price of admission. Sullivan, who charges as much as $45 an hour for acting lessons, didn't work for six weeks. She and second husband Brian, also 39, a technical sales rep for glassmaker PPG Industries, anted up $4,000 for the trip--a hefty 6% of their $66,850 combined yearly income. Chad, yanked out of his private school, had to complete lessons with a local teacher (total cost: $625). Plus, after relocating the family back to Dallas last fall following a three-year stint in Nashville, Brian would be left home alone to oversee construction on the couple's new $139,000, four-bedroom house. The boys' father, Lee Linley, who owns a Dallas hair salon and contributes more than $10,000 a year in child support, would miss weekends with his sons. Still, Cathy Sullivan, loving and ambitious, is convinced the sacrifices are worth it. "If God gives you a talent," she says, "He doesn't want you to sit around and waste it. It was time for Chad to come to L.A." Young Chad was drawn to the world of make-believe by watching his mother teach. His first audition, in Dallas for a TV movie in 1988, was polished enough to get a callback. The role didn't go his way, but on his second time out, he booked a job-a TV commercial for a Los Angeles hospital, filming in Nashville for budget reasons. Pay: $1,200 for a day's work. By December 1993, Chad won the role of Archie Samuels, 10-year-old half brother to Jesse James (played by Rob Lowe) in the made-for-TV Frank and Jesse, shown on HBO this past April. Then he snagged the part of Josh, a first baseman who grows up some in Past the Bleachers, a TV flick that airs on ABC this month (pictured opposite). The experience paid off. After seeing Chad perform last fall in a Nashville seminar, agent Fine, who works with Chad's Dallas agent Sue Loucks, assured his mom that her eldest was ready for L.A. So in February, Sullivan crammed her red '92 Mazda with bedding, pots, Chad's assignments, a TV, a VCR and a fax machine--and they headed west.

What lured them, of course, besides fame, was the possibility of a big payday. Sweet-faced Mara Wilson, 7, who made a name in the recent remake of Miracle on 34th Street, will earn well over $1 million this year. Kids are paid the same scale as adults--a minimum of $504 a day for theatrical film work and $443.50 for commercials made under Screen Actors Guild (SAG) jurisdiction, plus residuals. A continuing role on a sitcom can mean $7,500 per episode. "I have a five-year-old client who has made $150,000 annually for the past three years," says Fine. She keeps 10% of each kid actor's total earnings.

But as Sullivan and other show-biz parents learn, the odds of getting booked are slim to none. Eager to find fresh faces, a casting director might audition 300 hopefuls for one 10-minute turn in a pilot. Of the 78,000 members in SAG-including 6,600 under 18--some 85% report annual earnings of less than $5,000.

No matter. Sullivan and the boys intend to beat the odds. Arriving in L.A., they checked into a furnished apartment in the Toluca Hills Oakwood, a 23-building complex near the film studios. This season, the Oakwood played host to 350 wannabes, up from only 30 kids four years ago. Parent-child teams spend about $6,000 for their three-month sojourn, including rent and special expenses like rented cellular phones to stay in touch with agents and fax machines to receive audition dialogue. Sullivan wanted Chad to get every opportunity. And if somehow he missed, well, there was little Cody--"a natural," says Fine.

Most mornings, Chad attended a storefront private school, whose former students include Janet Jackson and Kristy McNichol. Afternoons were reserved for auditions. Chad did well. In the pilot season's first four weeks, the young teen had appointments on all but three days and got three callbacks.

But for every TV part he's won, Chad auditioned against at least 700 kids. Typically, there were three callbacks each time. Even after earning nearly $6,000 on Past the Bleachers, there was little cash to show. Chad's agent took 10%, and he and his mom spent $2,100 for expenses in Atlanta during filming. Other costs added up: $500 a year for photos and rasumas; $180 for riding lessons to prepare for Frank and Jesse. Audition togs for the two boys run $800 a year. Acting lessons for kids cost $200 or so for 10-week sessions, though Chad and Cody depend on Sullivan.

Cathy and Brian Sullivan downplay the financial realities. "It's not about money," protests Cathy. "It's about fun." But the Sullivans' fragile finances are no laughing matter. After Brian kicked in $2,500 for the L.A. trip, the Sullivans had a paltry $1,500 left in the bank--their only reserves apart from $31,000 in company stock tied up in Brian's retirement account. They paid down $14,500 in credit-card debt last year but still carry a $4,500 balance. Much of that went for furnishing the Nashville house they had bought in '91. When Brian was transferred back to Dallas last November, they sold the Tennessee house for $109,000, pocketing enough to make a down payment on the new $139,000 Dallas home. The couple racked up more debt to fly in Brian's sons from a prior marriage, Ben, 9, and Scotty, 5, for visits from Birmingham, where the boys live with their mother. As for Chad, after six years' work, all he can boast is a snazzy wardrobe, about 100 computer games and $500 in savings.

As pilot season wound down in Oakwood last March, disappointment reigned. Only 65 pilots had been shot, compared with 100 the year before, reflecting the networks' tight budgets. Although Chad had won four callbacks and was hoping for a role in a remake of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas of TV's Home Improvement, the 13-year-old headed home jobless. And Mom went back to Texas $500 over budget.

Even so, everyone's spirits were high as they reached Dallas. The California trip felt worth the effort--except for two ominous notes: At school, Chad got a lowly C in general science amid his usual string of A's. More significantly, all that L.A. competition had shaken his confidence.

Sullivan wasn't sure when she and the boys would try Hollywood again, though a comeback was certain. "I want a meaty role," said Chad firmly. "I hate people who say, 'Oh, you're missing your childhood,' because I love what I'm doing." His mother looked pleased.


To help the sullivans take a hard look at Chad's career and their ailing finances, Money called on two pros.

Hollywood coach Mary McCusker, who worked with Brad Renfro, then 11, in The Client and, more recently, in The Cure, came to the Oakwood to watch Chad work. She thought he showed promise but felt he might better develop by studying with a teacher besides Cathy. "Mothers can't be objective," she notes. Other suggestions:

TAKE CHARGE OF AUDITIONS. "Slow down, get comfortable and let your personality show," says McCusker. "As a guy you can't do much with clothes and makeup, so be physical instead."

DON'T SHOW UP FOR EVERY PILOT SEASON. "You've met casting directors, and they will remember you," she says. "Now your L.A. agent should keep an eye out for films casting around Texas."

Two weeks later, back in Dallas, the Sullivans met with financial planner David Diesslin, who heads his own fee-only Fort Worth firm. He bluntly ticked off the personal-finance basics:

REIN IN SPENDING. All you need is "one leaky roof," said Diesslin to Brian, "and you're going down." Immediate moves: Cut back on entertainment and save at least $250 a month. Build a cash reserve of about three months' worth of living expenses--and preferably twice that--for emergencies. Then apply for another credit card in case a cash advance is urgently needed. (For a list of top, low-rate credit cards, see Money Monitor on page 44.)

INCREASE INSURANCE. Beef up Brian's company $100,000 life insurance policy, suggests Diesslin, by buying a $500,000 or greater annual renewable term policy (for instance, a policy from USAA Life for $980; 800-531-8000).

SECURE THE FUTURE. Brian recently slashed his contribution to his company 401(k) plan from 3% to 1% of his yearly salary, even though the firm matches a 6% maximum dollar for dollar. "You're giving up free money," Diesslin said sharply. "You'd be better off jacking up your contribution to 6% of pay and wiping out the $4,500 credit-card debt next year."

TREAT CHAD'S CAREER AS HIGH RISK. "If he makes it big, Chad's wealth will belong to him alone," points out Diesslin. "Meanwhile, his career is eating cash-and you have four boys to educate."

BUILD CATHY'S EARNINGS. Cathy should resume teaching and look for projects with payoffs. Example: She has considered turning the audition monologues she's written into a book. Says Diesslin: "Find a publisher." (Potential book advance: $500 to $2,000.)

INVEST CHAD'S EARNINGS. Under Texas law, Chad could bring a future civil suit if he thinks his mother and stepfather squandered his earnings. Next time Chad earns a chunk of money, suggests Diesslin, "put $2,000 in a custodial IRA. If you never add another penny, in 50 years with a 9% return it will be worth $180,000." Diesslin recommends an equity total-return fund: Dodge & Cox Balanced (no load; three-year annualized return to April 1: 11.9%; 800-621-3979). Or, for global exposure, SoGen International (3.75% sales load; 10.7% three-year return; 800-628-0252). Diesslin's final caution: "A prudent investment now could forestall big-time trouble down the line."

A month later, Chad had an audition in Dallas for a guest shot on a new PBS series called Wishbone, and the Sullivans were saving $300 a month. They had paid off credit-card debt by selling $4,500 of PPG stock from Brian's retirement account, and he was shopping for more life insurance.