When a celebrity dies, it makes us feel a lot of emotions. Think back to 2016, when celebrities were suddenly dropping like flies. We were suddenly terrified of our favorite famous people because it seemed like no one was safe. This was with adult celebrities, too. While some of the actors who died were old enough to have died of old age, many of them died in freak health events or accidents. The whole thing was just an exercise in remembering how short and fleeting life actually is. This sentiment goes double for child stars. It’s incredibly tragic when any child dies, and we’re reminded of that whenever a child in the public eye dies.
While some of the stars on this list died a long time ago, others died within the last few years. Some of them were adults when they died, while others were still children when their lives were cut short. Some of the kids struggled with depression, drug addiction, and more, while others were living perfectly normal lives, or at least as normal as their lives could have been as child stars. You might recognize some of these names as people who ended up becoming huge stars as adults or at least maintained a certain level of fame, but some of these people dropped off the face of the earth after their turn at stardom, only entering the public consciousness again after they died. Either way, their lives were all tragically cut short by personal demons or freak circumstances. Here are fifteen child actors who died way too young.
15. Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis started out as a child model, but made his acting debut in commercials and eventually graduated to TV and film roles. His first major role was a guest spot on One Life To Live, and in 1990, he achieved widespread fame for his role in IT, the Stephen King adaptation that is getting massive attention now. At 17, he landed a role on seaQuest DSV playing Lucas Wolenczak, a role that gained him a huge teenage female fanbase. That all ended in 2003 when he died by suicide in the hallway of his LA apartment. After his death, it came out that he’d been depressed about his career, which started really declining in the last few years of his life. On top of that, a part he’d gotten in a movie in 2002 was largely left on the cutting room floor.
14. Heather O’Rourke
Heather O’Rourke was born in 1975 and was discovered by Steven Spielberg when she was visiting MGM Studios. He cast her as Carol Anne in Poltergeist, and she’s the one who says “They’re here!” She’s also in the two sequels that came afterward. Additionally, she had a role on Happy Days and did a lot of guest spots on different shows. She died at the age of twelve. People initially thought she died of the flu, but it ended up being an obstruction that gave her sepsis, which ended up killing her. She died in the middle of promoting the third Poltergeist movie, which was dedicated to her memory. Her family ended up suing the hospital that gave her the influenza diagnosis since she’d had the obstruction for years and her doctors all missed it. The case was settled out of court.
13. Sky McCole Bartusiak
Sky McCole Bartusiak starred in several major projects over the course of her very short life. She got her start in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century before getting her big break as Mel Gibson’s daughter in The Patriot. She also starred in Don’t Say A Word, Riding In Cars With Boys, Love Comes Softly, Kill Your Darlings, and Wild About Harry. She’s also been in episodes of SVU, Frasier, Judging Amy, Touched By An Angel, LOST, George Lopez, and more. She was nominated for both the film and TV categories for kids under 10 in the 2002 Young Artist Awards, too. She died in 2014 in her apartment behind her parents’ house in Houston. She’d evidently been suffering from seizures before she died, but it ended up being an accidental drug overdose. At her memorial service, her brother Stephen told mourners: “If you want to know what makes Sky happy, go out and plant a tree.”
12. Corey Haim
Corey Haim was born in 1971 and was majorly famous in the mid-1980s for rules in a variety of films, including Lucas, Silver Bullet, Murphy’s Romance, License to Drive, Dream a Little Dream, and Snowboard Academy. He was famous for pairing up with Corey Feldman in The Lost Boys, which made both of them household names. He had a drug habit in the past but made a comeback after getting sober in the mid-2000s and shooting a reality show with Feldman. In 2007, Haim affirmed: “I want to be the guy they talk about when they talk about comebacks. I want people to learn from me, see I’m human, and understand that I make mistakes just like they do, but it doesn’t have to consume you. You’ve got to walk through the raindrops, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” He eventually opened up about his experiences as a victim of sexual abuse, but he never revealed the name of his abuser. He died of pneumonia, but he’d also been severely addicted to pain medication at the time of his death.
11. River Phoenix
River Phoenix’s real name is River Jude Bottom, and he was the eldest of five children who are also famous. He began his career at ten and went on to star in movies that would cement his status as a teen idol for decades to come. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988 and 1991, establishing himself as a great actor who would probably still be acting today. However, he died on October 31st, 1993 of a combined drug overdose. He’d taken drugs on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room (partially owned by Johnny Depp at the time) in West Hollywood, which is what a lot of people remember about him now. What people tend to forget is that he was an animal and environmental rights activist who was passionate about being vegan. He also campaigned for Bill Clinton back in 1992.
10. Dana Plato
Dana Plato began her career at seven when she started appearing in different TV commercials. We don’t actually have a number of how many commercials she was in, but it’s somewhere in the triple digits. She spent eight years as a regular on Diff’rent Strokes, and even then she was having drug issues. She admitted to smoking weed, taking cocaine and drinking alcohol in her early teens, even suffering a diazepam overdose at 14. She was let go from the show after she married a rock star and had a child because they didn’t think a real-life pregnancy would fit into the show’s image. In 1991, she tried to rob a video store and was arrested immediately, and in 1992, she was arrested and served a month in jail for trying to forge a diazepam prescription. She’s actually part of the reason why people started talking about the difficulties of child stars. She killed herself the day after she did an interview on Howard Stern where callers questioned her decade-long sobriety. Eleven years later, her only son would do the same.
9. Gary Coleman
Gary Coleman is another child star coming out of Diff’rent Strokes, and he’d had a difficult life. However, he’s probably one of the greatest child stars ever, even now with all these child stars showing up. He was the most popular actor on the series, and at the height of his career, he was earning $100,000 an episode. He was filming all the time to the detriment of his health and mental well-being, which contributed to his health issues and made him separate himself from the rest of the cast. He starred in a multitude of films after Diff’rent Strokes and even ran a satirical campaign for Governor of California in the 2003 recall election, but voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger instead. Even then, he still placed 8th out of 135 candidates in the race. He died of an epidural hematoma after falling down the stairs.
8. Judith Barsi
Judith was groomed to become an actress from the moment she was born. She was discovered at the age of five at a skating rink and was cast in Fatal Vision, where she played a three-year-old girl. Her small size led directors to cast her as younger than she actually was. By the time she was in the fourth grade, she was earning $100,000 a year. That was in large part thanks to her role as Ducky from The Land Before Time, Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go To Heaven, and Thea Brody in Jaws: The Revenge. The more successful she got, the more abusive her father got, though. She was last seen riding her bike the morning of July 25, 1988, the day she and her mother were shot and killed by her father, who wandered the house for two days before killing himself. Judith was ten years old. Her last movie was All Dogs Go To Heaven, and according to director Don Bluth, she was “absolutely astonishing. She understood verbal direction, even for the most sophisticated situations,” and he’d planned on featuring her in his future films.
7. Michael Cuccione
Michael Cucionne wore many hats during his life. He was an actor, singer, and dancer, and he also wrote books and raised awareness for cancer research. When he was nine years old, he was diagnosed with stage 2A Hodgkin’s lymphoma which went away with chemotherapy but came back the next year. The next bout of cancer also affected his lungs, but after a heroic dose of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he was cancer free, albeit with permanent lung and breathing problems. He established a foundation for cancer research and recorded a five-song CD to raise awareness. As for his entertainment career, he played Jason McKnight in 2gether, a show about a fake boy band that was so popular, they opened for Britney Spears and had albums that hit the Billboard Top 100. Sadly, once the show started taping season 2, Michael started suffering from breathing problems and spent his last Christmas, New Year’s, and birthday in the hospital before dying of respiratory failure. He had just turned 16.
6. J. Madison Wright Morris
J. Madison Wright Morris made her acting debut in the comedy Grace Under Fire, and her big break came when she got cast as True Danzinger in Earth 2. She also played the very first child character to ever die on ER, which was a big enough deal when it aired that the episode got nominated for an Emmy. She left her acting career and ended up needing a heart transplant, which she got in 2000. She then became an activist raising awareness of the importance of organ donation. She graduated from college in the summer of 2006, and she was all set to start her job teaching English to tenth-graders in Kentucky. She got married on July 8th, 2006, and the day after she got back from her honeymoon, she suffered a massive heart attack, where she died on July 21st, just over a week away from her 22nd birthday and sixteen days after her Shiloh co-star Amzie Strickland did. Her funeral was held in the same church she’d gotten married in just days before.
5. Lee Thompson Young
Lee Thompson Young is probably most famous for playing Jett Jackson in The Famous Jett Jackson and Chris Comer in Friday Night Lights. He was one of the major stars of The Disney Channel in the late 90s and early 2000s, but once Jett Jackson was canceled, he quickly found new work. He played Cyborg on Smallville, appeared in Akeelah and the Bee, and had a recurring role in Flash Forward. He was working on Rizzoli and Isles at the time of his death. He hadn’t shown up to film an episode, leading police to do a well-being check on him at his apartment. That was where they found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was revealed afterward that he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been suffering from depression before he died. His family launched the Lee Thompson Young Foundation to try and help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.
4. Bobby Driscoll
Bobby Driscoll was a child actor and artist whose filmography was pretty long before he died. He was the kid in a lot of the very early live-action Disney films from the 40s and 50s, including Song of the South and Treasure Island. His career had started to slow down the mid-1950s when he started doing guest appearances on anthology shows to pay the bills. He won a Juvenile Academy Award in 1950for his performances in The Window and So Dear To My Heart. Unfortunately, he got addicted to narcotics and ended up being sent to prison for drug use. When he got out, he became an avant-garde artist. He died at the early age of 31 with no money, addicted to drugs, and four weeks after his 31st birthday.
3. Bridgette Andersen
Bridgitte Andersen was the little girl who starred in the movie Savannah Smiles and had roles in a few TV shows and movies after that. She wanted to be an actress from the age of two, starting out as a model before getting her first acting gig at the age of seven. She was actually in an episode of The Golden Girls and had a role in the Ryan O’Neil movie Fever PItch. Unfortunately, she developed a heroin addiction during her teen years. She wasn’t close to her family at all and actually didn’t have much contact with them. She died in 1997 of an overdose at the tender age of 21. At the time of her death, she wasn’t acting at all, but working at a health food store in Los Angeles, California while she was working on her sobriety.
2. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer
Carl Switzer, shown above with Elizabeth Taylor as a child, started out his career as an actor in the 1930s when he landed the role of Alfalfa in the Our Gang shorts. The problem was that he did such a good job as Alfalfa that he was never able to find another role that wasn’t typecasting him. As an adult, he ended up doing a bunch of B-movies and bit parts, but he never achieved the same level of fame. He eventually left show business to become a dog breeder and hunting guide. He also got married in 1954 and had a son before getting divorced two years later. He died at the young age of 31 because of a money dispute of $50. He was training a dog that got lost that was found by a random guy and posted a reward for finding it and wanted to get repaid that money by the dog’s owner. The dog owner refused and Switzer attacked him, which resulted in him getting killed.
1. Anissa Jones
Anissa Jones played Buffy on the CBS sitcom Family Affair in 1966, when she was just eight years old. She was on the show 24/7, either filming the show or promoting it. This continued even when she broke her leg in a playground when the producers wrote it into the show. The show was canceled after five seasons in 1971 in CBS’s infamous “rural purge” campaign. After that, she auditioned for the part of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, but because she was so famous as Buffy, the director of the movie thought there would be too much pop culture crossover, so Linda Blair got cast instead. Anissa then went to high school and didn’t act anymore. She started shoplifting and doing drugs and died a few months after her 18th birthday of a drug overdose. According to the coroner who examined her body, she died of one of the most severe ODs he’d ever seen.
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