In reality, it doesn’t matter what the cause of death is or the age that someone has died, every death is a tragic loss, no matter how you look at it. However, there’s something especially tragic about a life that has been cut short, especially one in its prime. Whether it’s a person you knew, or perhaps someone you loved, or even someone you’ve admired from afar, it’s hard not to have feelings of hopelessness and despair.
When someone dies young it can be impossible to try and comprehend how much more life that person could have experienced, how much more time we could have shared with them and quite often it takes a tragic loss to truly appreciate how great the gift of life is. All that is left to do is to try and cope, and celebrate the life they lived and not lose ourselves in the awfulness of mourning. We try not to forget, and to cherish the memories, lessons and emotions we shared, and to attempt to look past what could have been.
There are many actors that have fallen through the years, all leaving us with a gift – their work. So we can celebrate their lives on the big screen and they will continue to be enjoyed by new generations.
Here is our list of top 15 actors who died before their prime.
15. Dana Plato
You probably recognize Dana Plato from her role as Kimberly Drummond on the TV series Different Strokes which aired from 1978 to 1986. She was fired from the show because she became pregnant and when the producers found out they didn’t feel a teen pregnancy would fit in with the wholesome reputation Different Strokes had. At 34 and struggling with a substance abuse since her early teens, Plato overdosed from prescription drugs in 1999.
14. Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate was an actress and model, she played in small TV roles and starred in several films. Her film debut came from the 1966 occult film Eye of the Devil, she also starred in The Valley of the Dolls which earned her a Golden Globe Award nomination. Although she was an up and coming actress, she is probably remembered by most people for the heinous way she died. In 1969 at the age of 26, and 8 1/2 months pregnant, Tate and four other people were murdered by the Manson Family.
13. Jonathan Brandis
Brandis began acting at the age of four in different TV commercials and by the time he turned six he had a role on One Life to Live, and went on to appear on hit shows like Full House, L.A Law, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss? At the height of Brandis’s popularity, he was the star in Steven Speilberg‘s Sci-Fi series, SeaQuest DSV. Sadly, on November 12, 2003 Brandis died at the age of 27 from injuries he endured after hanging himself.
12. Heather O’Rourke
Heather O’Rourke was one of the most adorable, sought out child actresses to hit the big screen. She was noticed at the young age of five by director Steven Spielberg and soon after she was cast as Carol Anne Freeling in the horror trilogy Poltergeist. She also had a recurring part on Happy Days from 1982 to ’83. O’Rourke had all the star qualities talent agents look for and most likely would have had a successful acting career, however; due to cardiac arrest which was caused by septic shock from an intestinal stenosis, O’Rourke died in February 1988 at the age of 12.
11. Brad Renfro
Renfro made his film debut at eleven years old in Joel Schumacher‘s The Client and throughout his short life he went on to star in 21 feature films and a few short films. Renfro was in the prime of his career when he died. He starred in hits such as; Sleepers, Apt Pupil, and Bully. Unfortunately, his life spiraled out of control because of a heavy heroin addiction, and Renfro was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment in 2008. He was 25.
10. Chris Farley
Chris Farley got his big break when he was cast on Saturday Night Live in 1990; he was a part of the SNL sketch comedy for five years. After leaving SNL Farley went on to star in a number of comedy movies, including Wayne’s World, Airheads, Billy Madison, Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. Everything seemed to be looking bright for Farley, but sadly, he battled with an alcohol and drug problem and entered rehab a number of times. In late 1997, he overdosed at the age of 33.
9. John Belushi
John Belushi is known for being one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live as well as his role in the movie Animal House. Leading up to the time of Belushi’s death, he had many movie projects on the go including; National Lampoon’s The Joy of Sex, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us and Moons Over Miami. On March 5, 1982 Belushi accidentally overdosed on a mixture of heroin and cocaine at the young age of 33.
8. Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood was a successful, young actress who received three Academy Award nominations by the time she turned 25. Some of her most well known roles were in movies like Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story and Miracle on 34th Street. Just before her death, her last movie Brainstorm was in the production stages, and starred Christopher Walken as well. At 43, Woods drowned near Santa Catalina Island. Her death was confirmed an accident for over 31 years, but in 2012 after re-opening her case officials declared her death as “undetermined”.
7. Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee didn’t take long to follow in his father’s (Bruce Lee) footsteps as an amazing martial artists and actor. His acting career started in 1986 in the TV movie Kung Fu: The Movie, hafter which starred in a number of low-budget action movies throughout the 1990s. Some of his popular films were Showdown in Little Tokyo and Rapid Fire. Lee died while filming the cult classic film The Crow in 1993 in a firearms accident which occurred on set.
6. River Phoenix
River Phoenix started acting at the age of 10 in TV commercials, and soon moved on to film. Over the course of his short life he starred in 24 films, including roles in movies such as Stand by Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and My Own Private Idaho, turning him into an overnight teen sensation. Phoenix had been filming the movie Dark Blood before his death in 1993. He collapsed outside of Johnny Depp‘s nightclub The Viper Room and died from a drug-induced heart failure at the age of 23.
5. Cory Monteith
Monteith was known best for his role as Finn Hudson on the hit TV series Glee. He also starred in the films Monte Carlo and Sisters & Brothers. Monteith had gone public in 2011 and discussed his troubled youth and admitted he had a substance abuse problem at the young age of 12. At 19 he went into rehab and turned his life around, however, in March of 2013 he ended up back in rehab and it was just a few months later he was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room. Monteith died from a toxic combination of alcohol and heroin.
4. Paul Walker
Walker broke into Hollywood with films like Varsity Blues and She’s All That but it wasn’t until 2001 with his role as Brian O’Conner in The Fast and the Furious that really made the star rise to fame. Throughout his career, he went on to star in several films including The Lazarus Project, Hours, and Running Scared. Besides being known for his acting, he was also an avid car racer as well as a philanthropist. Walker was the founder of Reach Out Worldwide, an organization set up to help areas affected by natural disasters. On November 30, 2013 Paul Walker died in a car accident. He was 40.
3. Marilyn Monroe
Actress, singer, model and sex symbol are all titles associated with the blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe. She began a modeling career at a young age and soon made the transition to acting. Monroe landed her first leading role in the 1952 film Don’t Bother to Knock and it wasn’t long after her performance that she was being recognized by Hollywood bigwigs which lead her to star in hits such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and Some Like It Hot. Despite all of her success, Monroe was plagued with personal problems and illness. On August 5, 1962 Monroe was found dead at her home in a scene that appeared to be a probable suicide. She was 36.
2. Heath Ledger
The always charming Heath Ledger moved from Australia to the United States in 1998 to pursue his acting career. In the course of his short life he acted in nineteen films including hits like; A Knights Tale, Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot. Just a few months before Ledger’s death, he had filmed The Dark Knight, where he played the Joker. On January 22, 2008 he died from cardiac arrest due to an accidental intoxicated combination of prescription drugs, he was 28.
1. James Dean
The legendary James Dean was a teenage icon and his fame really only came from three movies, his most popular role was as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and he soon after starred in the Giant and East of Eden. His premature death at the age of 24 from a car accident sealed his legendary status. In 1999, the American Film Institute named him the 18th actor on their AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Stars list.
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