As Robert De Niro said to his son in Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale, “one of the saddest things in life is wasted talent.” When it comes to creative folk such as actors, painters and writers, the same talent that drives their ability can also trigger tragedy.
Success for these type of people can result in a situation where the darker demons of celebrities are enabled to a much greater extent than if they lived a relatively normal life outside of the limelight, without a fortune and idle time to pursue potentially destructive behavior.
Some of the most dramatic examples of creative talent leading to tragedy happen when young celebrities, such as actresses and actors, engage in destructive substance abuse patterns that result in addiction, overdose and death.
Occasionally, rising stars perish early simply because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting caught in a terrible plane crash, car wreck or another type of deadly accident that cuts their lives short.
This list showcases actors and actresses that passed away far too early, tragically taking them and their talents from the world during what should have been the prime of their lives.
13. Lee Thompson Young
An actor ever since he played Martin Luther King in a play when he was ten, Lee Thompson Young was born on February 1st, 1984 in Columbia, South Carolina.
He found success playing the title character in The Famous Jett Jackson, expanding into roles on other shows such as Friday Night Lights, Scrubs, FlashForward, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, South Beach and Rizzoli & Isles.
Sadly, Lee suffered from bipolar disorder, diagnosed with the mental illness as a teenager. He struggled with the disease while he grew his career, attending therapy sessions and taking medication to help cope. Ultimately, he was overwhelmed by the condition, taking his own life in 2013 with a single gunshot.
12. Christopher Pettiet
Born in Dallas, Texas in 1976, Christopher Pettiet started his career at a young age as a child actor in various television series. As a teenager, he starring in movie hits such as Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and Point Break, eventually earning his own show playing Jesse James on The Young Riders television program.
However, despite his success, Christopher struggled with massive addiction issues, which started to erode his health and acting opportunities.
In the year 2000, he ended up overdosing a couple of months after his birthday at the young age of 24. This was after repeated attempts to get help. Posthumously, his manager started a scholarship under his name.
12. Skye McCole Bartusiak
Skye McCole Barthusiak shot to fame in her movie roles The Cider House Rules, Don’t Say a Word and as Mel Gibson’s daughter in The Patriot. She parleyed this success into solid, consistent gigs such as a recurring role on 24 and appearances in House M.D., CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Lost, Touched by an Angel and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Born in Houston, Texas in 1992, Skye died in 2014 due to an accidental overdose of medication she was taking to help deal with her epileptic seizures. According to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, the mix of hydrocodone, difluoroethane and carisoprodol caused her to pass away in her sleep.
10. Cory Monteith
Born in Calgary, Alberta in 2013, Cory Monteith was one of the megastars of Glee, playing Finn Hudson, a quarterback reluctantly recruited to the school’s glee club. His voice, charm and good looks won him a legion of fans, including Taylor Swift.
His feature film credits include Final Destination 3, Sisters & Brothers and Monte Carlo, adding to appearances on other shows such as The Simpsons, Smallville and Supernatural.
He battled addiction with the support of his girlfriend Lea Michele and by checking into a rehabilitation facility. He passed away in 2013, succumbing to the demons of substance abuse in a hotel room in Vancouver. His cause of death was an overdose of heroin mixed with alcohol.
9. Brittany Murphy
Brittany Murphy was born in Atlanta in 1977 and rose to stardom in her role alongside Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. She secured her star as an actress in Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile. She also played Luanne in King of the Hill and starred in Sin City.
Brittany passed away suddenly due to cardiac arrest late in 2009, with the coroner initially suggesting she died of natural causes – a diagnosis difficult to believe at such a young age.
Since her death, a variety of bizarre and troubling evidence has emerged suggesting that she and her husband may have been murdered deliberately, as part of a shadowy, unknown plot.
8. River Phoenix
Born on a farm in Madras, Oregon, to free-spirited parents, River learned his craft as he traveled the world, eventually landing in Florida where his talents were beginning to get noticed.
With an Academy Award nomination for his work in Running on Empty and a memorable breakthrough role in Stand by Me, River Phoenix appeared destined for a long, successful career as one of the most talented young actors to ever grace the screen.
Just as his star was on the rise, he tragically died of an overdose in 1993 at the Viper Room in Hollywood, California, devastating his family and fans. His brother Joaquin and sister Rain tried to help but were doomed to witness their beloved brother pass away.
7. Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe, nee Norma Jeane Mortenson, was born in Los Angeles in 1926. She’s one of the most enduring sirens of the silver screen, surviving a horrifying family life and childhood to eventually become one of the biggest sex symbols the Earth has ever known.
She starred in features such as The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, which propelled her to the status of an icon and living legend.
Despite her fame and fortune, she suffered from serious mental illness and addiction issues stemming from her troubled upbringing. Monroe died of a drug overdose in 1962, leaving behind a legacy that few actresses have achieved since.
6. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee is still the biggest martial arts name that humanity has ever known, single-handedly developing new martial arts systems and bringing the genre to Hollywood and North America.
He was born in 1940 in San Francisco and lived in Hong Kong, where he starred in various roles as a child actor, before returning to the Unites States where he was a passionate teacher of Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do styles of fighting.
He passed away in 1973, with doctors suggesting the official cause of death being an edema of the brain due to a bad reaction to prescription painkillers. Many bizarre theories surround his death, some stating that he was murdered or died due to a curse.
5. Brandon Lee
Theories of the curse of Bruce Lee resurfaced when his son, Brandon Lee, was accidentally shot and killed while on set filming The Crow. Apparently, instead of blanks, the gun had a live round hidden deep in the chamber, fatally wounding Brandon in 1993.
Brandon was born in Oakland in 1965 and starred in action movies such as Showdown in Little Tokyo and Rapid Fire before his big role in The Crow. Like his father, he studied martial arts and acting.
Tragically, he was to marry Eliza Hutton less than two months before his death, which was blamed on a film crew using an unapproved weapon during the creation of the film.
4. Chris Farley
Chris Farley was one of the funniest actors of his generation, with a grace and ease of movement that belied his large physicality.
A star of Saturday Night Live for six years, his performances were some of the best that came out of the 1990s, earning him starring roles in movies that he single-handedly made watchable, such as Tommy Boy, Beverly Hills Ninja and Black Sheep.
He was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1964 and studied theatre during his stint at Marquette University. He died of a drug overdose in 1993, falling victim to his severe addiction problems and over-the-top lifestyle.
3. Paul Walker
Born in Glendale, California, Paul William Walker IV became a huge action star when he acted in The Fast and the Furious, a series of action-packed car chase movies with death defying stunts.
He also appeared in shows such as Touched by an Angel, Varsity Blues, Who’s the Boss? and The Young and the Restless as well as feature films like Eight Below, The Skulls and Into the Blue.
In a case of horrible dramatic irony, Walker – at the height of his Fast and Furious fame – was involved in a terrible car wreck on his way to a charity event to help those affected by Typhoon Haiyan. The Porsche his friend was driving lost control, struck a tree and burst into flames.
2. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger was fast becoming known as one of the best actors of his generation, with a career-defining portrayal of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight under his belt.
He rose to superstardom for his role in Brokeback Mountain as a ranch worker who has a clandestine love affair with a rodeo rider, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It was this role that earned notice from critics and audiences alike, and he received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations along with winning the best actor honor from the San Francisco Film Critics and New York Film Critics.
At the very height of his career, and in the midst of filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Ledger died. The cause was listed as an accidental combination of sleep aids and other prescription drugs. It was believed he became emotionally and physically exhausted after his psychotic portrayal of The Joker the year before.
1. James Dean
Born in Marion, Indiana in 1931, James Dean initially studied law at Santa Monica College before pursuing his true passion by enrolling at UCLA to study theatre.
After moving to New York, he quickly established himself as a talented thespian in the theatrical production of The Immoralist before making his mark in the movies East of Eden, Giant and most notably, as an iconic badass in Rebel Without a Cause.
His stardom was rising to feverish levels when he passed away in a car crash in 1955. Dean’s talent and charisma earned him two posthumous Academy Award nominations – making him the only person to be nominated twice after their death.
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