The world loved them when they were cherubs and adored them when they became teen heartthrobs. But when they died too soon, everyone mourned their tragic deaths of a life not lived long enough.
Frankly, a young death is always sad and tragic. To see a life cut down in its prime gets everyone teary-eyed especially if you know that poor soul. So hearing about a young tragic death of someone you didn’t know generates a tut-tut moment and some empathy, along with a little prayer of gratitude that it didn’t happen to you, friends or family. That’s mostly it.
But when this happens to celebrities, it hits close to the heart. We may not have known them, but they are familiar and often dear to us. And perhaps the closest to our hearts are the child actors. They win over audiences with their utter cuteness. They are the children couples want to have. They are the teen heartthrobs teenagers crush on and want to be with. They are the adorable cherubs that somehow touch us on another level altogether. The death of a child actor hits particularly hard everywhere. Hearts are broken, tears are shed and there’s a general feeling that something wrong has happened – those cherubic children were supposed to have a great future ahead, not end up dying way too soon.
So here are fifteen child actors who died far before their time, with tragic backstories, that many of us shed some tears for… Sniff. RIP.
15. River Phoenix: The Teen Heartthrob Who Passed Out & Away On A Sidewalk
The older brother of Joaquin Phoenix, River became a teen sensation when he starred in the science fiction adventure film Explorers. In 1986 came his first notable role in Stand By Me, a coming-of-age film based on a Stephen King novella. River was 16 at the time, and girls were hooked. A born actor, Phoenix starred in Running on Empty as the son of fugitive parents, a role that earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His role as a gay hustler searching for his mother in My Own Private Idaho in 1991 earned him rave reviews too.
Barely two years later, River Phoenix collapsed outside an LA nightclub (co-owned by Johnny Depp), right in front of his younger brother Joaquin. At that time, River was all of 23 and not only an established actor but also an upcoming musician with a band called Aleka’s Attic. All of his success, his fans, friends or family could do nothing but watch helplessly as he convulsed of a drug overdose and then died, just like that, leaving behind a legacy of whys, ifs, and tears…
14. Jessica Jacobs: The Lovable Minx of The Saddle Club
Many would remember the impish character of Melanie Atwood in the series The Saddle Club, based on the books by Bonnie Bryant. Initially played by Marisa Siketa, the character was then taken up by Jessica Jacobs when the former actress quit the show in the second season.
However, Jessica could not appear in season 3 because she tragically lost her life in an accident when she was all of 17. On May 10 2008, Jacobs was walking along the platform at Cheltenham railway station, Melbourne, on her way to meet her mother so that they could then shop for her elder brother Adam’s birthday gift. In a freak accident, she tripped and fell onto the tracks, right into the path of an oncoming train. It happened too fast and Jessica wasn’t able to save herself. She died instantly of the injuries she sustained when the train hit her. It took the police hours to find her once her mother reported her missing because Jessica was carrying a fake ID. A grim end indeed.
13. Carl Switzer: Killed Over A Drunken Argument Over Debt
Most of us don’t know Carl Switzer. But ask anyone who was a TV fan in the 1930s, and they’ll tell you about a series called Our Gang, where a six-year-old Carl played Alfalfa for six years, all the way till he was 12. Brought on the show as a sidekick, Carl was naturally rambunctiousness in the front of the camera, so Alfalfa soon became the lead role. Following the end of the series, he managed to do some other roles here and there but when nothing meaty turned up, Carl turned to training hunting dogs.
And a scuffle over a payment ultimately led to his demise. He was training a dog for a man called Moses Samuel Stiltz when the dog ran away. Carl offered a $35 dollar reward for the dog and soon enough a man brought the dog to Carl. Carl paid him the $35 and also bought him drinks worth $15. He then decided to reclaim the $50 from Moses. A drunken Carl threatened Moses who didn’t pay and after a scuffle between the two men, Moses shot Carl with a .38 in the groin. Carl bled out at just 31.
12. Skye McCole Bartusiak: The Patriot’s Daughter, Gone From An Accidental OD
Skye was a child actor who played many memorable roles in many movies; you may remember her as Mel Gibson’s daughter in The Patriot and as the psychiatrist’s daughter alongside Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy in Don’t Say a Word before playing Rose Wilder in Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She also got a lead role as Franny in the 2005 flick Boogeyman, and then again as troubled teen Sunshine in Kill Your Darlings.
Her career graph was an average one as she seemed to be getting decent character roles but her future was abruptly cut off when she was found unresponsive in her apartment behind her parent’s home in 2014, aged 21. Her mother claimed that she did not do drugs but was suffering from epilepsy which might have caused her death. The official report claimed that Skye died due to the “combined toxic effects of hydrocodone and difluoroethane with carisoprodol” – basically a fatal mix of a muscle relaxant and Vicodin combined with huffing (sniffing) refrigerator coolant.
11. Lee Thompson Young: A Mind Too Depressed To See The Light
Lee Thompson Young was all of 14 when he got a fabulous start as a Disney Channel star, landing his first role as the lead character in The Famous Jett Jackson. A Jett Jackson TV movie soon followed as did a supporting role in Johnny Tsunami. Several guest appearances in shows like The Guardian, Smallville, and South Beach followed. After this, Lee got a recurring role as Boston police detective Barry Frost on the police drama series Rizzoli & Isles alongside Angie Harmon.
When he didn’t show up for a shoot, the crew of Rizzoli & Isles called up the police to do a welfare check on him at his Los Angeles apartment, where he was found dead. His manager issued a statement that the actor had committed suicide and the police officially tagged the death as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Lee had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his teens and while he had been taking medication for it, he was suffering from depression before his death. After his untimely passing, his family founded the Lee Thompson Young Foundation to combat stigma about mental illness.
10. Ashleigh Aston Moore: A Death Gone Largely Unnoticed & Forgotten
If you are scratching your head trying to figure who Ashleigh is, let’s give you a hint. A girl in pigtails, in the preteen drama movie Now and Then. Yes, we are talking about the rather adorable Chrissy DeWitt, who didn’t want to tongue kiss a boy to avoid getting pregnant and had witty comebacks like, “I know that beetle-brain, but it’s common knowledge that if you tongue-kiss a boy, he automatically thinks you’ll do the deed with him. They can’t help it. They’re driven. It’s the male curse!”
Also known as Ashley Rogers as well, she started acting in 1992 at 11, but by 1997 at age 16 she quit acting altogether. She died in 2007, at just 26 years old, but her death went largely unnoticed. Also, some reports say that she died of pneumonia and bronchitis while some say it was a heroin overdose as she was depressed about her non-existent career. The truth, tragically, is buried with her.
9. Sawyer Sweeten: A Lovable Kid Who Blew His Brains Out
So anybody who saw Everybody Loves Raymond would not only remember Raymond Barone (Ray Romano) and his eccentric family, but also the adorable Barone kids played by Madilyn Sweeten (Alexandra “Ally” Barone) and her real twin siblings Sawyer and Sullivan Sweeten (Geoffrey and Michael Barone). Sawyer and Sullivan came onto the shown when they were just 16 months old in 1996, and the series finally ended after a nine year run in 2005.
Ten years after, when Sawyer was just 19, he was visiting some family in Austin, Texas when he grabbed a gun, went to the front porch and shot himself in the head. Just weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Sawyer left behind a devastated family. His sister Madilyn, took to social media to tell everyone to “respect their privacy at this difficult time” and also “to reach out to everyone and tell them how much they mean to you.” A tragic end to a brilliant and bright young man in the making, who ended his life amidst gay rumors, money issues, and a sad lack of work.
8. Robert Knox: The Tragic Tale of Marcus Belby & His Heroism
Rob Knox has been acting since the age of 11 though he hit stardom with his role as Marcus Belby in Harry Potter and Half Blood Prince, which was tragically posthumous. His first credited role was a small part in an episode of the British police drama The Bill and he went on to do small roles here and there, sometimes even as an extra. Before his role in the Harry Potter franchise, he had previously starred in the movie King Arthur in 2004.
Knox died at the age of 18 in 2008 after he was stabbed outside the Metro Bar in Sidcup, South East London, on May 24. He died rather valiantly, trying to protect his 16-year-old younger brother Jamie who was being threatened by two men armed with knives. One of the men then stabbed him and Knox tragically died of his injuries. The man in question was sentenced to life without parole but showed no remorse for extinguishing a bright life for no reason.
7. Anton Yelchin: His Biggest Role Sadly Came Posthumously
This Russian-born actor started his career when he was just 12, starring in Along Came a Spider and Hearts in Atlantis, alongside a variety of smaller TV roles. The next year was big for him when Steven Spielberg cast him in the 2002 alien abduction-centric miniseries, Taken. From then on, it was smooth sailing for Anton when he starred in Alpha Dogs, Charlie Bartlett, and Terminator Salvation, among other projects. But perhaps the biggest role of his career was getting the part of Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot. He wasn’t able to see his success though as tragically, he was killed when he was pinned by his Jeep Cherokee against a pillar outside his home. A freak accident, this happened when the car rolled backward into his driveway (a result of a common transmission error that later led to a mass recall of the vehicle). Anton was just 27 years old.
His final performance in Star Trek Beyond, which could have been his biggest as well, was viewed by the audience posthumously. It was a very tragic death indeed of an actor who had made a successful transition from a child actor to grown up roles.
6. Heather O’Rourke: The Poltergeist Star Who Died Of A Misdiagnosis
An even sadder case of a child actor dying is Heather O’Rourke who played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities in Spielberg’s 1982 spine-chilling horror movie Poltergeist. Her silver blonde hair, blue eyes, and soft voice made her an instant hit and roles were a plenty all the way till she fell ill in 1987.
She was misdiagnosed by doctors as having Crohn’s disease and prescribed prednisone to treat the disease, which caused her cheeks to appear puffy and large. In 1988, O’Rourke became seriously ill again, vomiting and unable to keep food or water down. She collapsed the next morning and suffered a cardiac arrest in the ambulance while en route the hospital. She was resuscitated but died later during surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction further complicated by septic shock. She was only 12 years old! Strangely her co-star Dominique Dunne who played her older sister Dana Freeling in Poltergeist, was murdered in 1982 itself by her boyfriend. The Poltergeist curse?
5. Brad Renfro: The Angst-Ridden Actor Launched In The Client
Brad Renfro was picked out of obscurity and launched into fame when he was cast as Mark Sway in the movie The Client, starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, based on John Grisham’s novel of the same name. The movie was a big hit and Brad became one of the major players in the child actor league.
He starred as Huckleberry Finn in the 1995 movie Tom and Huck along with Jonathan Taylor Thomas (who played Randy Taylor on Home Improvement) and also as a young Brad Pitt in the dark movie, Sleepers. And this success perhaps went to his head and Brad became a Hollywood bad boy with drug possessions, attempted robber, and DUI becoming common repeats on his rap sheet.
In 2008, Brad Renfro was found dead in his apartment at the mere age of 25. His death was ruled accidental OD, with a lot of heroin and morphine found in his system. A sad end to a boy actor who could have done so much but destroyed himself with drugs instead!
4. Judith Barsi: Murdered By Her Crazed, Alcoholic, Jealous Father
Judith Barsi voiced the dinosaur Ducky in The Land Before Time movie series. Born to Hungarian parents who immigrated to the USA, Judith appeared in commercials when she was just five and went on to star in many more successful TV shows and plenty of movies, but her burgeoning five-year career ended when her abusive father József shot her and her mother Maria, burned their bodies and then shot himself as well.
Her alcoholic father could not bear that Judith was the breadwinner of the family, and that, along with the alcohol, turned him into an abusive husband and father, often hitting Maria and Judith. At ten years old, Judith broke down on set. She was taken to a child psychologist who diagnosed the little girl as a victim of physical and psychological abuse. Judith’s mother Maria decided to leave József for good and that is when this tragic incident happened. József shot his daughter and wife and let their bodies decompose while he wandered around in an alcoholic daze. He then set fire to their bodies and shot himself in the head too. Judith was 10 when she died and her last completed work, All Dogs Go To Heaven, was released posthumously a year later in 1989.
3. Corey Haim: From Popular Jock To A Hopeless Joke
Corey Haim was a popular 80s teen idol who starred in many popular teen movies, often alongside his best friend Corey Feldman. Together, they were known as The Two Coreys. Haim first rose to stardom in 1984’s Firstborn, a movie that also starred Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr.
Starring roles in movies like Silver Bullet, Lucas (alongside a young Winona Ryder) and The Lost Boys made Haim a teen heartthrob. But despite his burgeoning career, Haim’s personal life was spiralling into the pit of drugs and despair, coupled perhaps with sexual abuse (as mentioned in Corey Feldman’s memoir Coreyography).
Haim’s popularity began to wane in the early 1990s after a public fall from grace and from then on his drug problem worsened, interspersed with multiple attempts to get clean in rehab. After years of trying to make unsuccessful comebacks, on March 10, 2010, an unresponsive Haim was found by his breast cancer-stricken mother in their shared apartment. 38-year-old Haim was pronounced dead at the hospital of pulmonary congestion worsened by years of drug abuse.
2. Dana Plato: Of A Life Gone Bizarrely Bad To Worse
Dana Plato was officially born Dana Michelle Strain in 1964 to an unwed teenage mom who gave her up for adoption. When she was three, her adoptive parents divorced, and Dana lived with her adoptive mother. From the beginning, her mother would take her to various auditions and Dana began appearing in commercials at the age of six. Her biggest role that she is remembered for was as Kimberly Drummond in Different Strokes but pretty soon, Dana began to unravel as a teenager.
She overdosed on Valium when she was 14, would walk on set drunk, and finally at 19, got pregnant by her then-boyfriend. The show was considered too wholesome for a teenage pregnancy and Dana had to quit. From then on, her life was a depressing spiral. Dana got breast implants and did a risqué Playboy shoot but it failed to kickstart her career. Her mother died, and due to her drug use, the custody of her son was given to the father. Dana moved from one man to another and struggled with her drug use and poverty, so much so that she even tried to rob a videogame parlor once. She then forged Valium prescriptions and was sent to jail for 30 days. Nothing really worked for her and in desperation, she even starred in a softcore erotica flick. Finally, laughed at one too many times and not getting anywhere in life, Dana Plato died at 34 of a drug overdose in her and her fiance’s Winnebago motor home.
1. Jonathan Brandis: The Blue-Eyed Blonde Every Girl Crushed On
Jonathan’s adorable looks made sure that he made it on screen, starting out his career as a child model and then transitioning to commercials. His acting debut was in 1982 with a guest role on the soap opera One Life to Live. In 1990 when Brandis was 14, he became known for his leading role in the Stephen King’s supernatural horror miniseries IT. And then three years later when he was 17, he landed his biggest role; that of Lucas Wolenczak, a teen prodigy in the series seaQuest DSV. Brandis became a teen heartthrob, to the point that he would receive some 4000 fan mail letters every week and had to be escorted off the set by three bodyguards, who protected him from the mob of female fans outside.
Despite his initial success, roles came few and far between after the end of seaQuest DSV, and slowly Brandis began to get depressed by his waning popularity. In November 2003, Brandis was all of 27 and frankly, had his whole life ahead of him. But that wasn’t meant to be, and friends found him hanging in his LA apartment building. He died of his injuries the following day, ending what could have been his Neverending Story…
I leave you with the thoughts of these snuffed out young lives and the lines of the poet, Rumi: “Did you know… Far from here, beyond our ideas of right and wrong , there is a field. I’ll meet you there…”
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