When you hear the phrase “Hollywood Child Star,” what comes to mind? Odds are it’s not a series of happy thoughts because it seems like for every one child actor who does well and becomes a successful adult actor, like Jodie Foster, there are many who can’t make a successful transition.
Books have been written on why so many of these actors end up getting in trouble with drugs and the law, and there’s no shortage of them looking for work on C-level reality shows. Those are the lucky ones; there are plenty who ended up dead.
With this list, we look at 16 people who were child actors but didn’t make it very far into adulthood if they made it at all. In order to qualify for this list, an actor had to first start acting in major projects before the age of 18 but didn’t live past the age of 35.
Sadly, there are a lot of trends to these deaths: depression, drugs, and suicide. While not all are like that, there are too many to ignore such a pattern. While there are groups dedicated to trying to help child actors when they get older, it’s one of those things, much like concussions for football players, that seems like a given. We know it won’t end well, but our craving for entertainment is bigger than our desire to do much about it. So, with a heavy heart, we look back at 16 Former Child Stars Who Died After Losing Their Fame
16. Tara Correa-McMullen
There’s the old saying about “art imitating life,” but in this case, it was the opposite for Tara Correa-McMullen, who played a gang member on the show Judging Amy at the time of her death. Her career was just getting going; the 16-year-old got her own apartment in Inglewood, California and began dating a gang member who was 26 years old. She was outside of her complex one night when the man she was dating got into it with a group of people, a ruckus ensued, and he shot Tara. Two other people were also killed in the incident. Damien Watts was sentenced to five life sentences for his part in the incident. She was also in an episode of Zoey 101 and the movie Rebound with Martin Lawrence. Who knows what might have happened in her career had she survived?
15. Brittany Murphy
Before she became a household name with her breakthrough role as scene-stealing Tai in 1995’s Clueless, Brittany Murphy was a regular on television during her teen years, appearing on such shows as Party of Five, Blossom, Sister Sister, and even Kids Incorporated. As she entered adulthood, her star shone ever brighter, starring opposite Eminem in 8 Mile and voicing Gloria in Happy Feet and Luanne in King of the Hill. It shocked the world when she died in February 2010, and the coroner’s report said she died of pneumonia, which was aided by iron-deficiency anemia and multiple-drug intoxication, although doctors were quick to point out that the drugs in her system were all the type that would treat a respiratory infection like pneumonia. In a strange turn of events, Brittany Murphy’s husband died under very similar conditions shortly after her death.
14. Heath Ledger
While you may not remember his earliest work if you’re from North America, the most famous Joker of all-time (sorry Jack Nicholson) was a child star in his native Australia, having played regular roles on the television shows Ship to Shore and Sweat. His first big breaks in Hollywood were on the big screen, allowing him to skip the whole television thing. He only had one real teen role, as the brooding outsider in 10 Things I Hate About You, and then, he moved on to more adult roles in movies like A Knight’s Tale, The Patriot, Brokeback Mountain, and The Dark Knight. When Ledger was found dead, a bottle of prescription pills was found near his body, and people thought he might have committed suicide, but the coroner reported a few weeks later he died of an accidental overdose by mixing pain killers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medication.
13. Michelle Thomas
You may not recognize her name, but Michelle Thomas played the girlfriend of two of the most iconic television characters during the sitcom boom during the 1980s and ’90s on network TV, first rising to prominence playing Theo Huxtable’s main squeeze on The Cosby Show and then later as Steve Urkel’s girlfriend on Family Matters. She was one of very few actresses who could ham it up as well as Jaleel White, and her Myra Monkhouse will probably be the role she’s most remembered for. Just as Family Matters was ending, Thomas was diagnosed with abdominal small-cell cancer. She had a tumor removed and then landed a role on The Young and the Restless but fell ill during Thanksgiving 1998 when another cancer growth erupted inside of her. She died about a month later.
12. Sawyer Sweeten
Remember the adorable twins who played Ray Romano’s sons on Everybody Loves Raymond? They were played by Sawyer and Sullivan Sweeten. Beyond that show, they never really did much, although their sister Madylin, who played their sister, Allie, on Everybody Loves Raymond did remain active in Hollywood. When Sawyer was 19, he killed himself in Austin, Texas with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He didn’t leave a note, so there are only theories as to why he killed himself, with many suggesting that his lack of a career after the hit CBS show played into it, although it was almost a decade after the show had ended that he took his life in 2015. He supposedly was in major debt and had recently broken up with a girlfriend and downward spiraled to the point of no return.
11. Johnny Lewis
Long before Johnny Lewis was ever seen on Sons of Anarchy as Half Sack, he was cutting his teeth guest-starring in a lot of popular shows and getting regular parts in shows that simply couldn’t find an audience. He was one of the kids in the short-lived Fox show Quintuplets, which was canceled because nobody wants to watch crap, and he was also a regular in American Dreams, which was canceled because nobody wants to watch real good TV. Instead, he found his niche doing short-story arcs on shows that were middle-of-the-road like The O.C., Drake and Josh, and Boston Public. He died under strange circumstances; authorities found his 81-year-old landlady dead in his apartment and later found him outside. They believed he either fell or jumped to his death. Neighbors say they heard the woman screaming and called the police. Since he was deceased, he was never officially deemed a murderer, and his death was ruled accidental.
10. Dana Hill
Odds are, somewhere on your television dial, National Lampoon’s European Vacation is playing in its edited version on your cable lineup right now. Dana Hill played Chevy Chase’s daughter, Audrey, in the classic comedy and despite just being a teen, was more than able to hold her own with Chase. Hill was the second actress to play Audrey in what eventually became a joke throughout the Vacation series as the kids were recast with every new film. She was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was only 10 years old. While regular acting didn’t pan out for her, she got a ton of work doing voiceovers for animated shows including as Jerry in the Tom and Jerry Movie. In May 1996, Hill fell into a coma because of her diabetes and suffered a stroke. She died two months later.
9. Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis looked like he had one of the best careers of a young actor in Hollywood brewing in the early 1990s. He guest-starred on about 25 shows and had roles in movies like Ghost Dad, The Neverending Story II, and Ladybugs. He also called Tatyana Ali (the youngest daughter on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) his girlfriend for six years. He took his first role that moved him toward adulthood as a series regular on seaQuest DSV, which ran from 1993-96. When that show ended, all of the roles dried up on television, and the only movie work he could get was in movies with titles like Slainsville and Bad Girls From Valley High (both released after his death). In late 2003, he hung himself in the hallway of his Los Angeles apartment building and died the next day in the hospital. While he didn’t leave a note, many friends said he had begun drinking heavily, lamenting his failing career and mentioning suicide.
8. Heather O’Rourke
While 1980s horror is generally remembered as the birthplace for ghouls like Freddy and Jason, there were some genuinely scary movies released in the early 1980s, and at the top of that list was Poltergeist. One of the most iconic scenes from that movie, and really any movie from that decade, shows a little blonde girl played by Heather O’Rourke touching a television on a channel of static and saying, “They’re heeeeere!” She appeared in both sequels and was even a regular on one of the later seasons of Happy Days. Just before Poltergeist III came out, O’Rourke died. She became very ill in early 1987 but was misdiagnosed as having Crohn’s disease. About a year later, she fell ill again with what people first thought was influenza. On the way to the hospital, she had a heart attack and just managed to make it to the hospital where she died later in the day. It was found she had a bowel obstruction and had gone into septic shock. Her family sued the hospital for misdiagnosing her a year earlier, and the parties settled out of court.
7. River Phoenix
One could make an argument that the death of River Phoenix was the most visible death of a child star as Phoenix was making that transition from “kid” to “adult” roles at the time of his death. Young readers probably don’t remember, but there were few stars hotter than Phoenix, who had starred in such movies as Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty, and My Own Private Idaho. As an actor, he was regularly compared with Johnny Depp, so it was ironic that he died outside of The Viper Room, an LA music club part-owned by Depp, who was supposedly on stage performing with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the time of Phoenix’s collapse. Flea, a close friend, ran offstage after he heard Phoenix had collapsed, but by that point, it was too late. Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin (who has had quite an acting career of his own) called paramedics, but they couldn’t do much for the young actor who had died of a drug overdose.
6. Dana Plato
When the phrase “troubled former child actor” is said out loud, usually, Dana Plato’s name follows, unless it’s the name of one of her Diff’rent Strokes co-stars, Gary Coleman or Todd Bridges. Who knows why that show was so snake bitten, but none of its three child actors went on to very happy stories once the show wrapped, with Plato’s probably being the most tragic. She didn’t have the greatest upbringing, and those dark clouds stayed with her, and she developed a drug problem that eventually got her kicked off as a regular on the show. She tried to find other acting gigs, but her biggest job after that show was the cover of Playboy Magazine. Plato returned in the ’90s as a softcore skin-flick actress but only made a couple movies of that genre, including Diff’rent Strokes: The Story of Jack and Jill…and Jill. She did an interview with Howard Stern a few days before her death. On the show, she claimed to be sober and drug-free but was found with a couple of drugs in her system at the time of her death, which was ruled a suicide.
5. Brad Renfro
Brad Renfro played a lot of troubled characters in films like Bully, Apt Pupil, and Ghost World. Apparently, he was such a good actor because it wasn’t that much of a stretch. He was first arrested at the age of 15 for possession of cocaine and marijuana. Since he was a minor and it was his first offense, he was allowed to slide if he agreed to regularly test for drugs. A few years later, he was charged for trying to steal a yacht, a dumb move that got him a couple of years of probation. He routinely violated probation because of his substance problems, although he somewhat kept a career together all this time. He was found dead in his apartment in 2008 of an accidental overdose of heroin and morphine. His grandmother, who was his primary caregiver when Renfro was a kid, died of natural causes 17 days later.
4. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer
When you think of the Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts of the late 1930s, the first character that comes to most people’s minds is Alfalfa. The character was played by Carl Switzer, who although he had a steady career into the 1950s, never could escape the shadow of the iconic character. Switzer’s death is one of the stranger ones you’ll find on this list. He ended up being killed in self-defense when he demanded $50 from a man whose dog he had trained. The $50 was the reward money Switzer paid somebody who found the dog after Switzer had lost it. Despite it being his fault the dog got lost, he thought the owner should pay the reward. The owner disagreed, a scuffle ensued, and Switzer was shot. It was deemed self-defense because Switzer had a pen knife. Switzer thought Hollywood overlooked him in later years, and it happened again on the day he died. Icon Cecil B. Demille died the same day, leaving most newspapers to cover that entertainment death and not Switzer’s.
3. Christopher Pettiet
If you’re watching shows from the 1990s in reruns, you’re bound to keep seeing Christopher Pettiet pop up again and again. Looking at his resume of guest appearances in the ’90s, it’s like a greatest hits list: LA Law, Empty Nest, Baywatch, Picket Fences, and Doogie Howser MD are just a few of his several dozen credits. Pettiet’s first big role, which likely led to so many other gigs, was as one of the brothers in the cult classic Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead with Christina Applegate. He also played Jesse James on the short-lived show The Young Riders. He died in 2000 of an accidental drug overdose. This is one of those guys who, had he not had his issues with drugs, we think was just one more break away from having a really long career. It’s a shame.
2. Lee Thompson Young
Most people probably remember Lee Thompson Young as the charismatic Jett Jackson from the Disney Channel TV show The Famous Jett Jackson, which aired from 1998-2001. About a decade later, his career saw another boost when he landed a role on the TNT show Rizzoli & Isles, which opened him up to a new audience. Between the two shows, he had a steady career, with his biggest credit probably the movie Friday Night Lights. He, like many actors on this list, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in August 2013. Police had to break into his apartment after he didn’t show up for work on Rizzoli & Isles, and his fellow actors knew something was wrong. Young had been suffering from depression and bipolar disorder for some time before his death and was on medication for both conditions.
1. Corey Haim
If ever there was a poster child for the excesses of being a Hollywood movie star as a teen, it was Corey Haim. He first appeared in Lucas, but License to Drive was when he became a household name. He teamed with Corey Feldman (and the duo became known as “The Coreys”) for a series of films, but his is sadly one of the more typical stories of a kid getting caught up in his own fame, having people around him who were looking out for themselves and the eventual decline of a career due to drugs and alcohol. One of Haim’s last major projects was a reality show with Corey Feldman. Haim had gained a lot of weight, and while Feldman tried to look out for his best friend, Haim just never looked well on any of the episodes of the short-lived show. Despite a reputation for having issues with drugs, doctors say there was nothing in his system when he died of pneumonia in March 2010.
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