It’s no exaggeration to say that the people we grow up watching on TV and in the movies can sometimes feel like old friends, especially if they happened to star in that one movie or sitcom we just couldn’t get enough of as a kid. If you grew up in the 80’s or 90’s, there’s a good chance that you’ll recognize some of the names and faces below. They might have provided the soundtrack to your teen years, have been your first big crush, or have given you your first ever fright at the movies.
The sad fact about all of these childhood stars, though, is that they died very young—some before they even had a chance to make a name for themselves. A lot of child stars and those in the limelight from a young age have always seemed to turn to substance abuse to deal with the pressures of fame. And unfortunately, this is how many lives have been cut short.
Other stars on this list met their untimely death in far more gruesome ways, however, including fatal accidents on set and even being murdered by their own family. These are some of the stars from our childhood who never had a chance to showcase their full potential...
17 Brittany Murphy (Clueless)
Brittany Murphy may not have been one of the biggest female stars in Hollywood, but the roles she chose across her brief career showed her to be a really interesting young actress. Murphy had a number of small roles in some of the biggest 90’s sitcoms, including Frasier and Boy Meets World, but her big-screen break came in the form of the hit teen classic Clueless in 1995.
The early 2000’s brought the young actress a lot of success too with roles in films such as 8 Mile, Girl, Interrupted, and Sin City. Sadly, just as she was riding high, Murphy’s life and promising film career were cut short at the tender age of 32 when she reportedly died of pneumonia shortly before Christmas in 2009. Almost 10 years on, the exact cause of her death is still heavily debated.
16 Bobby Driscoll (Treasure Island, Peter Pan)
You may not recognize his name or even his face, but if you loved Disney films growing up, we can confidently say that Bobby Driscoll was quite a big part of your childhood. Throughout his tragically short 31 years, Driscoll’s filmography was littered with prominent film and TV roles, but he was best known for his classic Walt Disney roles which included Song of the South, Treasure Island, and of course, lending his voice to Peter Pan.
Throughout the 40’s and early 50’s, Bobby Driscoll had everything going for him, but in a classic case of child actor stardom, Driscoll’s career soon took a nosedive (and sadly, so did his health). The former Disney golden boy became addicted to narcotics and spent time in prison for substance abuse. Shortly before his 31st birthday, he was found dead in an abandoned building after suspected heart failure.
15 Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You)
For many people, Heath Ledger only came to prominence with his more mature roles in Brokeback Mountain and in his incredible performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. But before that, the talented Aussie actor starred in the sleeper teen hit 10 Things I Hate About You. Any girl growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s will remember Heath’s heartthrob turn as the curly-haired dreamboat trying to win over Julia Stiles.
When Ledger made his amazing comeback as the Joker in 2008, he was unrecognizable from his romantic teen movie persona, and the world got a glimpse into his incredible potential as an actor. Tragically, this turned out to be his final role when he died of an accidental overdose of prescription meds at the age of just 28.
14 Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes)
Those who grew up in the 70’s, you’ll have no doubt watched an episode or two of the hit NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes starring child actor Gary Coleman. But even those of us too young to have watched it on its original airing will likely be familiar with its main star and his timeless comedy catchphrase, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”
As Coleman grew up, he never grew taller than 4 ft 8. This was due to medication that had stunted his growth since birth. Most people are unaware of the fact that Gary Coleman suffered from a chronic kidney condition since birth, but in the end, it was a fall in his home that killed him at the age of 42. In 2010, Coleman suffered a brain hemorrhage after falling down the stairs at his home in Utah.
13 Heather O’Rourke (Poltergeist)
Whether or not you’re a horror movie buff, you will undoubtedly recognize this little girl. Child actress Heather O’Rourke played the sweet little blonde girl Carole Ann in Steven Spielberg’s classic horror film, Poltergeist. The image of O’Rourke’s character being kidnapped by ghostly spirits through the family TV is one of the most iconic moments in cinema and quickly made this little girl the face of 80’s horror films.
Tragically, the young actress suffered an even more haunting fate in real life when she died from complications during some emergency bowel surgery. She was only 12 years old. It was originally thought that Heather had been suffering from Crohn’s disease, but her symptoms turned out to be down to a bowel obstruction. The surgery caused her to go into septic shock, and she sadly died of cardiac arrest.
12 Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (TLC)
When it was reported that TLC member Lisa Lopes had been killed in a car crash in 2002, the news rocked the music world almost as much as the death of R&B icon Aaliyah only a year before. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, as she came to be known, was just 30 years old when she was fatally killed in a car crash in Cuba.
Lopes had been driving a rental car when she swerved to avoid an oncoming truck and was thrown–along with her 3 passengers–from the car. The others survived, but tragically, Lopes died on impact. In the years before her death, Lopes had begun a successful solo career after parting ways with TLC in the late 90’s and had even launched her own talent company called Left Eye Productions.
11 Sawyer Sweeten (Everybody Loves Raymond)
Family sitcoms of the 80’s and 90’s featured some of the sweetest child actors around and Swayer Sweeten was no exception. In Ray Romano’s much-loved 90’s sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, Sweeten played one of Ray’s adorable twin boys alongside his real-life twin brother, Sullivan Sweeten, and sister, Madilyn Sweeten (who played the couple’s daughter, Ally).
Landing their roles at only 16 months old, back in 1996, the Sweeten twins were pretty much born into the limelight since they remained in the show for its entire 9-year run. Unfortunately, this constant pressure could have contributed to Sawyer’s death because at the age of 19, he took his own life after a secret battle with depression for many years. Sadly, Sawyer’s family admitted having “misread the signs” of his depression until it was too late.
10 Andrew Koenig (Growing Pains)
Fans of the popular 80’s sitcom Growing Pains will remember actor Andrew Koenig as “Boner,” the best friend of Kirk Cameron’s character, Mike, in the hit show. The teen star later went on to star in the cop show that gave Johnny Depp his big break, 21 Jump Street, as well as small roles in My Two Dads and Stark Trek: Deep Space Nine.
What some may not realize about Koenig is that he suffered from severe depression for a long time, and this only surfaced once Koenig had been reported missing in early 2010 by friends and family. When Andrew had been found to miss a scheduled flight home to LA from Vancouver, police eventually found his body in a Vancouver park. He had committed suicide at the age of 40.
9 Corey Haim (The Lost Boys)
Those growing up in the 80’s couldn’t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without coming across the actor Corey Haim. Along with Michael. J. Fox and River Phoenix, Corey Haim was one of the biggest teen heartthrobs of the decade and appeared in some of the most well-loved 80’s films including The Lost Boys, Lucas, and License To Drive.
Another equally famous Corey of the 80’s and a close friend of Haim’s was Corey Feldman, and it was recently alleged that “the two Coreys,” as they were known, were s*xually assaulted in their teens by older men in the industry. If this troubling claim is true, it could point to Corey Haim’s struggles with addiction in his late teens. Haim lived out a troubled life for much of his adult years, and at the age of just 38, he was found dead after contracting pneumonia from an accidental overdose.
8 Josh Ryan Evans (Passions, The Grinch)
Child actor Josh Ryan Evans began his acting career at the age of 12, but due to living with a form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia, he was often cast in various roles as toddlers and young children in a number of films and TV shows. Those of us who grew up in the 90’s may recognize him from his role in The Grinch as the younger version of Jim Carrey’s titular character.
Another role Josh was notable for was his role as Timmy Lenox in the popular soap opera Passions. In it, Evans played an evil doll brought to life using magic. Evans was 17 years old when he took on the role, but due to his dwarfism, he had the voice and appearance of a small child. Evans sadly also suffered from a congenital heart defect and died during a medical procedure to treat it. He was only 20 years old.
7 Judith Barsi (The Land Before Time)
Most 90’s kids will remember the sweet and often very moving animated film The Land Before Time. Don Bluth’s animated tale about a group of misfit dinosaur babies looking to be reunited with their family featured many memorable characters, but one that sticks out most in our memories has to be the plucky Saurolophus, Ducky (voiced by Judith Barsi).
Behind the ever-positive, talkative character of Ducky, child actress Barsi had a very troubling home life due to an abusive and alcoholic father. Counselors and Child Protection Services soon got wind that she had suffered abuse at home, but by the time Judith’s dad had his next violent outburst, they weren’t there to help her. Judith’s father shot her and her mother dead in their sleep before turning the gun on himself. Barsi was just 10 years old.
6 Brandon Lee (The Crow)
The death of Brandon Lee is disturbing for two major reasons. It resulted from an on-set stunt gone horribly wrong. But not only that, Lee died at a similarly young age as his father did, the iconic martial arts actor and icon Bruce Lee. His son, Brandon, had become a fairly successful martial arts actor in his own right and appeared in numerous action films. But the film Lee is best known for is also his last.
The 1994 fantasy action film The Crow could have been Brandon Lee’s big break in Hollywood. Instead, it was the site of his gruesome death. Due to a mishap during a gunshot scene, Lee was fatally wounded by a real bullet on set. He died hours later at the age of 28. His late father, Bruce Lee, was only a few years older when he died of a cerebral edema at aged 33.
5 Dana Hill (National Lampoon’s European Vacation)
If you don’t recognize the name Dana Hill, then you definitely would like to hear her voice. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Hill lent her pipes to characters in Tom and Jerry, Rugrats, and Duckman. Her best-known live action role, however, was as Chevy Chase’s daughter, Audrey Griswald, in the second installment of the National Lampoon franchise, National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
Unfortunately, Dana’s life and acting career were cruelly cut short due to her long battle with Type 1 Diabetes while growing up. Her condition caused damage to her organs throughout her life and even affected her growth, but it took a particularly aggressive hold when she fell into a coma and suffered a fatal stroke in 1996. Hill was only 32 when her Type 1 Diabetes took her.
4 River Phoenix (Stand By Me)
The rising young star of hit teen films like Stand By Me and The Lost Boys had the world wondering “What If?” ever since his untimely drug-related death almost 15 years ago. Shortly after his death at the age of 23, people were quick to compare Phoenix with James Dean, not just in terms of a young death but of his incredible acting chops too.
Hauntingly, Phoenix was once quoted as saying, “I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die, it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.” The talented young actor may not have died in a car crash, but it was certainly no waterfall. River was just 23 when he collapsed from drug-induced heart failure outside Johnny Depp’s nightclub, The Viper Room, in 1993.
3 Cory Monteith (Glee)
For many post-Millenials born in the mid to late 90’s, the musical comedy show Glee was a big deal. Inspired by High School Musical and possibly the inspiration for the Pitch Perfect franchise, the Fox hit Glee followed a group of High School Glee club singers who wanted to change social perceptions, one melody at a time—and two of the biggest stars to come out of the show were Lea Michele and Cory Monteith.
Monteith played the naive but likable jock Finn Hudson who falls for the Glee club co-captain Rachel (played by Lea Michele). The pair had been dating shortly after playing each other’s love interest in the show. But after a year of dating, Monteith was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 31 after being on an accidental lethal cocktail of alcohol and heroin.
2 John Belushi (The Blues Brothers)
The Saturday Night Live comedian-turned-film-icon John Belushi left a big hole in the comedy world when he died at the tragically young age of 33. Just two years before his death in 1980, the now-classic comedy film The Blues Brothers was released and made overnight stars of Belushi and his comedy partner, Dan Aykroyd.
If you came of age during the 80’s, this cult film was the one you would quote endlessly in the schoolyard. Long before the film made instant stars of them both though, Belushi had been battling an addiction to cocaine and had often appeared drunk in public. He finally succumbed to his vices when he was found dead in March of 1982 from an accidental mixed overdose of both coke and heroin.
1 Michelle Thomas (Family Matters)
If you ever tuned into ABC throughout the 90’s, you probably came across the hit comedy show Family Matters, which was famous for its nerdy protagonist Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White). Due to his bizarre fashion sense and even more bizarre and goofy antics, the well-meaning Urkel never had much luck with the ladies, until he met with Michelle Thomas’ character, Myra Monkhouse.
Thomas played Urkel’s obsessive stalking girlfriend, Myra, over several seasons of the show, and her storyline between Urkel and his sophisticated alter ego of Stefan quickly became a hit with audiences. Sadly, the young actress was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer shortly before the show ended its run in the late 90’s, and in 1998, Michelle Thomas died aged just 30 years old after several failed operations to remove the tumor.