From the outside, child actors appear to live a charmed life. Sadly, fame and fortune at such a young age comes with a price, and behind the scenes their lives are not always as happy-go-lucky as we imagine. Take the following child stars, who enjoyed success early but left us far too soon.
Please be warned that readers may find these stories upsetting. If you are affected by any of the issues raised, help is available: https://www.samaritans.org/.
25. Heather O’Rourke
So much misfortune surrounds classic horror movie Poltergeist that many have declared the film and its sequels to be cursed. Most notably, both the young actresses who portrayed the children of the Freeling family died soon thereafter. First, 22-year old Dana actress Dominique Donne was murdered in 1982; then even more infamously Carol Anne actress Heather O’Rourke passed away in 1988 aged just 12.
O’Rourke was five years old, and beat out competition from Drew Barrymore to play the pivotal role of the young daughter snatched away to the spirit world. She would reprise the role of Carol Anne in both Poltergeist sequels, but died unexpectedly four months before Poltergeist III was released. O’Rourke, who had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease the previous year, died from congenital stenosis of the intestine causing septic shock.
24. Gary Coleman
American actor Gary Coleman was ten years old when he shot to fame as the adorable Arnold in sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. Famed for his diminutive stature, many assumed the young actor was simply a late bloomer, but the truth was not so simple. Coleman suffered from a congenital kidney disorder, and as a side effect he kept his 4’8″ stature and childlike features into adulthood.
Much like his Diff’rent Strokes co-stars, Coleman struggled with the pressures of fame, and his career faltered after the show ended. While the actor tried to keep his health issues private, he struggled with ill health throughout his life before he died, aged just 42. Coleman passed away on the 28th of May 2010, after suffering a series of seizures.
23. Corey Haim
Born 23rd December 1971, Corey Haim became one of the most popular actors of his generation in the late 1980s. He co-starred in a series of films with his namesake Corey Feldman (including The Lost Boys), and the two became firm friends and a popular double act. Unfortunately, as well as sharing fame, the two Coreys also shared a variety of childhood traumas, and both descended into drug addiction.
While Feldman was able to tackle his demons in adulthood, this proved more difficult for Haim. In tackling his addiction to illicit drugs, Haim developed as fierce a dependency on prescription medication, a lot of which was in his system when he passed away in March 2010. While Haim was initially reported to have died from an accidental overdose, the cause of death was ultimately ruled as pneumonia. He was 38.
22. Judith Barsi
A prolific child actor of the 80s, Judith Barsi’s death is without a doubt one of the most awful cases on this list. Born in June 1978, Barsi began taking small film and TV roles by the time she was six. Soon enough she was earning an estimated $100,000 a year, money which her parents came to depend on.
Her father József Barsi was an abusive alcoholic, who steadily grew more unhinged as his daughter grew more successful. After making repeated threats to do so, Barsi’s father murdered her and her mother before taking his own life in July 1988, shortly after Judith turned 10. Judith’s best-remembered films – her voice acting roles in The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven – were released posthumously.
21. Michelle Thomas
Born September 1968 in Boston, Massachusetts, Michelle Thomas got into acting in her early teens, beginning with a 1983 TV commercial. She eventually worked her way up to taking supporting roles in two of the biggest sitcoms of the era: The Cosby Show and Family Matters. By the late 90s Thomas was a regular guest host on TV music show Soul Train, and appeared in music videos for such acts as Boys II Men and Dru Hill.
Tragically, Thomas was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer in the summer of 1997. The young actress underwent all the treatment that was available, but she ultimately succumbed to the disease. Thomas died at the age of 30 in December 1998, with family and friends at her bedside.
20. Matthew Garber
Matthew Garber has long been synonymous with his role as Michael Banks in beloved family classic Mary Poppins. Born in Stepney, London in 1956, Garber was just eight years old when he appeared alongside Julie Andrews in the Disney production. It was only his second film role after 1963’s The Three Lives of Thomasina; and he would take only one more credit, in 1967’s The Gnome-Mobile.
Garber stepped away from acting in adolescence, and when travelling through India in 1977 he contracted hepatitis. The disease ravaged his body before he could return home for treatment, resulting in severe issues with his pancreas. Garber made it back to London, but died in hospital from Haemorrhagic Necrotising Pancreatitis aged just 21.
19. Sawyer Sweeten
Sawyer Sweeten was born on 12th May 1995, alongside his twin brother Sullivan, in Brownwood, Texas. When the twins were six months old, the Sweeten family moved to Los Angeles, and the boys were soon sent out for child acting work. They got their first roles playing the twin sons of Ray Romano’s title character in sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, which premiered in 1996. Sawyer and Sullivan portrayed Geoffrey and Michael Barone for nine seasons, until the show’s end in 2005.
Tragically, it seems Sawyer had emotional struggles that he had kept to himself. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound mere weeks before his 20th birthday in 2015. The surviving members of the Everybody Loves Raymond cast paid tribute to their sadly lost co-star, whilst Sweeten’s sister Madylin issued a statement urging readers to “reach out to the ones you love.”
18. Dana Plato
Gary Coleman was sadly not the only young star of Diff’rent Strokes to go through serious hardship, and meet an early death. The same was also true of actress Dana Plato, who played Coleman’s adoptive sister Kimberly Drummond. Plato was 13 years old and had been acting for a few years when she was cast in the sitcom.
Even in the early days of Diff’rent Strokes, Plato struggled with substances, and suffered her first overdose aged 14. Like her co-stars, Plato also struggled to keep her career afloat after Diff’rent Strokes ended, and these personal and professional woes took their toll. She died in 1999 aged 34 from an overdose of prescription medication which was ultimately ruled a suicide.
17. Lee Thompson Young
Lee Thompson Young was born in Columbia, South Carolina in February 1984, and began pursuing acting aged 10. The young actor got his big break in 1998, when he was cast in the title role of Disney Channel series The Famous Jett Jackson. Young played Jett Jackson in three seasons and a TV movie, as well as appearing in another Disney Channel movie, Johnny Tsunami.
Following this, Young went on to appear in a number of the movies Friday Night Lights and The Hills Have Eyes 2, plus such TV shows as Smallville, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Scrubs. However, Young had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and struggled with depression before ending his own life in 2013, aged 29. The Lee Thompson Young Foundation was later founded by his family, dedicated to promoting awareness of mental health issues.
16. Rob Knox
English actor Rob Knox was born in Kent in 1989, and had made a few brief film and TV appearances before getting what should have been his big break. Knox landed the role of Hogwarts student Marcus Belby in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in the popular fantasy series. Although the character of Marcus did not appear in final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Knox had signed on to reprise the role in the final two-volume Harry Potter film.
Tragically, this never came to pass as Knox was killed in May 2008, after being stabbed outside a bar. The young actor had been defending his brother from the assailant, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released after Knox’s death; studio Warner Bros and the actor’s co-stars issued statements expressing shock and sympathy at his loss.
15. Brittany Murphy
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1977, Brittany Murphy relocated to Los Angeles in her early teens to pursue acting. She enjoyed plenty of small screen success, including appearances on Blossom, Frasier, Party of Five and Boy Meets World. However, it was Murphy’s second film role 1995 classic teen comedy Clueless that really catapulted her to fame.
For a time, Murphy seemed to have successfully negotiated the tricky move from teen TV actress to grown-up film star, with key roles in such major films as Don’t Say A Word, 8 Mile, Sin City and Just Married. However, there were reports of Murphy being dismissed from some major projects over personal issues, and rumours of her abusing drugs. The actress was just 32 when she died from pneumonia in December 2009, with multiple drug intoxication and anaemia having been a factor in her death.
14. Skye McCole Bartusiak
Skye McCole Bartusiak was born in Houston, Texas in September 1992, and broke into acting aged just six. After making her first appearance in TV mini-series Storm of the Century, she soon broke into movie roles. Bartusiak played Mel Gibson’s daughter in The Patriot, and Michael Douglas’ daughter in Don’t Say a Word. Her career continued into her teens, with roles in Boogeyman and Kill Your Darlings, plus appearances on TV’s House, Lost and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Bartisiak still lived at home with her parents when she died in July 2014 aged just 21, after an accidental overdose of painkillers and muscle relaxers. Her parents insisted the actress did not drink or use illicit drugs, but had been suffering from epileptic seizures not long before she died.
13. Carl Switzer
Carl Switzer was a child star back in the early days of the cinema, when films with sound were still fairly new. Born in August 1927, Switzer shot to fame as Alfalfa in popular shorts series Our Gang. Switzer would appear in over 20 Our Gang shorts before retiring from the series in 1940, aged 12.
Unfortunately, as would be the case for so many child actors after him, Switzer struggled to keep his career going as he matured. After being relegated to mainly cameos in B-movies, Switzer side-stepped into working as a dog breeder and a hunting guide. He was killed in 1959 at the age of 31, shot dead by an acquaintance over an argument about money he was owed.
12. Christopher Pettiet
Christopher Pettiet was born in Texas in 1976, and broke into the business in his early teens. He was given the Best Young Actor in a Guest Starring Role at the 1991 Young Artist Awards, for his 1991 appearance on Doogie Howser, M.D. Around the same time, Pettiet made a brief appearance in Point Break, and took one of the lead roles in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
After this, Pettiet played a young Jesse James in TV series The Young Riders, and several more minor roles in TV and film. In his later years, Pettiet appeared in several episodes of MTV series Undressed. His final role was an episode of Judging Amy. Pettiet died aged 24 in April 2000, after an overdose of multiple drugs; the autopsy also indicated that ‘probable cardiomyopathy’ was a factor.
11. J. Madison Wright
Born in Cincinatti, Ohio in 1984, Jessica Madison Wright started out as a child model aged five before breaking into acting. She first appeared in sitcom Grace Under Fire aged nine, before making appearances on The Nanny, Earth 2 and E.R. In 1996, the young actress co-starred with her little sister Tori Wright in 1996 film Shiloh.
However, J. Madison Wright was forced to retire from acting early due to her health. She was given a heart transplant in 2000 to combat restrictive cardiomyopathy. Sadly, her health continued to deteriorate. She died from a heart attack in 2006 aged just 21, having been married only two weeks earlier.
10. Brad Renfro
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982, Brad Renfro was for a time considered one of the most promising actors of his generation. He made his breakthrough aged 11 with a role in courtroom drama The Client, prior to which he had no acting experience. Renfro’s performance wowed critics and audiences, and he went on to appear in many more films.
The actor’s other roles included Tom and Huck, Sleepers, Apt Pupil, Ghost World and Bully. Unfortunately, Renfro had developed a heavy drug and alcohol habit. Multiple arrests ensued, and these troubles began costing him roles. In January 2008, Renfro died from acute narcotic intoxication, aged just 25. He had fathered a son before he died.
9. Bridgette Anderson
Bridgette Anderson was born in 1975 and reportedly demonstrated an unusual intelligence from an early age. After starting out as a child model and an actress in TV commercials, she got her big break in 1982. Anderson was cast in the title role of the film Savannah Smiles, and from here she went on to more child star success.
The young actress appeared in several more films, plus such TV shows as Remington Steele and The Golden Girls. Sadly, as is so often the case, Anderson struggled to find work as she got older, and wound up developing a drug habit. She was just 21 years old when she died in 1997 from an opioid overdose.
8. Ashleigh Aston Moore
Ashleigh Aston Moore got her first break in acting aged 10, in children’s TV series The Odyssey. Roles in a number of TV movies and dramas followed, before she got her big break in 1995’s Now and Then. Moore (born Ashley Rogers) co-starred with Christina Ricci, Gabby Hoffman and Thora Birch in the coming-of-age drama.
The young actresses played the 1970 counterparts of the characters portrayed in adulthood by Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Melanie Griffith and (as Moore’s character) Rita Wilson. While her co-stars went on to long careers, Moore would take only five more roles before her acting career ended. She died aged 26 in December 2007, from a drug overdose which was ruled accidental.
7. Jonathan Brandis
Born April 1976 in Connecticut, Jonathan Brandis got his break aged six with a role in soap opera One Life to Live. The young actor followed this with a number of TV guest roles before getting his big break in 1990. Back to back, 14-year-old Brandis appeared in the lead role of The Never-Ending Story II, and as young Bill Denborough in TV miniseries It. After this, Brandis co-starred with Chuck Norris in martial arts movie Sidekicks, before landing a recurring role on TV’s SeaQuest DSV.
Sadly, Brandis faced the same difficulty of many child actors in transitioning to adult roles. He filmed a role in 2002 drama Hart’s War, but most of his role was cut from the final film. Struggling with depression and alcohol dependency, Brandis took his own life in November 2003, aged 27.
6. Anton Yelchin
Born in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia in 1989, Anton Yelchin was brought to the USA by his parents at six months old. Getting his first work aged 11, Yelchin some became one of the most sought-after child actors in Hollywood. Happily, Yelchin was one of the comparative few to enjoy even greater success as he entered adulthood.
The young actor appeared in 2009’s Star Trek and its two sequels, plus Terminator: Salvation and the 2011 remake of Fright Night. Yelchin’s life was tragically cut short in 2016, when the 27-year-old actor was crushed by his own Jeep due to a handbrake failure. Yelchin’s family took legal action against the car manufacturer, and the matter was ultimately settled out of court.
5. Dana Hill
Dana Lynne Goetz was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at high school, which ended her initial aspirations toward a career in athletics. Instead, she adopted the stage name Dana Hill and decided to pursue acting, eventually landing a role on sitcom The Two of Us. After making appearances on TV’s Magnum, P.I. and The Fall Guy, Hill landed her best-known movie: National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
Hill portrayed Audrey Griswold, taking over from National Lampoon’s Vacation actress Dana Barron. (Juliette Lewis would later take the role in Christmas Vacation.) By the 1990s, Hill came to concentrate on voice acting, her credits including Jetsons: The Movie and such TV cartoons as Rugrats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Unfortunately, her diabetes worsened. Hill fell into a diabetic coma in May 1996, and remained in that condition for two months before finally dying of a stroke aged 32.
4. Kevin Alexander Clark
Kevin Alexander Clark was 14 years old with no acting experience when he was cast in hit family comedy School of Rock. Like most of his young co-stars, Clark was cast based on his musical proficiency, in his case on the drums. Cast as rebellious young drummer Freddy Jones, Clark won widespread acclaim – but never took another acting role.
Instead, Clark kept his focus on music, playing in a number of bands over the years. Tragically, Clark was killed in a road traffic accident aged 32, after being hit by a car whilst cycling. School of Rock leading man Jack Black led tributes to his young star, declaring he was “heartbroken” by the news.
3. Cameron Boyce
Cameron Boyce was born in Los Angeles in 1999, and got his first roles in the 2008 films Mirror and Eagle Eye, and TV’s General Hospital. Boyce went on to receive wider attention for his role as Adam Sandler’s son in Grown Ups and Grown Ups 2. A talented dancer as well as an actor, Boyce would put his skills to use as a Disney Channel star.
After taking a key role on Disney Channel series Jessie, Boyce also appeared in hit musical Descendants and its two sequels. More major roles were lined up for Boyce, but he tragically died barely six weeks after his 20th birthday. Boyce had been diagnosed with epilepsy, and his death was caused by complications from this condition.
2. Bobby Driscoll
Robert Cletus Driscoll was born in March 1937 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and got into child acting aged 6. The young actor enjoyed a successful working relationship with Walt Disney Pictures, and appeared in several big hits for the studio. These included Song of the South and Treasure Island. Disney’s animated take on Peter Pan was also modelled on Driscoll.
However, by the mid-50s Driscoll left Disney, and struggled with that same professional stigma afflicting many former child stars. Personal and professional anxieties soon sent the young actor into a downward spiral of drug abuse, which resulted in him serving jail time. Driscoll made his final appearance in an Andy Warhol art film, and died aged 31 from heart failure caused by his drug intake.
1. River Phoenix
Following his rise to fame in the mid-80s, it was widely expected that young actor River Phoenix was on his way to great things. After enduring a troubled childhood alongside his four siblings (including fellow actor Joaquin Phoenix), the young actor broke into film with 1985’s Explorers. However, it was Phoenix’s powerful performance in 1986 coming-of-age classic Stand By Me which really alerted the world to his immense talent.
Phoenix was later Oscar nominated for his performance in Running on Empty, made a memorable appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and was hugely acclaimed for 1991 drama My Own Private Idaho. The world was shocked when, at just 23 years old, Phoenix died from multiple drug intoxication in 1993.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, remember that help is available: https://www.samaritans.org/