Tragically, child actors often die young. The most famous child actors who died include River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Matthew Garber, Dana Plato, and Brittany Murphy. This is most often due to substance abuse, which can often end in victims taking their own lives.
But from the outside, child actors appear to live a charmed life, even though, for many young stars, the pressure becomes too much and Hollywood often ends up losing some of its most promising actors.
Cute as a button with enough money to last a lifetime before they’ve even hit their teens, we assume young celebrities have years of good times ahead of them. But there’s a worrying trend amongst famous child actors, many of whom have died before they even reach the age of 18. This included many famous faces such as Jonathan Brandis and Sammi Kane who both tragically died under devastating circumstances.
Fame and fortune at such a young age comes with a price, and behind the scenes their lives are often not as happy-go-lucky as we imagine – whether it’s exposure to drugs and alcohol or abusive “showbiz” parents. Take for example Drew Barrymore, one of the few child actors to make it through to the other side.
After her break-out role in E.T the Extra-terrestrial in 1982 at age 4, Drew became one of the decades most famous child stars. However, she quickly fell in with a bad crowd. She began smoking at age 9, drinking at age 11, moved on to marijuana by age 12 and was snorting cocaine by age 13. By 14-years-old she had attempted suicide and attended rehab, but today she’s since turned her life around and is once again one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Sadly, others aren’t so fortunate – a famous example being River Phoenix, the older brother of A-lister Joaquin. Best known for his roles in 80’s classics Stand by Me and Explorers, River was only 23 when he overdosed outside music venue The Viper Room on LA’s Sunset Strip – the result of speedballing cocaine and morphine.
Many of his contemporaries didn’t fare much better, whether they died not long after making it big or further down line as a result of their childhood trauma. Being famous can very often mean that your ego becomes inflated, and children are no exception. They’re showered with compliments and gifts, fans write to them and they shout their name when they see them.
Once they hit puberty, however, chances they will remain in the business are slim. When fame is taken away from a child so suddenly, they may not be able to handle the sudden change in lifestyle and turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Sometimes tragically, the circumstances of their fame even lead to their untimely deaths.
In the article below we’ve brought you a list of 20 famous child actors who died far too young.
20. Heather O’Rourke
If there’s any film out there that’s truly cursed, it’s Steven Spielberg’s classic horror movie Poltergeist.
Heather O’Rourke played youngest Freeling child Carol Anne for all three films in the franchise, but it wasn’t the ghosts that got her in the end – it was complications during surgery to remove an acute bowel obstruction. O’Rourke also had a recurring role on Happy Days from 1982 to 1983, and she made several television guest appearances.
Spielberge spotted the five-year-old having lunch with her mother while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven.
After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered O’Rourke the Poltergeist role; she was signed the next day, beating Drew Barrymore, who was also up for the role. She was only 12-years-old.
19. Gary Coleman
Best known for playing the adorable Arnold Jackson on classic sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, Gary Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage in 2010 at 42-years-old. Coleman’s career began when he appeared in a commercial for Harris Bank. His line (after the announcer said, “You should have a Harris banker.”) was “You should have a Hubert doll.”
“Hubert” was a stuffed lion representing the Harris bank logo. At the height of his fame on Diff’rent Strokes, he earned $100,000 per episode.
The ex-child actor lapsed into a coma, and passed away shortly after being taken off life support.
18. Corey Haim
The beloved star of The Lost Boys, License to Drive and Dream a Little Dream, Corey Haim had a rough childhood marred by sexual abuse. He turned to drugs when his career began to slow down during the 90s, and died in 2010 at the age of 38.
Haim broke into acting at the age of 10, playing the role of Larry in the Canadian children’s educational comedy television series The Edison Twins, which ran from 1982 until 1986. Haim’s first day of shooting was with Peter Weller, and he went to compliment the older actor on his performance. Weller collared Haim, throwing him up against a wall to warn him not to speak to him after a take.
The official cause of death was pneumonia, although the astonishing list of prescription drugs he procured in the month before his death from seven different doctors – including 195 Valium, 149 Vicodin, 194 Soma, and 15 Xanax – probably played a part.
17. Judith Barsi
Definitely one of the most upsetting deaths on this list.
The adorable actress behind the voice of Ducky in the Land Before Time and orphan Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven, Judith and her mother were murdered by her abusive father in 1988. By the time she started fourth grade, Barsi was earning an estimated $100,000 a year, which helped her family buy a three-bedroom house in West Hills, Los Angeles.
In the murder-suicide, 10-year-old Judith and her mother were shot and killed before being set on fire. Her father later shot himself in the family’s garage.
16. Michelle Thomas
The Family Matters actress, best known for her character Myra Monkhouse, died in 1998 at only 30-years-old. In 1991, Michelle had a small role in Hangin’ with the Homeboys.
Thomas also appeared in music videos for Boyz II Men, Mint Condition, Dru Hill, and Chubb Rock. The former child star passed away in hospital from a rare form of stomach cancer just before Christmas.
On December 26, 1998, a Muslim funeral service was held, as per her request. She was buried in Montclair, New Jersey.
15. Matthew Garber
You’ll never be able to enjoy this childhood classic in the same way again after reading this. Matthew Garber was considered a spirited and bright boy in a 1967 Disney press release that noted his enjoyment of pulling practical jokes on his friends, playing sports, and reading adventure, mythology and poetry books.
Poor Matthew contracted hepatitis while touring India in 1977, at the age of 21.
As well as playing Michael Banks in Mary Poppins, he also starred in two other Disney films, The Three Lives of Thomasina and The Gnome-Mobile.
The disease ravaged his body before he could return home for treatment, with his official cause of death being Haemorrhagic Necrotising Pancreatitis.
14. Sawyer Sweeten
Sawyer and his twin brother Sullivan played the sons of Ray Romano’s character in 90’s family sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.
The Sweeten family moved to California when the twins were six months old. When they were 16 months old, they began working on the hit sitcom.
The 19-year-old was visiting his family in Texas when he reportedly went out onto the porch and shot himself.
His on-screen father Ray Romano was shocked by the news and said he was a “wonderful and sweet kid to be around”. Sweeten’s on-screen mother Patricia Heaton said “a funny and exceptionally bright young man. He is gone from us far too soon.”
13. Dominique Dunne
Need more proof that the Poltergeist franchise is cursed? Heather O’Rourke wasn’t the only star to die young.
Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister Dana Freeling, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend John Sweeney. The 22-year-old was strangled by Sweeney in the driveway of her West Hollywood home and fell into a coma. She never regained consciousness.
Unbelievably, Sweeney only served three and a half years in prison for the crime.
12. Dana Plato
Another Different Strokes star gone too soon, Dana Plato (who played Kimberley Drummond on the show) died in 1999 at the age of 35. While visiting her fiance’s mother, Dana took a combination of Lortab and Valium before laying down for a nap, which would prove fatal.
In addition to acting, Plato was an accomplished figure skater; at one point she trained for a possible Olympic team spot. According to Plato, her mother decided she should cut back on her skating in order to focus on the TV role.
Her passing was eventually declared a suicide.
11. Lee Thompson Young
Lee Thompson Young committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 29. Best known for the title role in Jett Jackson, the former Disney star sadly shot himself in the head. Young also starred in Johnny Tsunami (1999), another Disney Channel Original Movie, as Sam Sterling.
The movie was successful, but he did not reprise the role in the sequel, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board (2007)
Young graduated with Honors from the University of Southern California, where he majored in Cinematic Arts and was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
10. Rob Knox
After securing the role of Marcus Belby in the film adaption of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it looked as though Rob was on the verge of a promising acting career.
He had also signed up to star in the follow-up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Sadly, in 2008 the 18-year-old was stabbed five times in the chest outside a bar in London, after trying to defend his brother from the knifeman.
His attacker, Karl Bishop, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least two decades.
9. Brittany Murphy
Although best remembered for her role as Ty in 1995 classic teen comedy Clueless, Brittany Murphy had a successful acting career long past her child star days, with major parts in 8-Mile, Girl, Interrupted and Sin City.
Brittany also worked in voice acting, voicing the role of Gloria Penguin in the 2006 animated feature, Happy Feet. Still, the actress eventually succumbed to the ravages of fame. She was taken to the hospital by emergency services after collapsing in her home in December 2009.
She went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead, the cause determined as chronic iron deficiency and acute pneumonia, with the large amount of cold medicine in her system potentially contributing to her passing.
She was 32-years-old.
8. Skye McCole Bartusiak
Skye McCole Bartusiak played Mel Gibson’s daughter in The Patriot, as well as starring in the Boogeyman and Kill Your Darlings.
McCole Bartusiak first starred in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century as young Pippa Hatcher. She played the young Marilyn Monroe in the TV miniseries Blonde, and the psychiatrist’s daughter in Don’t Say a Word alongside Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy, both in 2001.
She passed away in her sleep in 2014 at only 21-years-old, after mixing painkillers and muscle relaxers.
7. Carl Switzer
Carl Switzer played the iconic role of Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies of the 1930s.
Unfortunately, his career took a nosedive after he left the franchise at age 13, and the former child star died at the age of 31. In early 1954, Switzer went on a blind date with Diantha (Dian) Collingwood, heiress of grain elevator empire Collingwood Grain. Switzer married in 1954 and had one son before divorcing in 1957.
As an adult, he appeared mainly in bit parts and B-movies. He later became a dog breeder and hunting guide.
Cause of death? An altercation between himself and another man he believed owed him money.
6. Christopher Pettiet
Best known for his role in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, like many other child actors before him Christopher Pettiet died of a drug overdose.
In 1991 Pettiet played Christina Applegate’s younger brother in the comedy film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. He had small roles in films such as Point Break (1991) and Boys (1996).
After his passing away in 2000 at the age of 24, his acting coach began a scholarship in the star’s name to help other talented young actors attend the school Christopher did.
5. J. Madison Wright Morris
Known professionally as J. Madison Wright, she made her acting debut in the comedy Grace Under Fire. A few months later, her big break came when she was cast in the role of ten-year-old True Danziger in the science fiction television series Earth 2 by producers Cleve Landsberg.
Madison moved onto other projects, including portraying a sick child in an Emmy-nominated episode of ER, where she played the first child character to die in the show’s history. She struggled with health her whole childhood.
She fought through multiple bouts of pneumonia, was diagnosed with Restricted Cardiomyopathy and had a heart transplant at 15 which only allowed her to reach the age of 21 before she suffered a heart attack and died one day after returning from her honeymoon.
4. Brad Renfro
You might recognise Renfro from his breakout role in The Client, which led to his involvement with 21 other films in his short but illustrious career. On June 3, 1998, Renfro, then 15, and his 19-year-old cousin were arrested and charged with drug possession.
He was carrying two small bags of cocaine in a cigarette box and a bag of marijuana in his sock. He avoided trial by agreeing to be screened randomly for drugs and evaluated for any substance abuse problems in his plea bargain.
He battled alcoholism and heroin addiction which ended up costing him his life at the young age of 25.
3. Bridgette Anderson
Bridgette Anderson was the adorable child star who appeared in Savannah Smiles, Family Ties, Fever Pitch and The Parent Trap II.
Mariah Bridget Andersen was born in Inglewood, California to Frank Glasse and Teresa Andersen, Andersen was raised in Malibu, California, and from an early age, she showed exceptional intelligence. Andersen was reportedly not close to her family with whom she had little contact. During her teenage years, Andersen developed an addiction to heroin.
She died following an overdose in 1997 at the age of 21.
2. Justin Pierce
Justin Charles Pierce (March 21, 1975 – July 10, 2000) was a British-American actor and a skateboarder who grew up in the US.
While skateboarding in Washington Square Park, Pierce was discovered by film director Larry Clark, who cast him in his controversial 1995 film Kids. On July 10, 2000, Pierce was found hanging in his room at the Bellagio Hotel by hotel security.
His death was determined to be a suicide.
1. Ashleigh Aston Moore
Moore started acting when she was four and her most notable role was in the film Now and Then.
She retired from acting in 1997 but eventually went the way of many child stars and died of a heroin overdose in 2007.
So there you have it, turns out fame and fortune isn’t everything.