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So Long, Farewell, We Hardly Knew Ya: Ten Actors Who Died in Their Twenties

By Edited Nov 7, 2016 3 4

It is always sad to see or hear about a talented actor losing their life while still in the early stages of what promises to be a sterling career (if it isn’t already).  Some of these actors lost their lives by their own hands, others by accident and some at the hands of a mad man.  

Fame can be fickle and some people are not predisposed to handle the trappings of fame.  Sudden (or not so sudden) influx of large amounts of money can alter the behavior and the thinking of a young adult.  Those who have little or no self-control are bound to push boundaries further than their knowledge and experience can safely contain.  Others take extraordinary risks, while others become targets of the woefully sick-minded.   Here are ten talented actors who barely had the chance to show us their potential.  A few of them are more well-known than the others, but all of them were gifted with the ability to perform on camera.

Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jean Harlow was born on March 3, 1911 and died on June 7, 1937 at a mere 26 years old.   Jean’s birth name, Harlean Carpenter, was changed when she started her movie career.  Harlow’s father, Mont Clair, was a successful dentist and her mother, known as Mother Jean, was an aspiring actress.  Mother Jean divorced Mont when Harlow was a young child and moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.  However, Mother Jean was 34 years old and the studios wouldn’t hire her at that age, choosing instead to use teenage girls for most roles.  Mother Jean and the young Harlow moved back to Kansas City.

Harlow’s childhood was fraught with illness.  At age five she suffered meningitis and at 15 contracted scarlet fever.  By this time, Mother Jean and Harlow had moved to Chicago where Harlow attended high school.  While there she met her first husband.  At 16 years old she eloped with Charles McGrew and the two moved to Los Angeles. (They divorced after two years of marriage and before Harlow became famous.) Both came from wealthy families and at first neither worked; Harlow wanted to be a housewife and mother.[2]  Eventually, Harlow took a part as an extra in a film and though she really had little interest in a film career, she continued to take roles due to pressure from Mother Jean.

Co-starring with Laurel and Hardy in a few of their silent movies, Harlow was noticed by Howard Hughes who cast her in Hell’s Angels (1930).  It was this movie that launched Harlow as a “blonde bombshell” sex symbol.  The first couple of years of her acting career were met with much criticism from movie critics; however, fans loved her.  Promoted as the first platinum blonde to star as a vixen, female fans tried to dye their hair the same color as Harlow’s and reportedly, peroxide sales sky-rocketed.[1]

Original Blonde Bombshell, Jean Harlow; Source: Wikimedia Commons
Harlow went on to star with notable actors of the time, Clark Gable (in six films) as well as multiple films with Spencer Tracy and William Powell. During the filming of Red Dust (1932) Harlow’s second husband, producer Paul Bern, was found shot in their home.  A scandal ensued with Harlow facing accusations of murder, but the death was ruled a suicide.  Harlow began a discreet affair with Max Baer who was separated from his wife at the time.  To prevent another scandal, the studio arranged a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson.  The marriage lasted seven months.[2]

Harlow’s movies didn’t always garner critical acclaim, but they did well at the box office and she was consistently listed as a top money-maker in the early 1930s, beating out the likes of Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford.  In 1934 she met and fell in love with William Powell, though the two never married.  In 1936 she filmed her last completed movie, the comedy Personal Property co-starring Robert Taylor. 

Her final performance was in the movie Saratoga co-starring Clark Gable.  Slated to start filming in March 1937, Harlow’s illness from septicemia caused filming delays until the latter part of April.  When filming started, Harlow experienced further illness and by the end of May was taken home with what doctors diagnosed as influenza.  William Powell called Mother Jean to come, but still no one was too concerned about Harlow’s illness.  By June 2, Harlow claimed she was feeling better and the filming crew expected her to be back at work by June 7th.   On the 6th of June, Harlow told Powell she couldn’t see him clearly and he again called the doctor to the home. [2]  At that point, Harlow went into a deep slumber and was having breathing difficulties and the doctor hospitalized her.  That evening she slipped into a coma and the next morning passed away at the age of 26 years.

The official cause of death was reported as cerebral edema, a complication of kidney failure.  Rumors abound concerning her death.  Some claimed Mother Jean refused to call doctors because she was a Christian Scientist; others declared Harlow had rejected hospital treatment.  Rumors claimed her death was caused by alcoholism, dieting, sunstroke, poisoning from the platinum hair dye, abortion complications or venereal disease.[2]  There is no evidence to support any of these rumors.  Hospital and medical records as well as statements from family and friends confirm Harlow’s death was due to kidney failure.   The 26 year old “blonde bombshell” was gone and movie goers were left to wonder what might have been.

 

James Dean
James Dean; Source: Wikimedia Commons

James Dean is one of the more iconic actors who died at a young age.  Born on February 8, 1931, Dean died at the tender age of 24 on September 30, 1955.  Dean is known for only three films:  East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956).  Before his big breakthrough in East of Eden, Dean performed in numerous television and stage productions.

Born in Indiana, Dean’s parents moved the family to California, but Dean was sent back to Indiana and was raised on a farm by an aunt and uncle from the age of nine when his mother died of cancer and his father was unable to care for him.  During his childhood with his relatives, he became friends with a Methodist pastor, Reverend James DeWeerd, who seemed to influence Dean’s future interest in the theater and also in car racing.[3]   In his later life, he reportedly told Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star in Giant, he was sexually abused by a minister two years after his mother’s death.[3]  There is no confirmation as to whether he was referring to Reverend DeWeerd and whether his claims were true.  However, in a couple of books about Dean, suggestions are implied it is true.[3]

After graduating high school, Dean moved back to California to live with his father and step-mother.  After a few years of college, Dean dropped out and pursued an acting career.  Dean’s first turn in front of a television camera was for a Pepsi commercial.  He went on to have walk-ons and small parts in numerous television shows which led to his big break onto the silver screen.  

Dean’s first starring role was in the film East of Eden in which he improvises much of his performance.  The same year, Dean starred in the teenage angst role in the film Rebel Without a Cause alongside teen actors, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper.  The film resonated with teenage movie goers and continues to be arguably the most recognized role of Dean’s very short career.  The movie Giant was his last performance and was released after his death.  Dean was posthumously nominated for the Oscar for his roles in East of Eden and in Giant.

During Dean’s years in Hollywood, he was linked to various starlets (and male “friends”).  Much of the so-called affairs with the starlets were designed by the studio PR team, though he did have actual love affairs with Pier Angeli and Liz Sheridan.[4]  It has been reported Dean was very much in love with Angeli, but her mother blocked the union and instead arranged for Angeli to marry Vic Damone.[4]  Dean registered as a homosexual to avoid the draft, (at the time it was considered a mental disorder by the U.S. Government), but when later questioned, he reportedly answered,  "No, I am not a homosexual. But, I'm also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back."[3]

James Dean Car Crash; Source: Copyright San Luis Obispo Tribute
Dean loved fast cars and several of his friends and acquaintances predicted he would die in a speeding car.  Much has been written about the accident that took Dean’s life.  Traveling to a race in his Porsche Spyder, he was hit, practically head-on by college student, Donald Turnupseed.  Investigation into the accident put neither party at fault.  Turnupseed and Dean’s passenger, mechanic Rolf Wütherich, were injured, but survived the accident (Wütherich was thrown from the car as it flipped over the heavier Ford Tudor coupe driven by Turnupseed).
Turnupseed’s Ford; Source: Copyright San Luis Obispo Tribute

Years later, the Failure Analysis Associates, from Menlo Park, California, reconstructed the accident and recreated all the details to determine whether or not Dean was speeding as had long been the theory.  (Two hours prior to the accident he had been stopped for speeding.)  The results of the recreation of the accident by the firm concluded Dean was traveling about 55 miles per hour when the accident occurred.[4]  Dean lives on in songs, postage stamps, and books as well as the three classic movies of his short career.  While director Eli Kazan (director of East of Eden) believed Dean would not be able to sustain his career largely due to his lack of formal training and dependence on instinct;[4] we will never know what could have been for this young actor.

 

Rebecca Schaefer
Rebecca Schaeffer in the series My Sister Sam; Source: photo courtesy of blogspot

Rebecca Schaeffer was born on November 6, 1967  and died on July 18, 1989 at the hands of an obsessed fan.  Just 21 years old, Schaefer had barely established her career before her life ended.  She started as a teen model and turned to acting when her height of 5’7” was considered too short for high fashion modeling.[6]

In 1986 Schaeffer successfully auditioned for the role of Patti Russell in the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam.  After two seasons, the series was cancelled and Schaeffer pursued other roles in both television and film earning supporting roles in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and The End of Innocence and a television movie titled Out of Time.

Unfortunately for Schaeffer, her break in the entertainment industry also exposed her to a fan with a severe mental disorder.  Seeing her in the CBS sitcom, Robert John Bardo quickly became infatuated with her character and then the actress.  He wrote a fan letter to her and was thrilled beyond measure when he received a letter in return.  He built a shrine to Schaeffer in his Tucson, Arizona bedroom and in 1987 traveled to the Burbank Studios with a teddy bear and a bouquet of roses in hand.[6]  Turned away by the security guard, he was undaunted in his quest to meet Schaeffer.  He came back a month later, but was again thwarted at the gate.

After returning to Tucson the second time, Bardo viewed Schaeffer in her movie Class Struggle and was enraged when he saw her in a love-scene.  He decided she had become like all of the other Hollywood “b***s” and needed to be punished for her immorality.[6]  He asked his older brother to buy him a gun (because he was a minor at the time) and headed back to Hollywood.

Bardo made numerous efforts to locate Schaeffer’s address and after having no luck, hired a private detective for $250.  At the time, the DMV issued information upon request without checking whether the information on the filled out form was accurate (reason for info request was among the questions on the form). Bardo went to her apartment and when she answered the door, he shot her in the chest.

In 1994, California enacted the Drivers Privacy Protection Act which prohibited the DMV from releasing private address information.[6]  In 1991, the state enacted an anti-stalking law with other states following suit soon after.

 

Brad Renfro
Brad Renfro; Photo courtesy of Broward County Sheriff's Office, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Brad Renfro was born in Knoxville Tennessee on July 25, 1982 and died on January 15, 2008.  He was raised from the age of five by his paternal grandmother.  Renfro may have died at the age of 25, but he already had a career in films that spanned over a decade.  Discovered at the tender age of ten, Renfro made his acting debut in the hit movie The Client starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.  His performance in the film brought several accolades, as did his third role in the film The Cure.

In 1995 Renfro co-starred alongside heavy hitters, Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon and Dustin Hoffman in the film Sleepers.   In 1997 he co-starred with Ian McKellen in Apt Pupil.  Subsequent film work were not as successful with most going straight to video.  Renfro appeared in an episode of the television series Law and Order: Criminal Intent and in 2008 was in his last film, The Informers, which co-starred Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder, and Billy Bob Thornton. 

Renfro did not appear to handle the fame well, ending up as many young stars do—addicted to drugs and alcohol and finding himself behind bars on several occasions.  His criminal record included not only drug charges, but grand theft as well when he and a friend attempted to steal a 45-foot yacht from the harbor at Fort Lauderdale.[8]

In June of 2007 Renfro was ordered into a long-term drug addiction treatment program as part of his probation for a drug charge, but he failed to do so.  In January, 2008 Renfro was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment.  The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office ruled the death as an accident due to acute heroin and morphine intoxication.

 

Freddie Prinze
Freddie Prinze; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Freddie Prinze was born Frederick Karl Pruetzel in New York City on June 22, 1954 and died on January 29, 1977; almost six months before his 23rd birthday.  Prinze’s father was a German immigrant and is mother was Puerto Rican.  He identified as Puerto Rican.  As a child, Prinze was enrolled in ballet classes and unbeknownst to his parents, he successfully auditioned for enrollment in the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts.  It was there he found his penchant for comedy and he ended up dropping out of school in his senior year to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.[9]

Prinze performed in several comedy clubs in New York, drawing on his mixed heritage as fodder for his comedy routines.  In 1973 he made his debut on television as a guest on the show Jack Parr Tonite. Later in that year, he made history on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson by becoming the first young comedian to be asked by Carson to sit down and have a chat after his first appearance on the show.[10]  In 1974 Prinze

Freddie Prinze; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of NBC Television
was cast in the television series Chico and the Man, co-starring with Jack Albertson.  The show was an immediate hit and Prinze’s acting career took off as he signed a five-year deal with NBC for a reported six million dollars.[9]

Prinze married Katherine Cochran in 1975 and they had a son, Freddie Jr. the following year (who went on to become an accomplished actor himself).  Prinze’s rise to stardom was so quick, he had difficulty navigating the fame and accompanying wealth.  He turned to drugs (usually Quaaludes) while working on the television series and was arrested in late 1976 for DUI.  Subsequently his wife divorced him and Prinze slid into depression. 

Accounts of his death are somewhat varied in the details.  The fact he died of a self-inflicted head wound is not in question.  What varies is whether or not it was intentional.  Some reports indicate after a phone call with his ex-wife, he called his manager and a few friends stating he was going to commit suicide.  His manager arrived in the early morning hours and Prinze pulled a gun from under the couch cushion and shot himself before the manager could stop him. Other accounts simply report the manager was at the apartment when Prinze called his ex-wife and “was still in the apartment when Prinze shot himself.”  Friends questioned whether Prinze was playing a joke and never meant to actually kill himself.[10]  Not dying immediately from the gunshot, Prinze’s family and friends made the painful decision to take him off life support on January 29.

 

Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis; Source: fanpop.com

Jonathan Brandis was born in Danbury, Connecticut on April 13, 1976 and died on November 12, 2003.  Brandis’ mother was a teacher and personal manager and his father, a food distributor and fireman.  At the age of four Brandis made his acting debut in television commercials; at six he was cast in the soap opera One Life to Live

Throughout his career, Brandis appeared in both television and film.  His most successful role was as the scientific teenage prodigy, Lucas Wolenczak in the science fiction series seaQuest DSV, a Stephen Spielberg production.   This role launched Brandis into status as a teen idol where he remained for several years.  Extending his talents, Brandis not only acted, but also wrote and co-produced one episode of the series and went on to direct and produce other projects over the years.  Brandis’ film credits include numerous voice-works for animated films in addition to co-starring roles in movies such as Ladybugs and Sidekicks.  In his final credits, roles were reduced to secondary parts with his role in Hart’s War cut from the film entirely. 

Brandis died from injuries sustained from hanging.  Two weeks after the incident, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office confirmed the death was ruled a suicide.  Brandis left no note and the mystery of motivation remains to this day.  Friends speculate he was depressed about his declining career,[11] but as Paul Peterson, president of A Minor Consideration, an organization that deals with issues affecting child actors stated:

"Speculations as to the underlying cause of this tragedy are exactly that: speculations. It serves no purpose to leap to conclusions for none of us will really know what led Jonathan to his decision to take his life,"[11]

 

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sharon Tate was born on January 24, 1943 and died on August 9, 1969.  Tate grew up in a military family with numerous moves around the country.  She entered several beauty pageants as a teenager  and in 1959 won the title of “Miss Richland” in the state of Washington.  Tate was used to people commenting on her beauty, but she was a shy girl who found it difficult to make friends.  When she was around 16 years old, her father was transferred to Italy and took the family with him.  It was there Tate found camaraderie with other American teenagers and finally formed some lasting friendships.[12]

While in Italy, Tate and her friends became interested in the filming industry and Tate was hired as an extra on a couple of films as well as appearing on a television special with singer Pat Boone.  In 1962 the family moved back to the United States and Tate moved to Los Angeles where she connected with agent, Harold Gefsky, who secured work for her in television and print advertisements.  After meeting the director of Filmways, Inc., Martin Ransohoff, Tate was signed to a seven-year contract with the company.

Most of Tate’s initial screen time was small parts in various television and film.  She displayed her lack of confidence in auditions and this hindered her from earning co-starring or lead roles until she had more experience. Finally, in late 1965, Tate landed her first major role in the film Eye of the Devil, co-starring opposite David Niven, Donald Pleasence, Deborah Kerr and David Hemmings.  Tate went to London to prepare for filming and when the movie was finished, she stayed in London and around this time met her future husband Roman Polanshi.

The introduction of the two didn’t create sparks right away.  Polanski was developing the movie The Fearless Vampire Killers with Ranshoff co-producing.  Ranshoff insisted Tate be cast in the film and Palanski finally agreed as long as she wore a red wig (he wanted red-head Jill St. John for the part).[12]  During the filming, Tate and Polanski began a relationship and she moved in with him after filming ended.  Her boyfriend at the time, hair stylist, Jay Sebrig, was said to be devastated, but remained friends with the couple.[12]

Both of the films were released (The Fearless Vampire Killers released before Eye of the Devil) in 1967 with little acclaim.  Also in that year, Tate’s third film The Valley of the Dolls was released which also starred Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins and Susan Hayward.  Tate, Duke and Parkins formed a close friendship while filming the movie which continued after filming concluded.[12]  This movie too, garnered few positive reviews.

In late 1967 Tate and Polanski returned to London where they married in January of 1968.  It wasn’t long before the couple returned to Hollywood and engaged in social gatherings which included the big names of the times; Steve McQueen, Mia Farrow, Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers, Leslie Caron, Joan Collins, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Yul Brymer, Jim Morrison (of the Doors) as well as record producer Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen who was Melcher’s girlfriend at the time.  Polanski and Tate often entertained and it wasn’t unusual for the house to be filled with strangers.[12]

In 1968 Tate filmed The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin.  Her performance received positive reviews and it appeared her career was finally showing some success.  Even though her performance in The Valley of the Dolls was panned by most critics, she received a nomination for the Golden Globe award in the “New Star of the Year-Actress” category.

At the end of 1968 Tate became pregnant and in early 1969 the couple moved into the infamous house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon.  Both Tate and Polanski left the country to work on their respective films, Tate in Italy for The Thirteen Chairs with Orson Wells; and Polanski for The Day of the Dolphin in London.  Tate joined Polanski there when she finished filming.  During that time, friends Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend, coffee heiress Abigail Folger  moved into the Benedict Canyon home.   On July 20, 1969 Tate returned to the U.S. and Polanski was to follow on August 12 in time for the birth of their child.  Frykowski and Fogler were asked to stay with Tate until Polanksi returned.[12]

On the night of August 8, 1969 the gruesome murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebrig, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steve Parent occurred.  In 1970, Charles Manson and members of “his family” were convicted and sentenced for the murders.  Originally given the death penalty, their sentences were commuted to life after the California Supreme Court's People v. Anderson decision resulted in the invalidation of all death sentences imposed in California before 1972.[12]  Tate had been stabbed 16 times by Susan Atkins and the word “PIG” written in her blood was found on the front door.

 

Charles Manson; Source: Wikimedia Commons
Killer Leslie Van Houten; Source Wikimedia Commons
Killer Susan Atkins; Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

After the murders, Tate’s mother, Doris, and her two sisters, Pattie and Debra, advocated for victim’s rights and it is through their efforts victims now have a voice at criminal sentencing in court.   Polanski was devastated by the loss of Tate and his unborn child and gave away all of his possessions and traveled to Europe once the arrests were made.[12]  Tate’s work, as might be expected, was reassessed after her death and given more credit for her display of comedic ability. However, her legacy will forever be tied to Charles Manson and his “family.”

 

Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee; Source: fanpop.com

Brandon Lee was born on February 1, 1965 and died on March 31, 1993.  Born in Oakland, California to the famous martial arts and movie actor, Bruce Lee and wife Linda Emery; Brandon Lee began life in Los Angeles when Bruce Lee moved the family there when Brandon was only months old.  The family divided their time between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, where when Brandon was eight years old, his father died from cerebral edema.

Lee studied the theater at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts for a year and then transferred to the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute where he was part of the American New Theatre group.  Top Bruce Lee students (and best friends) Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo provided the majority of Brandon’s martial arts training.[13]

Brandon Lee’s acting career includes limited exposure.  He appeared in several television roles and a few little known movies.  His big break came in 1993 when he was cast in the movie The Crow.  It was during the filming of this movie a terrible accident took his life.  With eight days left of shooting, Brandon’s life was ended when a gun was improperly loaded for a scene.

The proper blank cartridges were used during the scene, but in earlier filming of close-ups of the gun, a bullet became lodged in the barrel when dummy cartridges were improperly prepared and accidently fired, which drove the bullet part-way into the barrel.  This resulted in a squib load; a fired projectile which doesn’t have enough force behind it to fully exit the barrel.  During the filming of the scene, when the gun was fired, the primer charge of the blank cartridge drove the lodged bullet out of the barrel as if it were a live round and the bullet hit Brandon Lee resulting in his death.   Only a few scenes involving Lee were yet to be filmed and the director, with the support of Lee’s fiancée and mother, decided to use a stunt double and special effects to complete the film.

 

River Phoenix
River Phoenix (L); Photo by Alan Light  CCA by 2.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons

River Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 and died on October 31, 1993.  The first of five children born to Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and John Lee Bottom, River and his siblings had an unorthodox upbringing.  Different living locales included Venezuela where the family was missionaries with the Children of God movement. The family was not supported financially and River and sister Rain often played guitar and sang on street corners to get money.  River never went to school, though he did learn to read and write.[14]

After becoming disillusioned with the Children of God organization, the Bottom family stayed on in Venzelua for a time and it was during this period the entire family became vegans with River and brother, Joaquin, the driving forces behind the practice.[14]  Eventually, the family traveled back to the U.S. on a cargo ship and lived with relatives in Florida.  In 1979 the family officially changed their surname to “Phoenix to symbolize a new beginning.[14]

River and his siblings Rain, Joaquin and Summer were discovered by talent agent Iris Burton when she noticed them singing on the street for money in Westwood, Los Angeles.  In 1980, River made his first television appearance singing alongside sister Rain.  More television work followed and in October 1984 River scored his first role in a major film, Explorers; but, his big break into the public conscious came in 1986 with a role in the Rob Reiner film Stand by Me.  In the same year, he co-starred with Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast.

The family continued to live a nomadic existence.  Before the age of 18, Phoenix had moved over forty times.[14]  However, Phoenix continued the course of his acting career. In 1988 Phoenix starred alongside the great Sidney Poitier in Little Nikita and in the same year he finished work in Running on Empty, after which he bought the family a ranch in Florida as well as one in Costa Rica.[14]

In 1989 Phoenix was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his work in Running on Empty.   He starred opposite Keanu Reeves in I Love You to Death (1990) and again in My Own Private Idaho (1991), an independent film which won him great acclaim and Best Actor titles at the Venice Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Awards and the National Society of Film Critics.  He went on to work again with Robert Redford and again with Poitier in the film Sneakers; Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue; and his final film, Peter Bogdanovich's, The Thing Called Love.

In addition to his acting talent, Phoenix was an accomplished guitarist and often sang with his sister, Rain.  He also wrote many of his songs.  He was a staunch vegan and activist for the protection of animals’ rights and the environment.  He gave financial assistance to various organizations and bought 800 acres of rainforest to prevent its destruction.[14]

On October 30, 1993 Phoenix was scheduled to perform onstage at the Viper Room, ( a club in Los Angeles). His girlfriend at the time, Samantha Mathias, his sister Rain, and brother Joaquin met him there.   Although Phoenix had once espoused an anti-drug stance, on this evening (actually early morning around 1:00 am) he went into the restroom and consumed drugs, one of which was a hit of pure-grade Persion brown heroin.  According to reports, Phoenix reacted almost immediately by shaking and vomiting.[14] One of his friends gave him a valium to calm down. 

The Viper Room; Photo by Mike Dillon, May 10, 2006  GFDL, CCA by SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Phoenix then staggered back t the bar and approached Samantha and Rain, complained he could not breathe and passed out.  When he came to, he asked his friends to help him outside where he fell to the sidewalk and began to have seizures. Joaquin and Ron Davis, a photographer, both called 911 from nearby payphones (this was before cell phones were prevalent).[15]  Rain exited the Viper Room and fell on top of him to try to stop the seizures.  Phoenix suddenly went motionless and Joaquin believed he stopped breathing.[15]  At 1:14 am, Phoenix was in full cardiac arrest.  The medics of the L.A. County Fire Department administered CPR and transported Phoenix to Cedars Sinai Medical Center where at 1:51 am he was pronounced dead.[15]

The official cause of death was acute multiple drug ingestion.  The autopsy showed a deadly level of cocaine and morphine (heroin will register as morphine), along with valium, ephedrine and marijuana.[15]  After his death, his mother published an open letter in the L.A. Times stating his friends, co-workers and family knew he did not regularly use drugs.[14]  Indeed, until his death, Phoenix’s public image was quite clean.

 

Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger;  Photo by Jeff Vespa – © WireImage.com – Image courtesy WireImage.com

The most recent passing on this list, Heath Ledger’s light was extinguished way before it should have been.  He was born on April 4, 1979 and died on  January 22, 2008 in Perth, Western Australia to Sally and Kim Ledger.  Ledger’s parents divorced when he was eleven years old and both married a second spouse.  Ledger has one older sister, Kate, and two half-sisters, Ashleigh Bell and Olivia Ledger.  Kate is given credit for the inspiration to become a stage actor, as she herself was an actress before becoming a publicist.  Gene Kelly inspired Ledger’s talent as a choreographer.[16]

At sixteen, Ledger graduated early and set off to pursue a career in acting.  He started out in small parts in several Australian television shows. His big screen debut was in the Australian film Blackrock (1997). In 2000 he earned supporting roles with lead actors Mel Gibson in The Patriot and Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball.

In 2001 Ledger started getting lead roles.   He took roles in  A Knight's Tale (2001), The Four Feathers (2002), The Order (2003), Ned Kelly (2003), Casanova (2005), The Brothers Grimm (2005), and Lords of Dogtown (2005).  In 2005 he starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain which earned him nominations for a Golden Globe and an Oscar. He received “best actor” awards for his performance in the movie from the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

In 2006 Ledger co-starred with Abbie Cornish and Geoffry Rush in the Australian film Candy.  He was nominated for three “best actor” awards and shortly after its release was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  In 2008,  The Dark Knight was released six months after Ledger’s death.  He played the psychotic Joker and was posthumously awarded an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film. His final film, Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was not completed at the time of his death. The film was adapted with actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law playing “fantasy transformations” of Ledger’s character.

Ledger was interested in directing and did direct a few music videos.  Before his death he was working on a project for his first directorial feature.  Ledger was also an avid chess player.[16]

Throughout Ledger’s early career he was linked to numerous starlets.  During filming of Brokeback Mountain, he entered a relationship with co-star, Michelle Williams and the two had a daughter, Matilda.  In 2007 the couple separated, but remained friendly and Ledger continued to be active in Matilda’s life.[16]

In a November 2007 interview, Ledger stated he was having trouble sleeping claiming the roles in his recent films had taken a toll.[16]  He was taking Ambien to help him sleep.  Apparently Ledger was ill while filming his last movie and complained of not being able to sleep.  His co-star Christopher Plummer commented they all caught colds, but Ledger’s seem to hang on and Plummer thought perhaps Ledger had walking pneumonia.[16]

Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale; Source: getawallpaper.net
On the fateful day of his death, at 2:45 pm, Ledger was found unconscious in his Manhattan apartment by his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin.[16]  Police reports indicated Wolozin called Ledger’s friend, actress Mary-Kate Olsen, for help who sent a New York City private security guard to the apartment.[16]  At 3:26 pm, Wolozin called 911 and administered CPR.  Seven minutes later paramedics arrived and were also unable to revive Ledger.[16]  At 3:36 pm Ledger was pronounced dead.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York officially declared the cause of death to be of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.[16]  After his death, the FBI investigated the aspects of the drug overdose and the physicians who prescribed the drugs.  They also investigated the connection of Mary-Kate Olsen who declined to cooperate without immunity.[16]  Two prescribing physicians were exonerated of any wrongdoing, as it was determined they had not prescribed the drugs that killed the actor.  It is not known where or who Ledger secured the oxycodone and hydrocodone.

The Loss of Such Talents

It is never easy to lose someone, even when it is someone admired or adored from afar.  The talents of these ten fine actors were never fully realized and left many with the feelings of “what might have been.”   Some of them are legendary while some are mostly forgotten.  Regardless, Elton John and Bernie Taupin summed up the loss of a legend before her time in the song “Candle in the Wind:” 

“And it seems to me, you lived your life, like a candle in the wind

Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.

And I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid.

Your candle burned out long before, your legend ever did.”

 

The copyright of the article So Long, Farewell, We Hardly Knew Ya: Ten Actors Who Died in Their Twenties is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

 

Heath Ledger's final movie.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [Blu-ray]
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Comments

Aug 12, 2013 7:41pm
Marlando
Extremely sad but glad you reminded us of those talents--2 big thumbs from me and as rating for the integrity of your work.
Aug 13, 2013 8:05am
weianow
Thank you for the read and the kind words.
Aug 13, 2013 12:03am
trudyb
Excellent article! It so sad when we lose someone in the earliest stages of life, and are left to wonder what would have been.... its also a good reminder to live as richly and fully as we can.
Thanks, for the article

trudy
Aug 13, 2013 8:07am
weianow
Thank you for the read and your kind words. Losing such talents is a tragedy in itself; so gifted and all gone. It does give one pause as to what heights they could have achieved.
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