Most of us know all about the young A-list stars who tragically passed away before their time. River Phoenix has been gone for more than two decades, yet his loss continues to be mourned by fans and those in the industry who lament what he could have become had he not passed away at only 23.
When Heath Ledger died at 28, the world was devastated that an actor who had only just begun to show Hollywood his incredible talent was gone so soon.
But what about the young celebrities who passed away after their own fame had begun to dwindle, whose tragic and untimely deaths were not splashed across the front pages of magazines and newspapers?
Or stars whose fans were too young to even realize that the actor or actress they watched and loved had died?
Perhaps they were plagued with alcohol and substance abuse, which is all too common in the world of child stardom. Maybe they suffered from depression and mental illness, and were not able to get the help they needed in time. Some succumbed to illnesses their bodies couldn’t fight. And others, tragically, faced more violent deaths.
These are the celebrities from our childhood who disappeared not because their careers in TV and film ended, or because they pursued another craft, but because they died too young.
16 SeaQuest Hunk, Jonathan Brandis. 1976-2003
Jonathan Brandis was a 90s heartthrob and a staple in teen magazines. He started his career as a model at only four years old, eventually moving to the small screen before making it big – for a time, anyway – in Hollywood.
He had roles in One Life to Live, The Neverending Story 2, Full House, Who’s the Boss, Blossom, The Wonder Years, and the original miniseries IT. But he may be best remembered as Lucas Wolenczak, the star of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi series SeaQuest DSV. At the time, he was so popular with young female fans that he had to be escorted on set by three security guards.
Brandis was found semi-conscious in his L.A. apartment building after an apparent suicide attempt. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital, but passed away the next day, on Nov. 12, 2003. He was 27 years old.
15 Now And Then’s Ashleigh Aston Moore. 1981-2007
Ashley Aston Moore was one of four stars of the coming-of-age film Now and Then, also starring Thora Birch, Gabby Hoffman and Christina Ricci. The petite actress had to put on 20 pounds to play the role of good girl Chrissy DeWitt, whose adult character was portrayed by Rita Wilson.
Moore began acting at four, first in commercials, plays, TV, and then film. Apart from her role in Now and Then, Moore also landed parts in Northern Exposure, Touched By An Angel, Strange Luck and The Odyssey.
14 Poltergeist’s Heather O’Rourke. 1975-1988
Heather O’Rourke, the adorable blonde protagonist from Stephen Spielberg’s horror film Poltergeist, was only 12 when she died of complications during emergency surgery.
Spielberg discovered O’Rourke while she was having lunch with her mother at the MGM cafeteria, and cast her in the lead role of Carole Anne in Poltergeist. She went on to play parts in Happy Days, Webster, and the Poltergeist sequels.
O’Rourke, who had previously been misdiagnosed as having Crohn’s disease, became ill in January 1988. After falling suddenly ill at home, she ended up in surgery to repair a bowel obstruction, and tragically died of cardiac arrest caused by septic shock.
13 The Client’s Brad Renfro. 1982-2008
Brad Renfro was another 90s teen heartthrob who passed away too young.
Renfro hit it big in his first acting role, being cast as the lead character in The Client alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. He went on to play parts in Tom and Huck (along with Jonathan Taylor Thomas), Sleepers (where he played a young Brad Pitt), Apt Pupil, and The Informers.
Renfro struggled with substance abuse and had several run-ins with police, including convictions for drug possession, and driving under the influence.
12 Passions’s Josh Ryan Evans. 1982-2002
If you ever watched the soap opera Passions, you’ll remember Josh Ryan Evans. The diminutive actor became famous for playing the role of Timmy Lenox, a doll that was brought to life via magic by an evil witch. Sounds weird, but it won Evans a Daytime Emmy Award, and a degree of fame.
Evans had achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and stood at 3 feet 2 inches tall. But that didn’t stop him from landing acting gigs. Apart from his role in Passions, also starred in Baby Geniuses, Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (where he played a young Grinch), as well as Ally McBeal and 7th Heaven.
11 The Bad News Bears’s Sammi Kane Kraft. 1992-2012
Sammi Kane Kraft played tomboy pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer in the remake of The Bad News Bears, a role she landed because of her amazing talent as an actual baseball player. The role in the original film was played by Tatum O’Neal.
The actress was killed in a car accident on Oct. 9, 2012. She had been a passenger in a car that rear-ended a truck on an L.A. highway, and was subsequently hit by another vehicle. Kraft was pronounced dead at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
10 Everybody Loves Raymond’s Sawyer Sweeten. 1995-2015
Sawyer Sweeten starred as Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton’s precocious son on Geoffrey on the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, along with his twin brother Sullivan and sister Madilyn (the three all played siblings). The Sweeten twins landed their roles at only 16 months old, and starred in the show for nine years, until its last episode in 2005.
Tragically, Sweeten took his own life on April 23, 2015 at the age of 19, while visiting family in his home state of Texas. Family members said he had been struggling with mental illness and depression.
About 200 friends and family attended the funeral. His mother told People Magazine, “I know there were signs that were missed until after the fact,” she said, who believes her son had a mental breakdown in the weeks leading up to his death. “I saw him saying things that were delusional and didn’t make sense.”
9 Disney Channel’s Lee Thompson Young (1984–2013)
If you watched Disney Channel as a kid, you are likely familiar with Lee Thompson Young, who played the lead role in The Famous Jett Jackson.
Young went on to play the same character in the film version of that same TV show, as well as roles in Johnny Tsunami, Smallville, Friday Night Lights, The Guardian, FlashForward, South Beach and Rizzoli and Isles.
After failing to show to set for the filming of an episode of Rissoli and Isles, police were sent to his home on Aug. 19, 2013, where they found the young actor deceased. He suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, and had taken his own life. He was 29.
8 80’s Teen Hearttrob Corey Haim. 1971-2010
Corey Haim was Canada’s biggest 80s teen heartthrob, breaking into acting at 10 to play Larry in The Edison Twins. He moved quickly from TV to Hollywood, starring in Silver Bullet, The Lost Boys, License to Drive, High Voltage, and Watchers. It’s said he turned down River Phoeneix’s role in Stand By Me to star in Lucas, and lost out to Corey Feldman for the role of Mouth in Goonies. Feldman and Haim – dubbed “the two Coreys” – would become lifelong friends.
It’s alleged that Haim and Feldman were both sexually assaulted as young teenagers by men in the entertainment industry, which may have played a role in Haim’s descent into addiction.
Haim struggled with substance abuse from his teenage years onwards, was occasionally homeless, and lived with his mother in Burbank, California in the last years of his life. He died on March 10, 2010 at age 38. The official cause of death was pneumonia due to drug abuse.
7 Harry Potter’s Rob Knox. 1989-2008
If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter films, you’ll remember Rob Knox as the actor who played Marcus Belby in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. He was also signed to act in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.
Knox began acting at age 11, first starting in TV and then moving to film in his native England.
Tragically, Knox’s life was cut short on May 24, 2008, when he died of stab wounds while trying to defend his younger brother from a knife-wielding man outside a London bar. He was 18.
6 The Adorable Judith Barsi. 1978-1988
Of all the stories of young Hollywood actors lost too soon, Judith Barsi’s is perhaps the most tragic.
Barsi may best be known for voicing the character of adorable Ducky in The Land Before Time. She also starred in All Dogs Go to Heaven, Jaws: The Revenge, Do You Remember Love, as well as dozens of commercials and TV shows.
Barsi had a troubled childhood at the hands of an abusive and alcoholic father. After breaking down in tears in front of her agent, Barsi’s mother took her to counselling, and Child Protective Services was soon notified of abuse at home.
Unfortunately, any help that could have come from authorities came too late. On July 25, 1988, Barsi’s father József, shot and killed her while she was asleep in her Los Angeles home. He then shot his wife, and turned the gun on himself.
5 Different Strokes Star Gary Coleman. 1968–2010
Even if you’re too young to have ever watched Diff’rent Strokes, you are likely familiar with its star Gary Coleman, and his character Arnold Jackson’s catch phrase “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” It’s said that at the height of his career, he was earning 100,000 an episode. He went on to successfully sue his parents and former business advisor over misappropriation of funds, for pocketing much of his earnings.
Coleman was born with a congenital, chronic kidney disease, and the medications he needed to treat his illness stunted his growth – he was only 4’8″.
On May 26. 2010, Coleman was taken to hospital after falling down the stairs of his home in Provo, Utah. By the following day he had slipped into a coma, and was eventually taken off life support. The official cause of death was brain hemorrhage. Coleman was 42.
4 Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Lisa Lopes was one of the three beautiful and talented young members of the 90s girl band TLC. Lopes joined the group at only 19, after attending a casting call for a new all-female music group that would eventually become known as TLC.
When their album CrazySexyCool was released, TLC skyrocketed to stardom, with their music becoming a staple at clubs and in teenagers’ bedrooms. In 1998, Lopes struck out on her own to embark on a solo career, and eventually launched her own talent company, Left Eye productions.
Lopes, like many young stars, struggled with substance abuse. In 1994, shew as sentenced to probation and ordered to attend therapy after setting fire to boyfriend (and football star) Andre Rison’s shoes in their bathtub, causing a massive fire that ended up destroying the entire mansion.
Tragically, her life was cut short on April 25, 2002 when a rental car she was driving in Cuba swerved to avoid an oncoming truck, hit a tree and flipped several times. Lopes and her three passengers were thrown from the car, and she died on impact. She was 30.
3 Growing Pain’s Andrew Koenig. 1968-2010
If you watched Growing Pains as a kid, you’ll remember Andrew Koenig as Boner, the best friend of Mike Seaver (played by Kirk Cameron). He also had roles in 21 Jump Street, My Two Dads and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Acting ran in his family. His father Walter Koenig played Pavel Chekov in Star Wars, and Alfred Bester in the Babylon 5 series.
Andrew Koenig was reported missing on Feb. 18, 2010 after missing a flight. He had been last seen several days earlier near a bakery in Vancouver, B.C.
2 Baywatch’s Michael Cuccione. 1985-2001
Michael Cuccione was an actor and singer best known for his role in 2gether, a fictional musical group that formed the basis of a self-titled TV series and movie that satirized 90s boy bands. He also had a guest role in Baywatch.
Cuccione battled cancer for much of his life, having first been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age nine. He became a passionate campaigner for the advancement cancer research and treatment, establishing the Michael Cuccione Foundation for Cancer Research. He also did fundraising, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Cuccione’s health took a tragic turn for the worse during the taping of the second season of 2gether. He required oxygen on set, and ended up in a minor car accident that exacerbated his illness, leading to pneumonia and hospitalization. He died of respiratory failure on Jan. 13, 2011, eight days after his 16th birthday. David Hasselhoff gave the eulogy at his funeral.
1 Clueless’s Brittany Murphy 1977–2009
Brittany Murphy had been acting for several years – with roles in Blossom, Frasier, Party of Five and Boy Meets World – before finally landing her big break: the part of awkward high schooler Tai Fraser in the 1995 hit Clueless.
It was then that Hollywood took notice of the spunky, petite performer. Murphy landed starring roles in 8 Mile, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Sin city, and Girl, Interrupted, as well as voicing Luanne in King of the Hill.
But on Dec 20, 2009, she collapsed in her L.A. home and was rushed to hospital in cardiac arrested. Murphy was pronounced dead at the scene. She was 32.
Officially, Murphy died of pneumonia and anemia. But the exact cause of death has remained a topic of speculation ever since, especially because her husband Simon Monjack died only five months later under very similar circumstances.
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