Inside the Most Heartbreaking Teen Star Tragedies

From Jonathan Brandis and Dana Plato to River Phoenix and Brad Renfro, too many once-promising talents lost battles with mental health issues and substance abuse

By Natalie Finn Apr 13, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Dana PlatoGary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

The fall of the former child star is one of show business's oldest tropes—but that doesn't make each and every story of talent squandered or a life wasted any less heartbreaking.

Dana Plato, whose downward spiral helped propel the theory that the hit sitcom Diff'rent Strokes was cursed, has been gone for more than 20 years, having died of a drug overdose in 1999, a day after insisting on The Howard Stern Show that she had been sober for a decade—except for painkillers she took four months prior, when she got her wisdom teeth removed. She even offered on the air to take a drug test.

The 34-year-old actress was on the show in the first place to rebut the claims of a former roommate who had previously called in and said Plato was back on drugs.


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"I'm tired of defending my character," said Plato, whose missteps since the height of her fame had included being arrested for trying to rob a video store and spending a month in jail after she was caught forging prescriptions for Valium. "I am what I am. What you see is what you get."

"My life is so good now," she added. "I've never been happier."

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Stern said she looked fine to him, but while some callers offered words of support, a few accused her of lying about her sobriety, including one who called her an "ex-druggie, ex-con lesbian with mental-health problems."

The next day, May 8, 1999, Plato died of a toxic combination of the painkiller Lortab (hydrocodone) and the muscle relaxant Soma—both of which she had been prescribed for back pain, lingering complications from injuries suffered in a car crash—at her fiancé's parents' home in Oklahoma. 

Later that month, the deputy state medical examiner ruled Plato's death a suicide; she didn't leave a note, but he factored in her history of drug abuse and depression as well as the amount of medication found in her system.

Plato had actually credited her arrests in the early 1990s (she got probation for the Rx and robbery offenses) for saving her life. "If I hadn't gotten caught, it could have been the worst thing that happened to me because I could have died of a drug overdose," she said in an interview.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

From 1978 until 1984, when she got pregnant and was written out of the show, Plato starred on Diff'rent Strokes as Kimberly Drummond, the big sister to adopted brothers Willis and Arnold, played by Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman, both of whose post-Strokes lives are also the stuff of child-stardom-gone-wrong legend. (Against all odds, Bridges, author of Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, managed to overcome being a victim of sexual abuse as a kid, drug addiction and going on trial for attempted murder—he was acquitted—and press on in life and his career.)

Plato posed nude for Playboy in 1989 and dabbled in soft-core adult entertainment, anything perhaps to reboot her career. Ironically, she had been offered the role of a teen prostitute that eventually went to a 13-year-old Brooke Shields in 1978's Pretty Baby, but turned it down because she didn't want to be typecast. (It also wasn't a bad career move for Jodi Foster, who was nominated for an Oscar for 1976's Taxi Driver and has since won two.) She also could've been Regan in The Exorcist, but Plato's mother didn't think it would've been an appropriate working environment for a child.

Plato was married to Lanny Lambert, the father of her son Tyler Lambert, for seven years before they divorced in 1991.

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Her death was a tragic coda to what was unarguably a hard life, fleeting perks of fame aside. The story unthinkably got even worse when, on May 6, 2009, Tyler died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 25.

"It's a shame that such a talented human being would do this with his life," his paternal grandmother, Joni Richardson, who had helped raised him, told People at the time. "He had all the opportunities in the world and we just can't understand it." They had just talked that morning, she said, "but you never can tell what's in their mind."

Like his mother, Tyler, a cameraman and aspiring songwriter, had battled drug and alcohol abuse.

"Mother's Day was always a difficult time, not only because it was Mother's Day but the anniversary of Dana's death," Johnny Whitaker, a former child actor who had been Plato's manager and later became a certified drug counselor, told ABC News after Tyler's death.

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Just over a year later, on May 28, 2010, Gary Coleman died, two days after suffering a head injury in a fall down the stairs at his home in Utah. He was 42 and had lived a fraught life since the peak of his Diff'rent Strokes fame, buoyed by his endlessly parroted catchphrase, "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" 

Congenital kidney disease and the intense treatments he underwent as a child to fight it stunted Coleman's growth at 4'8", a circumstance that in the 1980s and 1990s made him an object of both sympathy and parody. He sued his adoptive parents in 1989 for mismanaging his earnings, eventually winning a $1.3 million judgment. But his financial troubles, including a bankruptcy filing in 1999, continued to be notorious, and he worked as much as he could—and shows were usually happy to have him, such as when he was on The Hughleys in an episode called "Whatchoo Stalkin' About, Willis?" He also would take the opportunity to cash in on his celebrity, running for governor of California in 2003 and appearing on The Surreal Life in 2004. 

After he died, the tabloid The Globe ran a photo of him taken when he was comatose in the hospital, his ex-wife Shannon Price lying next to him, on its cover with the headline "IT WAS MURDER!" (Price and Coleman had continued to live together after divorcing in 2008 and she had the power to make medical decisions for him.)

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The Globe wouldn't reveal who they bought that picture from, or for how much, but Dion Mal, the executor of Coleman's will, accused Price of an "ongoing desperate attempt" to capitalize on Coleman's death. 

According to CBS News, a rep for Price didn't refute that claim, only saying that she was indeed in need of money.

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One of most haunting examples of drugs ruining a real-deal acting career was the Jan. 15, 2008, death of Brad Renfro, star of The Client, Tom and Huck, SleepersApt Pupil and more until addiction destroyed his life. He was in and out of court and rehab before dying of a heroin overdose at 25.

Larry Clark, who directed Renfro in 2001's Bully, recalled the actor promising he was sober while lobbying for the role in the film, based on a real-life story about a group of teens who murdered their tormentor. But when Clark stopped by Renfro's home in Knoxville, Tenn., on the way to Florida, where they were going to shoot the movie, the 18-year-old had blood running down his arms and obvious track marks.

"I said, 'What the [bleep] are you doing?'" the filmmaker told the Seattle Times after Renfro died. "He'd been banging coke. He has tracks running down both arms. He looks horrible. I just saw the whole movie going down the drain."

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Clark then drove Renfro to Florida, giving the teen a chance to detox, and hired a trainer and minder for him while they made Bully. But Renfro would still manage to drink at night.

"I've been around a lot of addicts and alcoholics, and I remember thinking at the time, this is one of the worst cases I've ever seen," Clark said.

Heath Ledger, who acted throughout the 1990s in his native Australia before breaking out in 10 Things I Hate About You at the age of 19, died one week after Renfro did, unwittingly relegating the younger actor to a footnote as far as mass-media coverage was concerned. And probably because of the outpouring of shock over Ledger's death at 28 from an accidental prescription drug overdose and the hype surrounding his posthumous accolades for The Dark Knight, those twin blows to young Hollywood don't feel as if they occurred anywhere in the vicinity of each other.

Fans of Renfro were understandably outraged when he wasn't included in the Oscars' in memoriam tribute that year.


Renfro had been an unruly kid from the beginning, when he was an unknown making his acting debut in The Client at the age of 12 alongside Susan Sarandon in 1994.

"You just wanted to take care of this boy," talent manager J.J. Harris remembered to the Seattle Times in 2008. "He was a gorgeous little boy. Rough-and-tumble. Very self-aware. He'd say things like, 'Nobody can put up with me 'cause I'm too hot to handle.'" She added, "He was just obviously screaming for someone to establish some kind of boundaries for him, something that never happened in his life."

When he made Sleepers two years later, director Barry Levinson made sure Renfro—whose paternal grandmother had been raising him in Knoxville since his parents split up—had a 24/7 minder.

It was while they were filming Bully in Fort Lauderdale that Renfro was arrested after hot-wiring a yacht but forgetting to untie it from the dock before he tried to steer off. 

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Production was delayed a day while they got Renfro out of jail.

"He's all dehydrated and feels terrible," Clark recalled shooting the next day. "But he could just do stuff like that, and he was young. He was a very natural actor. He didn't study his lines. I doubt he read the whole script, but when you turned on the camera, he was magic. He was so good, you would kind of forgive him for being a f--k-up.

"For a minute."

After agreeing to enter a drug-diversion program following another arrest in 2006, Renfro talked to reporters about being 30 days sober. "It wasn't as bad as I had feared it would be," he said of the detox program. "It's helped me greatly. It's definitely been an eye-opener...I'm going to stay clean, and, in turn, it will help me spiritually and with work. It's going to help me in all phases of my life."


Another acclaimed actor who never got old, or even middle-aged, was River Phoenix, whose death of an accidental overdose at 23 sent a bolt of sadness through Hollywood.

"I think he was the best. Is. Was. Is the best of the young guys," Brad Pitt said afterward. "I'm not just saying that now—I said that before he died. He had something I don't understand."

The star of Stand by MeRunning on Empty and My Own Private Idaho was leaving the Viper Room, a club on the Sunset Strip that's still there to this day but at the time had just opened with Johnny Depp as a co-owner, when he collapsed in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993. He had been out that night with his girlfriend Samantha Mathis, who he had just co-starred with in The Thing Called Love, and his then 19-year-old brother Joaquin Phoenix.

Joaquin called 911 as his brother started to seize on the pavement.

By all accounts, River Phoenix was a sensitive soul, a vegan before it was a thing, who lived a clean, close-to-the-earth lifestyle instilled in him by his parents.

After his death from what turned out to be acute multiple drug toxicity, including cocaine and heroin, the image of him changed to another former child actor whose life went recklessly off the rails—but those close to him saw a young man in pain, a natural at acting who wasn't dealing healthily with the ramifications of fame.

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"River said to me in that last year: 'I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college,'" Mathis recalled to The Guardian in 2018. "I don't know if that was true, but I remember him saying that."

"As River grew, he did become more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things," mom Heart Phoenix told Esquire in 1994. "He often said he wished he could just be anonymous. But he never was. When he wasn't a movie star, he was a missionary. There's a beauty in that—the man with the cause, the leader—but there's also a deep loneliness."

"He had so much compassion for everyone and everything that he had a weight on his heart," added Mathis.

Phoenix had also mentioned being sexually abused as a little boy when his family was still a part of the Children of God cult, a group he later called "disgusting."

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"He's become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah," former girlfriend Martha Plimpton, his co-star in The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty, also told Esquire. "He wasn't. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very f--ked up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don't want to be comforted by his death. I think it's right that I'm angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River."

River and Joaquin's father, John, was also a drinker and River "worried the disease was in his bloodline," Plimpton said. "We had five million talks about his compulsive personality and his guilt and fear over not being able to save his father."

Remarking on what was said at his memorial, all the people comforting each other with thoughts of Phoenix in heaven, or as energy now all around them, Plimpton cracked, "You would have thought he was 90 and had died in his sleep. The people who were saying this felt tremendous guilt that they had contributed to his death."

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Plimpton, meanwhile, is an example of an actress who's enjoying the fourth decade of her career after getting her start as a kid. Hollywood and associated environs are full of actors and singers who started young and, whether you know who they are or not as adults, are doing just fine. And there are some who hit the ground running at 9 and never stopped.

"I don't know if it's reflective of child actors exactly, but more about whether child actors have enough of a familial foundation to withstand the difficulties," Rob Reiner, who directed Phoenix in Stand by Me, told The Guardian in 2018. "When I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? I thought, 'Wow, this kid is insanely talented, if he doesn't have some kind of familial moorings, he's going to fall off the deep end.' So when we made The Wolf of Wall Street, I told him I'd been worried about him. He said, 'Even though my parents divorced, I always had a good relationship with both of them.' So he had that secure foundation."

Phoenix, coincidentally, turned down the lead in The Basketball Diaries, despite being an admirer of the book, and he was lined up to star in Total Eclipse—both roles that then went to DiCaprio.

The rare example of a child actor who continued on an ever-upward trajectory and whose star at 45 remains as lofty as ever, Leo did his share of partying as a youngster, because he could—but he didn't get into the drug scene, because he was also fully aware of what happened on the other side of the world-is-your-oyster-at-20 coin.

"The more people said, 'Leo's not working, he's running around with his friends,' the more I wanted to do it. The world was our fun playground," DiCaprio, who won an Oscar in 2016 and is a shoo-in to get his sixth acting nod for Once Upon a Hollywood this coming award season, told Rolling Stone in 2010. "It was also about avoiding the tornado of chaos, of potential downfall.

"It was, 'Wow, how lucky are we to not have hung out with that crowd or done those things?' My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose."

Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The other blond-haired kid was Jonathan Brandis, a star of the original It miniseries at 12, the 16-year-old heartthrob from 1992's Ladybugs and star of the sci-fi series SeaQuest DSV, which lasted three seasons between 1993 and 1996.

He was 27 when he hanged himself in the hallway of his L.A. apartment in 2003. He didn't leave a note but friends said he had been depressed about the state of his career—though the work kept trickling in, they weren't the starring parts that landed him in endless teen-magazine spreads in the first half of the '90s.

"Speculations as to the underlying cause of this tragedy are exactly that: speculations," read a statement at the time from the president of A Minor Consideration, an organization that provides support for current and former child performers. "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."

But friends said Brandis had been drinking heavily and, one pal told People after he died, "told people that he was going to kill himself."

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As DiCaprio acknowledged almost a decade ago, there were people who came up around the time he did who didn't make it in the end.

Also still speaking out on behalf of those who didn't is Corey Feldman, star of the likes of Stand by Me and Dream a Little Dream who in recent years has been adamant about making sure that the alleged trauma inflicted on him and others, particularly the late Corey Haim, doesn't get swept under the rug.

Ron Galella/Getty Images

Haim, best known for '80s-era teen classics like Lucas and License to Drive (he and Feldman were in multiple films together, as well as the 2007-08 reality show The Two Coreys), died in 2010—officially of pneumonia and a preexisting heart condition, though he had marijuana, cold medication and other substances in his system—his final years having been a blur of reports about trying to get his life back on track.

"I took an 11-year break back to Canada," Haim sarcastically explained his absence from acting to GQ in 2008. "I like long vacations. That's what I say to people. They ask, 'Where you been, Corey?' 'Where you been, Haimster?' But I'm getting back into my zone on-set, and it is absolutely what I've been lacking for years."

Asked about the allegations both he and Feldman had made about being sexually abused as kids by men still working in Hollywood to that day, Haim said, "That's life in this world. There are people that take advantage of other people—in this case, young, young children."

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And that's a tale as old as Hollywood.

Judy Garland, a child performer in vaudeville before she signed with MGM as a teenager, was one of the young studio stars prescribed amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to help her sleep. The iconic entertainer, who was 17 when she starred in The Wizard of Oz, died of a barbiturate overdose at 47. 

"It was my responsibility as a kid to regulate her pills," daughter Lorna Luft remembered to author Patti Davis in her 2009 book The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us. "I remember sitting in hotel rooms, opening capsules, emptying out the drugs, and filling the capsules with sugar. I was taught to never, ever call an ambulance no matter what happened. I was to call my father or someone else—NEVER an ambulance because it would get into the press."

No matter how public, the stars have always found a way to suffer in silence.

(Originally published Nov. 7, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)

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