While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that drugs and film stardom have always enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly type relationship, it’s certainly no stretch to say that movie stars have been associated with various mind-altering substances since the film industry became a global enterprise. No, not all of you favorite actors have done drugs, but the substances float around Hollywood for the same reason they float around Wall Street. Whenever you have a lot of young people with excess income and a high-pressure/public job, drugs are bound to start showing up to the party at some point.
Of course, not all drug using movie stars are made equally. While some only experiment with the stuff in their youth or otherwise indulge themselves sparingly, others make the choice - whether they realize it or not - to prioritize getting high over their advancing their careers. For some of these stars, their continued drug use results in directors, studios, and other actors simply preferring not to work with them. Others quite simply lost their lives to their habits. Whatever the end result, the stories of these once-promising actors who traded in their career for drugs are almost always outright tragedies.
16 Charlie Sheen
There was a time when Charlie Sheen was just a promising young actor from a famous family. By the late ‘80s, Sheen was one of the hottest names in the industry. He starred in hit after hit and was slowly establishing himself as a genuinely versatile performer. The ‘90s were rougher on Sheen, as his starpower fell off quite a bit during that period. However, Sheen rocketed back to the top when Two and A Half Men became one of the biggest shows on television.
It’s tempting to say, “Then the drugs happened,” but we’d later find out that Sheen was battling drug problems for years. Of course, we found that out when Sheen became a human internet meme who was fond of babbling about things like “tiger’s blood” and “winning.” Sheen’s mental breakdown made him more famous than ever for a time, but the bubble soon burst. He lost his high-paying TV gig around that time, and it seems he's still trying to get his life together today.
15 Daniel Baldwin
There was a time when the Baldwins were America’s acting family. While not every Baldwin brother achieved film fame, Danny, Alec, and Stephen Baldwin were appearing in more and more noteworthy movies and TV shows. Alec was typically seen as the biggest star, but following his work on Homicide: Life on the Streets, some felt that Daniel Baldwin might end up making the biggest name for himself.
Daniel did make a name for himself, but not in the way he may have hoped to. Over the course of a couple of decades, Daniel Baldwin was arrested various times for substance abuse related issues. From running naked through hotels while high on cocaine to stealing cars, Daniel Baldwin’s fall was much quicker and far more notable than his rise was.
14 Corey Feldman
In the early to mid-'80s, there was a renewed interest in movies starring kids and pre-teens, and Corey Feldman was one of the biggest benefactors of this movement. He appeared in several high-profile movies in as many years, and looked primed to remain a noteworthy star as he transitioned into adulthood.
His ambitions were derailed quite a bit by some regrettable personal life choices that included drug abuse. When failed marriages and failed movies made it clear that something was wrong with Feldman, he publicly admitted to having a drug problem that was causing serious issues in his life. Feldman’s career never quite recovered from this period of his life. He eventually got clean, but his star had long since faded.
13 River Phoenix
We'll end our brief look at childhood actors that succumbed to drugs with one of the most infamous stories in Hollywood history. By virtue of his incredible performances in Explorers, Stand By Me, and Running on Empty, River Phoenix was considered by many to be the best young actor in America. He just seemed destined to be the next big star.
That all ended on October 31, 1993, when River Phoenix was found dead from a drug overdose. Given that the 23 year old was never really associated with drugs prior to this, the news came as quite the shock. In the coming weeks, however, it was revealed that Phoenix began experimenting with drugs alongside his more regular alcohol habits. On that particular night, a combination of cocaine and morphine proved to be too much for Phoenix to handle.
12 Richard Pryor
This is a bit of a strange story so far as drug use and stars go. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Richard Pryor basically changed the entire style of stand-up comedy with his raunchy and socially relevant routines. In the eyes of many, he was the world’s funniest man.
Then, in 1980, Pryor was caught pouring alcohol all over himself and lighting himself on fire. Following an extensive investigation - and Pryor’s medical treatment - it was revealed that the world-famous funnyman had been freebasing cocaine for days before the incident occurred. After that...Pryor was never quite the same. He slowly backed away from the stand-up scene and focused on filming a series of movies that were much more family friendly than his previous efforts.
11 Gary Busey
Gary Busey was never really a top-tier leading man, but for quite some time, he was one of the most sought after character actors in Hollywood. Busey was the kind of actor whose performances seemed otherworldly. Nobody was quite sure if he really was that crazy and weird or if he was just really good at playing that role.
Later on, we found out that Busey probably was as crazy as his characters. While a 1988 motorcycle accident that reportedly may have caused Busey a form of brain damage certainly altered his attitude, it was his 1995 cocaine overdose that forever changed his fate. Busey worked very hard to get clean after the overdose, but Hollywood seemed to lose all interest in the actor after that. He's since been seen largely in B-movies and reality shows.
10 Nick Stahl
The name Nick Stahl may not jump out at you, but you’re most certainly familiar with at least some of his movies. After establishing himself as a talented supporting actor by virtue of his appearance in movies like The Thin Red Line and In the Bedroom. However, it was his work in the HBO series Carnivàle that helped Stahl finally enjoy bigger roles such as playing John Connor in Terminator 3.
Stahl’s career came crashing down when he was no longer able to hide the substance abuse troubles he had been struggling with. When his longtime wife filed for separation and custody, Stahl really went off the deep end. He went missing for several days and was later found at the tail end of a long bender. Other incidents saw him get arrested at an adult video store for public indecency, and his star power has yet to recover.
9 Judy Garland
Have you ever wondered what happened to Judy Garland? After all, it’s not every day that someone stars in a film that is as historically and culturally significant as The Wizard of the Oz and then seemingly falls off the face of the Earth.
Well, Garland starred in a few films after The Wizard of Oz, but the success of that film and the pressures it resulted in seemingly led to the actress falling deeper and deeper down the substance abuse rabbit hole. Garland had reportedly turned to pills and alcohol to deal with the intense shooting schedules film stars in those days endured, as well as the sudden rise to fame she was enjoying. Garland was able to stage a mini-comeback later in her life, but died not long after when she overdosed on barbiturates.
8 Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston is one of those stars whose rise to fame was so quick that you really have to stop time and reflect on how it came about. Well, the truth is that Houston had been rising up the ranks of the music world throughout the ‘80s, but it wasn’t until Houston starred in a film called The Bodyguard and put out a best-selling album to accompany it that she achieved the arguable peak of her stardom.
Things didn’t immediately go downhill from there, but the years that followed were repeatedly accompanied by rumors that Houston had been abusing drugs. Eventually, the shocking extent of her drug use was revealed. The star's long history with cocaine came to a head in 2012 when the 48 year old was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel with various drugs in her system.
7 Mischa Barton
Mischa Barton is another one of those actresses who might make you say, “What ever happened to them?” Well, in Barton’s case, she enjoyed a quick rise to stardom after appearing in the surprise Fox hit, The O.C. She had caught the attention of some critics earlier than that thanks to her work in films like The Sixth Sense and Notting Hill, but that was the role that put her over-the-top.
That sudden influx of cash and fame combined with Barton’s youth and good looks led to a seemingly endless string of parties that Barton couldn’t walk away from. With these parties came drugs, and with the drugs came a brutal mental breakdown that left Barton a shell of her former self. Barton has been able to recover in recent years, but she endured some truly tough times.
6 Lindsay Lohan
During Mischa Barton’s partying days, she happened to run around with another young actress living it up at what would turn out to be the prime of her career. Yes, it’s Lindsay Lohan. It’s funny, but a quick look at Lohan’s career history doesn’t reveal too many “great” roles. Sure, you have Mean Girls, but most of Lohan’s movies can trace their success to family friendly plots and the undeniable appeal of Lohan at the peak of her fame.
You probably know what comes next. Lohan’s public breakdowns are arguably more famous than her movies. A string of arrests related to Lohan’s drinking and drug problems soon forced the actress to attend a variety of rehab facilities. Her efforts may have helped save her life, but her career might never be truly salvaged.
5 Amanda Bynes
In the ‘90s, Amanda Bynes was tagged as a future “It girl.” When she was around 10 years old, she began appearing in a variety of very popular Nickelodeon shows. By age 13, she already had her own series. From there, Bynes enjoyed the life of a typical young and popular actress. She enjoyed a few roles in kids films, made some cameos, and just waited to transition into a successful adult actress.
Before that could happen, though, Bynes ended up losing a battle with several issues she had been fighting. Apparently, most of the actresses' substance abuse issues stemmed from psychological issues she had with her body and public image. Some close to her claim that she spent millions on drugs and other forms of self-medication. Bynes, meanwhile, is still trying to stage a career comeback after a brief retirement.
4 David Hasselhoff
David Hasselhoff’s time on the A-list wasn’t long, but that doesn’t mean it was irrelevant. Following his work on the hit show Knight Rider and a few records that were huge overseas, Hasselhoff managed to turn a show about sexy lifeguards that no network wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole into one of the highest-rated programs on television. It defied all logic, but that didn’t matter. Baywatch turned The Hoff into a household name.
While Hasselhoff has always had a bigger problem with drinking, the fact of the matter is that the actor spent a good part of his peak years trying to get his hands on every substance he could lay claim to. Some will argue that Hasselhoff never quite had the chops to be a big name actor for long, but he certainly would have appeared in a few more big roles were it not for his personal problems.
3 Chris Farley
It wasn’t long before Chris Farley managed to win over a sizeable portion of Saturday Night Live’s audience. In fact, by the end of his famous motivational speaker sketch, some people were already referring to him as the reincarnation of John Belushi.
The fact that Belushi could have also made this list seemingly speaks to the pressures that come with being a high-energy, always-on comedian who achieves sudden fame. Following his appearance in a few major comedy films, those close to Farley began to worry that the actor’s struggles with obesity and drug abuse had finally gotten the better of him. Despite the warning signs, Farley’s death by overdose at the peak of his career came as a genuine shock to his legion of fans.
2 Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe will forever be the ultimate case study into the relationship between fame, fortune, and drug abuse. You could certainly make the argument that Monroe isn’t the most famous actress of all-time, but it’s hard to think of another performer who rose to the levels of fame she enjoyed in such a short amount of time. Monroe wasn’t just famous; she was an American institution.
In retrospect, it was clear that Monroe’s personal and professional life were in decline prior to her death by overdose. However, most people still saw Monroe as the ultimate movie star who was just one good role away from turning it all around. The sudden death of this world-famous beauty suddenly caused a lot of people to reconsider what being a celebrity really means.
1 Honorable Mention - Robert Downey Jr.
Before we leave, let’s take a look at a story that would have likely topped this list had it played out like many felt it was going to. Following a disappointing stint on Saturday Night Live, Downey Jr. decided to try his hand at being a movie star. The transition suited him quite well, as Downey’s role in Less Than Zero inspired some to name him the best young actor in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Downey barely got to enjoy his time at the top before his all-consuming drug habit essentially buried his career.
Well...at least that’s what everyone thought. As many of you no doubt know, Downey turned a few noteworthy dramatic roles in the mid-2000s (including appearances in Zodiac and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) into a starring role in Iron Man. Downey’s exceptional portrayal of Tony Stark is not only widely credited with reviving his career as a blockbuster actor, but is often cited as the cornerstone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What other actors can you name whose careers tanked as a result of their drug problems? Let us know in the comments.
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