A disproportionately high number of celebrities seem to die young, whether they started out as child actors and had waning careers, or were at the height of their initial stardom when they passed. Like their musical counterparts, many of these actors died before the age of thirty, making their deaths all the more tragic. Fans and loved ones lament on how they had their whole lives ahead of them, and in many cases, they became more famous after death than they ever were in life.
At the very least, they have bits of their lives preserved in the characters they played, immortalized in a way that the average person doesn't get to experience. Whether they died from suicide, murder, overdose, disease, or an accident, there's no question that the world was deprived of what-could-have-been with these fifteen actors. Each were amazing in their own ways, and the bright lights of Hollywood became a little dimmer when each of them died. As you now inevitably ponder your own mortality, take a look at the careers and deaths of these 15 Actors Who Died Before They Reached 30.
15 Anton Yelchin
Most people don't realize it, but Anton Yelchin had been acting since the age of ten. Even in his very first role on ER, he made the audience all teary-eyed as a little boy who had just lost his parents in a car accident. Shortly after that, he starred across from Anthony Hopkins in Hearts of Atlantis, which earned him a Young Artist Award. He also headlined Charlie Bartlett as the Ferris Bueller-like title character, and had numerous TV roles before landing the role that would propel him to stardom.
Yelchin was beloved as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot films, capturing the youthful enthusiasm of Walter Koening's original portrayal. He also had a successful voice acting career doing The Smurfs films and the Trollhunters TV show. Sadly, all his building success was cut short on June 19, 2016 when he died in a freak accident outside his home at the age of 27. His Jeep Grand Cherokee (the model of which was later recalled), rolled backwards and pinned him against his gate, crushing him to death. A tragically senseless end for someone so young, who had the world at his very fingertips.
14 River Phoenix
Although he's often known now as Joaquin Phoenix's deceased older brother, River Phoenix was definitely a star in his own right during the '80s and '90s. He got his start as the youngest brother on the TV series Seven Brides For Seven Brothers when he was just twelve years old. River became a teen heartthrob soon after when he starred opposite Molly Ringwald in the TV movie Surviving and alongside Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, and Wil Wheaton in Stand By Me.
A supremely talented young actor, River won multiple Young Artist Awards, culminating in his Best Supporting Actor nomination at the age of nineteen for Running on Empty. He continued to star alongside prolific actors of the time, including Harrison Ford (playing a young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Kevin Kline, and Robert Redford. Yet he—like many child actors in Hollywood—eventually fell victim to the temptation of drugs and alcohol. River died on Halloween night 1993 outside the Viper Room in Hollywood after overdosing on a cocktail of drugs including cocaine and heroin. Often compared to James Dean for how he radiated coolness, River also suffered an early end, forever young in the film legacy he left behind.
13 Sharon Tate
Actress Sharon Tate's career has ultimately been overshadowed by the gruesome way in which she died. A victim of the Manson Family murders in 1969, twenty-six-year-old Sharon was brutally stabbed—while nine months pregnant—along with four other people. She didn't truly become famous until after her death, when many of her films were re-released due to the nationwide obsession with the murders.
Perhaps her most well known film, even before her passing, was Valley of the Dolls. Based on the best-selling novel, Sharon played a young Hollywood starlet who juggles sex, abortion, disease, and suicide over the course of the two hour film. Despite coming out in 1967, these were still taboo subjects, making the film somewhat controversial. Nevertheless, Sharon earned a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. Ironically, she was also known for two horror films, Eye of the Devil and The Fearless Vampire Killers, where she played both a witch and a vampire—further fueling the satanic panic surrounding her death.
12 Lee Thompson Young
Lee Thompson Young starred in his very own TV show at the age of fourteen. The Famous Jett Jackson was a Disney Channel series about a young actor who also had his very own TV show where he played a spy named Silverstone. Like many Disney Channel stars, however, Lee wasn't really able to replicate that success after Jett Jackson was finished, and he came to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder.
He had supporting roles on a few TV shows like Smallville, Scrubs, and Flash Forward, but only had arcs that lasted a few episodes. Lee also landed small parts in Friday Night Lights and Akeelah and the Bee, but neither got him much recognition. It wasn't until 2010, nearly ten years after Jett Jackson, that he finally landed something comparable.
For four seasons, Lee played Barry Frost on Rizzoli & Isles, the squeamish detective who could't stand the sight of blood or dead bodies. Then one day, the actor didn't show up to set, and his manager discovered he had committed suicide at the age of twenty-nine, only weeks away from filming the final episode of the season. Although his character was written off as the victim of a car crash, his death was very much felt in real life by his family, fans, and friends.
11 Brandon Lee
Son to famed martial arts star Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee followed in his father's footsteps in more ways than one. Like his dear old dad, most of Brandon's films were about kung fu or featured his martial arts skill. One of his first roles was playing the illegitimate son of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) in a reboot TV movie of the original 1970s Kung Fu series. Ironically, his father had tried out for that role, but ultimately lost it to Carradine.
He only appeared in seven films before his life came to an abrupt end while filming The Crow in 1993. Upon firing what he thought were blanks, actor Michael Massee actually shot and (eventually) killed Lee after a bullet that had been lodged in the chamber injured his spine. He died at the age of twenty-eight, only four years shy of how old his father was when he died.
Weirdly, The Crow is about an engaged man who's murdered along with his fiancé. Brandon was also engaged at the time, and died mere weeks from his wedding. It seems his fate was inexorably sealed up in The Crow, as it's now the film he's most remembered for, despite it not really being about martial arts.
10 Freddie Prinze
Yes, Freddie Prinze Jr. also had a famous dad who died ridiculously young. Freddie Prinze Sr. had it all by the age of nineteen. He was discovered at the Improv in NYC doing standup comedy, which led to appearances on practically every late night show in the 1970s. Only a few years later, he was cast as the lead in the TV comedy Chico & the Man alongside Oscar-winning actor Jack Robertson (best known as Charlie's grandpa in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). It was one of those odd couple scenarios where a youth of color helps the grumpy old white guy appeal to his customers and gets his business thriving again.
Yet despite Freddie's outward vitality, his inner turmoil began getting the best of him as his fame quickly skyrocketed. He struggled with depression and began abusing prescription drugs. After his wife filed for divorce, he began a downward spiral, as he could no longer cope with everything life was throwing at him. On January 29th, 1977, after attending the Inaugural Ball of Jimmy Carter and calling his closest friends and family, Freddie shot himself in the head, ending his life at only twenty-two years old.
9 Skye McCole Bartusiak
Another former child star who met a tragic end before the age of thirty was Skye McCole Bartusiak. She may not have been a household name, but her talent was evident from an early age. Skye started acting when she was only seven years old, and her best known roles were as Mel Gibson’s daughter Susan in The Patriot and Michael Douglas’ daughter Jessie in Don’t Say A Word. Interestingly, both films also just happened to star two other actors who died young—Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy—whom she became close with on set.
Skye had some mild success afterwards, playing a girl abused by her father in an early episode of 24—and appearing in a few low budget horror films—but by 2013, she was doing very little acting and instead had taken up producing and directing. According to her mother, she was suffering from epileptic seizures and was taking medication to control them. Sadly, she mixed her medicines along with huffing difluoroethane (the propellant in Dust-Off) and was found dead at the age of twenty-one in her parents’ Houston home from an accidental overdose.
8 Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis first came to prominence as the teenage version of Bastian in The Neverending Story II. Gaining recognition as a rising young star, he started appearing on classic '90s sitcoms like Blossom, The Wonder Years, and Saved By the Bell: The College Years. Jonathan scored the role of Ensign Lucas Wolenczak on the Steven Spielberg produced TV show, SeaQuest: DSV in 1993, which was like an underwater version of Star Trek. Often compared to Wil Wheaton, he was also the only teenager on his show, making him a fan favorite and instant teen idol.
Although his face was plastered all over magazines like Tiger Beat and Bop, once the show was canceled and he reached adulthood, most of his work stopped. He looked too young to play his age and too old to take kiddie parts. As you could imagine, that kind of sudden shift in your career and life can have a profound affect on the psyche. Sadly, Jonathan wasn't able to bounce back and transition into becoming an adult actor; he hung himself at the age of twenty-seven.
7 Michelle Thomas
If you grew up watching network TV in the '90s, chances are that you'll remember Michelle Thomas. Michelle played both Theo Huxtable's girlfriend, Justine, on The Cosby Show and Steve Urkel's girlfriend Myra on Family Matters. She had a bright future ahead of her thanks to her beauty and talent as an actress. The daughter of Kool & The Gang member Dennis Thomas and Phynjuar Thomas (an actress and acting coach), Michelle had the arts in her blood and would have likely thrived as a rising star in Hollywood.
Shortly before she was cast in the soap opera The Young and the Restless as singer Callie Rogers, however, Michelle was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer. She continued to appear on the show for six months, but became ill again shortly before the holidays. After getting surgery for the tumors they found, she ultimately succumbed to the disease right before Christmas Eve in 1998.
6 Merritt Butrick
The 1980s were a difficult time for anyone connected to the arts. People (mainly gay young men) were dying from AIDS and related complications left and right in the United States. While musicians like Liberace and Freddie Mercury of Queen became well known victims of the epidemic, lesser known stars like Merritt Butrick were also dying of the disease.
Merritt will forever be known as Captain Kirk's son, David Marcus, in both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Although it was early on in his career, some of his most moving scenes came in those films as he shared heartfelt moments with both William Shatner and Bibi Besch (who played his mother, Dr. Carol Marcus). He had another Star Trek role in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a member of an alien race who needed a special type of drug to treat a plague. Although the plague didn't really exist anymore, and his people were just addicted to the drug, Merritt was actually battling his own plague in real life. He appeared in three horror films after his last Star Trek role, including Fright Night Part 2, before he died of toxoplasmosis at the age of twenty-nine, a result of his AIDS compromised immune system.
5 Jean Harlow
Before Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow was snapping up all the blonde bombshell roles—a sex symbol in her own right. Jean was discovered by Howard Hughes and actually signed a contract with MGM when she was twenty-one-years-old. Frequently paired with huge movie stars of the time like Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable, Jean became the most popular female movie star of the 1930s.
A huge box office draw, she starred in twenty-two films in the seven years after signing with MGM. Unfortunately, while filming the movie Saratoga with Clark Gable, Jean began showing signs of kidney failure, which may have been a latent complication of contracting scarlet fever as a child (or using ammonia and Clorox to bleach her hair). Her symptoms lasted for about two weeks as she got sicker and sicker, finally falling into a coma and passing away at the age of twenty-six.
4 Brad Renfro
Brad Renfro was another one of those teen stars from the '90s who found himself plastered on every teenybopper magazine in existence. One of his first big roles was alongside Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the film Tom & Huck, where he played Huck Finn to JTT's Tom Sawyer. His subsequent breakout roles in both The Client and The Cure also earned him recognition as a budding talent, tackling subjects like AIDS and suicide before he was even a teenager.
As a teen, he landed supporting parts in a number of indie films like Bully and Ghost World, but his success was overshadowed by his ever increasing criminal mischief and drug abuse charges. His number of arrests and attempted rehabilitations rivaled Lindsay Lohan's, but Brad wasn't quite so lucky. Charged with attempted heroin possession, Brad finally overdosed in February of 2008 at the age of twenty-five.
Most people only know Tupac as a rapper, selling well over 75 million records in his lifetime and beyond, but he was also a talented actor. Most of his roles were in urban genre films, starring alongside famous African American actors, hip hop artists, and R&B singers from the early 1990s. Oftentimes playing a character caught up in allure of the streets and 'thug life,' Tupac was brilliant at portraying the struggles of growing up in the inner city and the limited opportunities it provided.
His roles were so realistic in fact, that his life began to imitate his art. Although his rapping and acting careers provided an outlet for his disillusionment with politics and the struggles facing black communities, he still had troubles of his own. Through his involvement with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, Tupac became embroiled in a retaliatory gang war. He was shot to death in a drive-by shooting on September 7, 1996 while en route to a club in Las Vegas. His murder has remained unsolved in the years since.
2 Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger came to prominence in the US with the film 10 Things I Hate About You as the reluctant but charming love interest of Julia Stiles. Over the course of ten years, he became one of the most highly respected actors of his generation, taking memorable roles in Monster's Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and The Dark Knight—just to name a few. His was one of the most tragic and impactful deaths of the last decade, leaving this world on January 22, 2008 at the age of twenty-eight. He had just finished his turn as the Joker in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, and was in the middle of filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when he passed away.
Struggling with insomnia and possibly anxiety, Heath overdosed on a cocktail of opioids, antihistamines, and tranquilizers—most likely as a result of trying to aid his sleep. He was post-humously awarded both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. As such, it's been the film he's most remembered for, producing one of the most chilling and disturbing takes on the Crown Prince of Crime to date.
1 James Dean
Probably the most legendary actor to die before reaching his thirtieth birthday was James Dean. Known for his disaffected, angsty teenager roles in East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, Dean was the epitome of cool. Girls wanted him and guys wanted to be him, often emulating his image and attitude. He had a handful of walk-on roles in TV and film, but he only actually starred in three films, two of which were released after his death in 1955.
A car racing fan, Dean raced semi-professionally around the country and owned numerous sports cars of his own. While driving his Porshe Spyder at high speeds down a highway in California, he was involved in a car crash that killed him almost instantaneously. His death at the age of twenty-four, secured his legacy (his estate was still raking in $5 million a year in 2004) as the quintessential Hollywood legend who will remain forever young.
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