Hollywood has an undeniable reputation for chewing up promising young stars. While some child actors manage to strike it big and have long, illustrious careers in the movie business, others never quite get to reach their true potential.
10. Rob Knox (1989 – 2008)
English actor Rob Knox first began acting at the age of 11 and starred in TV shows before being cast as Marcus Belby in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’. However, he never got to enjoy the success of his breakout role. In May 2008, Knox was stabbed and killed during a pub brawl when he intervened in a fight to protect his younger brother. The film was released posthumously and the character was not recast for the final installments of the Harry Potter franchise.
9. Lee Thompson Young (1984 – 2013)
Lee Thompson Young began his career in 1998 when he was cast as the titular character in the Disney TV show ‘The Famous Jett Jackson’. Young had several bit parts and guest spots following the cancellation of the show three years later, but in 2004 he found further success when he was cast as Chris Comer in the acclaimed sports drama ‘Friday Night Lights’. His career remained fairly steady, starring in successful shows such as ‘Smallville’, ‘Scrubs’, and ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’, before he landed a main cast role in ‘Rizzoli and Isles’. In the summer of 2013, Thompson Young failed to show up for filming. Police visited his apartment for a wellbeing check and found he had taken his own life. Young had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was suffering from severe depression at the time of his death.
8. Anissa Jones (1958 – 1976)
Eight-year-old actress Anissa Jones became a popular child celebrity when she was cast as Buffy in the CBS sitcom ‘Family Affair’ in 1966. The show was a runaway success and Family Affair’ quickly became a full time job for the young actress. After 5 seasons and 138 episodes, ‘Family Affair’ was cancelled by CBS in 1971. Wanting to broaden her acting resume, Jones auditioned for big dramatic roles (including the lead in ‘The Exorcist’), but many directors thought that audiences would struggle to differentiate her from Buffy. In 1975, Jones left the entertainment industry with a substantial amount of savings from royalties. She was found dead a year later, aged just 18. An autopsy found high levels of cocaine, PCP and sedatives, ruling her death as an accidental drug overdose. Less than a week later, her doctor was arrested for illegally prescribing medicine and he faced murder charges. He died before the trial began.
7. Bobby Driscoll (1937 – 1968)
Another Disney star, Bobby Driscoll acted in some of the studio’s most popular live action films of the 40s and 50s including ‘Songs of the South’, ‘So Dear to my Heart’, and ‘Treasure Island’ (he also served as the animation model and voice of ‘Peter Pan’). In the mid 50s, Driscoll’s career took a sharp decline as studios were unable to shake his image of the “Disney Kid”. For around three years, the majority of his work was on television, usually starring on anthology dramas. Driscoll became heavily involved in narcotics, mostly marijuana and heroin, and he was sentenced as a drug addict after being charged with assault and served time in a narcotics rehabilitation centre. Just before his 31st birthday, two boys found Driscoll’s body in a New York tenement. His death was caused by heart failure due to drug abuse. Driscoll’s body went unclaimed and he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
6. Brad Renfro (1982 – 2008)
American actor and musician Brad Benfro made his acting debut aged 11 in Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Client’. Based on John Grisham’s novel of the same name, the movie was a runaway success and became one of the highest grossing films of 1994. He won two ‘Young Star’ awards and was seen as one of the rising child actors in Hollywood. However, Renfro had started suffering from a substance abuse problem at the age of 15 and he was arrested with two bags of cocaine in 1998. The offense resulted in a plea bargain but it didn’t seem to affect his film career in the coming years. Renfro was arrested time and time again for crimes including grand theft and mischief, public intoxication and driving without a license. In January 2008, Renfro’s body was found at his apartment with the LA Coroner’s office ruling that his death was accidental and caused by acute heroin and morphine intoxication.
5. Lucille Ricksen (1910 – 1925)
Lucille Ricksen was a silent movie star during the 1920s. Beginning her career aged 4 as both a professional model and actress, she quickly rose to fame and starred in long running serials such as ‘The Adventures of Edgar Pomeroy’, which was based on the popular stories by Booth Tarkington. Often portraying characters older than herself, Ricksen received critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike for her ability to handle mature and adult themes. Having appeared in major roles in 10 films in just one year, Ricksen fell ill in 1924 whilst filming opposite Sydney Chaplin. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, her condition worsened in the coming year and she was bedridden for the final few months of her life. Her death at the age of 14 was used as an example of child actors being worked too hard by pushy parents who wanted to exploit their talents for money. The media speculated that Ricksen had essentially worked non-stop for 12 years under appalling conditions.
4. Norman Chaney (1914 – 1936)
Born in 1914, child actor Norman Chaney is notable for starring in all 19 ‘Our Gang’ comedies, portraying the character of Chubby. At the dawn of the sound era, producers were looking for an overweight child with an affable personality, a flair for comedy dialogue and priceless over-the-top expressions. Standing just 3’11” and weighing 113 pounds, Chaney fit the bill perfectly. After returning to his native Baltimore following the end of his contract, he turned to education and excelled at his studies but he continued to gain weight – despite not growing above 4’7”. He was diagnosed with a glandular ailment which resulted in surgery. Despite losing over half of his body weight – dropping from a hefty 300 lbs to 110 lbs – Chaney became seriously ill and died due to complications related to inflammation of his heart. He was 21. Chaney died nearly penniless due to never receiving royalties or residuals from his brief acting career. His grave remained unmarked for nearly 76 years.
3. J. Madison Wright Morris (1984 – 2006)
J Madison Wright Morris broke into acting aged 10 thanks to the the hit science-fiction TV show ‘Earth 2’. The show only lasted one season, but Wright Morris moved on to guest star in an Emmy-nominated episode of ‘ER’, taking the role of the first child to die in the show’s history. Although she had a steady career, the young actress decided to give up Hollywood and moved back to her home town. Shortly thereafter, Wright Morris suffered severe bouts of pneumonia and was diagnosed with a condition requiring a heart transplant. After a short wait on the list and a speedy recovery, she attended University to study teaching whilst also giving talks about the importance of organ donation. In July 2006, she married and spent a honeymoon in Hawaii. Just one day later, she suffered a heart attack and died a few hours later, aged 21.
2. Carl Switzer (1927 – 1959)
Carl Switzer was another ‘Our Gang’ actor who finds himself on our list, dying slightly older than Norman Chaney at 31 years old. Playing the popular character Alfalfa, Switzer quickly became the most well-known face of the series but behind the scenes the young star had developed a reputation for being abrasive and difficult on set, often holding up filming for several hours due to his antics. His contract ended when he turned 12 and he took bit parts in movies such as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘On Our Merry Way’. Like many child actors of the era, he found it increasingly difficult to find substantial roles and avoid being typecast. In 1959, over an altercation regarding a reward for finding a missing dog, Switzer was shot and suffered massive internal bleeding before being pronounced dead on arrival at the local hospital. He is just one of a number of bizarre deaths related to the alumni of the ‘Our Gang’ films, leading to the rise of the phenomenon the media has dubbed “The ‘Our Gang’ Curse”.
1. River Phoenix (1970 – 1993)
River Phoenix began his acting career in television commercials at the age of 10 before he transitioned to more mature roles in the likes of ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Running on Empty’ (his work in the latter rewarded him with an Academy Award nomination). Phoenix quickly became a teen-sensation and followed-up with critically acclaimed roles in box office fare like ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ as well as indie efforts such as ‘My Own Private Idaho’. In October 1993, Phoenix was partying at ‘The Viper Room’ – a Hollywood nightclub partly owned by Johnny Depp – when he collapsed on the sidewalk in the early hours of the morning. By the time paramedics had arrived on the scene he had turned blue from full blown cardiac arrest. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, Phoenix was pronounced dead on arrival on hospital. His autopsy found acute levels of cocaine and morphine, and his death was ruled as an accidental overdose.