Actor River Phoenix poses during a 1988 Los Angeles photo portrait session.

23 child actors who died young

Written by:
July 24, 2023
George Rose // Getty Images

23 child actors who died young

Child actors are thrust into a spotlight that even adult actors aren't fully prepared to handle. Suddenly, every moment of their lives is captured for the world to see. Due to the nature of their work, these children often face situations that would be more suitable for adults, but because of their age, they lack autonomy—from the clothes they wear down to where their hard-earned money goes.

In her 2022 bestselling memoir, "I'm Glad My Mom Died," "iCarly" star Jennette McCurdy wrote frankly about her stage mom's abuse. Corey Feldman, of "The Goonies" and "Stand by Me" fame, has spoken out not just on the pressures of being a young actor but the abuse that runs rampant in Hollywood.

Of course, not all child stars fight private battles. Kurt Russell, Raven-Symoné, and Neil Patrick Harris are some of the many child actors who have thrived well into adulthood. However, just as many young stars—once adored for their infectious catchphrases and precociousness—have fallen through the cracks of the industry. Many were taken far too soon.

Using news articles, interviews, and documentaries, among various other sources, Stacker assembled a list of 23 child actors who died young. Read on to see which stars didn't live to see 50.

Corey Haim, 38

Corey Haim was a full-blown star at just 16, best known for his roles in "The Lost Boys" and "Dream a Little Dream." He and fellow actor Corey Feldman famously comprised the Two Coreys, two of the biggest heartthrobs of the '80s. As a child star, Haim was exposed to and struggled with substance use, which continued through his adulthood.

After his long-fought battle with the industry, the alleged sexual abuse he endured, and dealing with drug addiction, Haim died at 38 from complications caused by pneumonia in 2010. An autopsy report indicated his prolonged drug use may have weakened his heart, which was enlarged when he died.

Brad Renfro, 25

Brad Renfro was barely a teenager when director Joel Schumacher discovered and cast him in 1994's "The Client" alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. The film—and the attention it garnered—shifted Renfro's career into high gear almost immediately. He went on to star in other '90s movies like Disney's "Tom and Huck" and 1996's "Sleepers," but Renfro struggled to recreate the success of his film debut and was coping with substance use issues.

In 1998, Renfro was arrested for possession of cocaine and marijuana and got sober soon after. However, trouble continued following him into the early 2000s; he died of a heroin and morphine overdose at age 25 in January 2008.

Dana Plato, 34

After discontinuing figure skating and pursuing acting, 14-year-old Dana Plato was cast as one of the young stars of "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1978. While the hit TV show aired until 1986, Plato was written off in 1984 after becoming pregnant. She had also come under suspicion of drug use at this time.

Though she continued making guest appearances on "Diff'rent Strokes," things remained rocky for Plato, who struggled to find sustainable work, posing for Playboy and starring in B-movies instead. In 1991, she was arrested and placed on probation for robbing a Las Vegas video store.

In an attempt to revive her career, Plato agreed to an interview with Howard Stern on May 7, 1999; however, things took an awkward and uncomfortable turn when listeners accused her of being under the influence, and she was challenged to take a drug test on air. The next day, 34-year-old Plato died from an overdose of Valium and painkillers, with speculation suggesting her death was intentional.

Nearly 11 years to the day after her death, Plato's son, Tyler Lambert, died by suicide in May 2010.

Lee Thompson Young, 29

Lee Thompson Young made a name for himself in Hollywood at an early age. He landed the lead role on Disney Channel's "The Famous Jett Jackson" when he was just 13, and later appeared in successful movies like "Friday Night Lights" and "Akeelah and The Bee."

When Young—who reportedly struggled with mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and clinical depression—didn't show up for a taping of his latest project, "Rizzoli & Isles," in August 2013, police did a welfare check at his Los Angeles home. The actor was found dead from a reported self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In the wake of his death, his family launched the Lee Thompson Young Foundation to dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Jonathan Brandis, 27

Jonathan Brandis entered the business at age 2, beginning as a child model and appearing in commercials before making his acting debut on "One Life to Live" at age 6.

By 17, Brandis had an impressive résumé, which included "The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter" and the 1990 miniseries "Stephen King's It." However, his role as teen prodigy Lucas Wolenczak on the underwater science fiction drama "SeaQuest DSV" made him a teen heartthrob.

Despite his early accomplishments, Brandis struggled to replicate his successes as an adult, with friends and family noticing he'd begun drinking heavily and lamenting the state of his career. In November 2003, at age 27, he was found hanging in the hallway of his West Hollywood apartment. After being hospitalized, Brandis succumbed to his injuries a day later.

Sammi Kane Kraft, 20

Known for her role in the 2005 remake of the baseball classic "Bad News Bears," Junior Olympics competitor Sammi Kane Kraft was a young actor who didn't have much chance at a career before her life was cut short. She was just 20 when she died in a car crash on Oct. 9, 2012.

While her friend, 21-year-old Molly Kate Adams, was driving on Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, the car slammed into the back of a semitruck and was then struck from behind by another vehicle. Kraft, sitting in the passenger seat during the collision, was pronounced dead at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Adams, who survived the crash, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

River Phoenix, 23

River Phoenix grew up in the infamous Children of God cult, and his parents encouraged him and his four siblings—including famous actors Joaquin and Summer Phoenix—to get into film.

River started doing commercials at 10, and by age 15, he made his film debut in 1985's "Explorers." The following year, his back-to-back successes in "Stand by Me," "The Mosquito Coast," and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" made him a household name. He earned his first Academy Award nomination (for "Running on Empty") at 18 and became critically acclaimed at 21 for his performance in "My Own Private Idaho" alongside Keanu Reeves.

The night before Halloween in 1993, 23-year-old Phoenix died after infamously collapsing outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles due to cardiac arrest from overdosing on heroin and cocaine.

Gary Coleman, 42

Like Dana Plato, lovable child actor Gary Coleman starred on the hit '80s television show "Diff'rent Strokes." Famous for his side-eye long before the world could meme it, Coleman's character, Arnold Jackson, became wildly popular for his catchphrase "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

Coleman's character and phrase became such a part of the cultural zeitgeist that the actor couldn't shake it; most of his television and film appearances afterward saw Coleman depict himself and reference the character that made him famous.

In May 2010, Coleman suffered a hemorrhagic stroke caused by a head injury he sustained from a fall. He was taken off life support days later and died at 42.

Anton Yelchin, 27

Anton Yelchin got his big break at 12 with two impressive appearances in the 2001 films "Along Came a Spider" and "Hearts in Atlantis."

While many child actors find their careers fizzling out as they age, Yelchin was the opposite; he continued scoring high-profile parts, from his role as Zack Mazursky in the heartbreaking 2006 film "Alpha Dog" to his integral role as Pavel Chekov in 2009's "Star Trek" reboot.

In June 2016, at just 27, Yelchin died in a freak accident when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled backward in his driveway, pinning the actor against his brick gate. He died at the scene from traumatic asphyxiation. After his death, his family eventually sued—and settled—with the Fiat Chrysler company.

Christopher Pettiet, 24

The dark comedy "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" was a '90s classic starring Christina Applegate as 17-year-old Sue Ellen Crandell, the oldest of the Crandell kids, whose rancorous babysitter dies while their mom is away for the summer. Young actor Christopher Pettiet played Sue's lovestruck 14-year-old brother, Zach, and soon became the quintessential crush of young '90s viewers.

Even before the 1991 film, Pettiet made a name for himself on television, appearing on series like "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," among others. However, his career was cut short in April 2000: He died at 24 from an accidental overdose.

Heather O'Rourke, 12

When 1982's "Poltergeist" arrived—exposing viewers to a haunted house, spirits trapped inside a TV, and a little girl who could talk to them—audiences were transfixed. It was pure, otherworldly, yet somehow rooted in enough reality to trigger your deepest fears. Heather O'Rourke played the little girl, whose blonde hair, big blue eyes, and famous line, "They're here," bespelled watchers everywhere.

Six years after the film premiered, O'Rourke died unexpectedly following two cardiac arrests at age 12. An autopsy later concluded she had a congenital intestinal abnormality that caused a blockage. Her death seemed to add to the rumors that the "Poltergeist" franchise was "cursed," as multiple cast members had died either during or not long after filming.

Judith Barsi, 10

While you probably don't know her name, you may recognize Judith Barsi's voice as the sweet and bubbly Ducky from the 1988 blockbuster film "The Land Before Time" or as Anne-Marie in 1989's "All Dogs Go to Heaven." Sadly, Barsi wasn't alive for the release of either film; her father, József Barsi, killed her and her mother in their Los Angeles home in a double murder-suicide.

According to reports, József struggled with alcohol use and was quick to anger. Allegedly, he also spoke of his desire to murder his family—and on July 25, 1988, he finally acted on that urge. After shooting his 10-year-old daughter and his wife, Maria, he doused them with gasoline and set them alight before turning the gun on himself.

Ducky's signature line "Yep! Yep! Yep!" is inscribed on Judith's gravestone.

Ashleigh Aston Moore, 26

Ashleigh Aston Moore was only 13 when she played the lovable, obedient Chrissy in 1995's "Now and Then." Encouraged to act by her first-grade teacher, Moore went on to land commercial gigs and breakthrough roles on 1992's "The Odyssey," playing both Alpha and Donna, which earned her the 6th Annual YTV Achievement Award.

Moore also starred in several made-for-TV films like 1994's "Sin and Redemption" and "Beyond Obsession" and appeared in an episode of "Touched by an Angel" in 1997. Still, those roles paled compared to Moore's unforgettable character Chrissy, who captured audiences' hearts and foreshadowed what looked to be a bright career ahead for the young actor.

Tragically, on Dec. 10, 2007, Moore died from an accidental overdose at 26.

Cameron Boyce, 20

Cameron Boyce did a little bit of everything during his short life. The dancer, actor, and singer was known for his role on Disney Channel's "Descendants" franchise and his appearance in the 2010 Adam Sandler movie "Grown Ups." Young fans were shocked in July 2019 when Boyce died from an epileptic seizure at 20. He had been diagnosed with epilepsy at 16, and his family said he'd only had five or six seizures until then.

Nikita Pearl Waligwa, 15

Nikita Pearl Waligwa only appeared in one film before her untimely death. The young star of Disney's "Queen of Katwe," a coming-of-age tale about a Ugandan chess prodigy, managed to hold her own alongside Academy Award winner Lupita N'yongo. Sadly, the Ugandan actor was living with a brain tumor, and on Feb. 15, 2020, she succumbed to complications at 15.

Tara Correa-McMullen, 16

The short-lived career of Tara Correa-McMullen was a tragic case of life imitating art. The young actor starred on "Judging Amy" as teen gang member Graciela Reyes, who sought to make a better life for herself before being killed in prison. In real life, at 16, the teen actor had already moved into her own apartment and was on her way to a promising life in Hollywood.

However, according to her friends, the star had begun hanging out with a dangerous crowd; others alleged she was dating a man who was a suspected gang member and 10 years her senior, per Los Angeles Times. Whatever the situation was, it resulted in Correa-McMullen's murder in October 2005; she'd been talking with friends when she was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Scotty Beckett, 38

Scotty Beckett was one of the most successful child stars of the '30s and '40s. He played Spanky's best friend, Scotty, on the series "Our Gang" (later known as "The Little Rascals"). Although his part was eventually replaced by the better-known Alfalfa character (Carl Switzer, who also appears on this list), Beckett's career continued to skyrocket, going on to land parts in movies alongside such stars as Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, and Marilyn Monroe.

In the '40s, he faced his first drunk-driving arrest, and in the early '50s, he was fired from the popular TV show "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger" after being arrested on concealed weapons charges. Beckett's legal issues persisted, leading to another DUI and an arrest in Mexico, where he'd allegedly crossed the border with illegal drugs.

In 1968, Beckett was found dead at 38, potentially due to an intentional overdose of barbiturates or alcohol.

Carl Switzer, 32

Another child actor from "Our Gang" who died young was Carl Switzer, also known as the beloved, cowlick-sporting Alfalfa. After being typecast as a freckle-faced kid with a whimsical innocence, an older Switzer struggled to get roles in Hollywood. Later in life, he would take on a very different gig: as a hunting guide leading expeditions and training hunting dogs.

After a dispute over a hunting dog that ran away during an expedition in 1959, Switzer and a friend went to the dog owner's house to confront him about a fee he felt he was owed. An altercation arose, and while stories from witnesses and the parties involved were conflicted, Switzer was shot and killed at age 32.

Billy Laughlin, 16

A disturbing number of "Our Gang" cast members met tragic, premature ends. Much like the "Poltergeist" franchise, people believed the show was cursed, as other series alumni like Carl Switzer and Scotty Beckett also died at an early age.

Billy Laughlin, who played Froggy, led a normal teen life post-series until it was cut short. One late summer day in 1948, Laughlin was riding on a motor scooter with a friend on his morning paper route when they collided with an oncoming truck. Laughlin died in the hospital from his injuries at 16.

Rob Knox, 18

Teen actor Rob Knox played Ravenclaw student Marcus Belby in 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." In May 2008, the 18-year-old had just finished filming the movie when he found himself at a Southeast London bar, where a group of men threatened his younger brother.

The men got into a scuffle, and things escalated outside when one of them, armed with two knives, began stabbing Knox and his friends. At least six people were injured in the fight, but Knox—who witnesses said had been stabbed in the head—died not long after arriving at the hospital.

A 2021 documentary called "(K)nox: The Rob Knox Story" featured interviews with former "Harry Potter" cast members and footage from the franchise's set that told the story of Knox's life and death in greater detail. It won best documentary at the London Independent Film Festival that same year.

Josh Ryan Evans, 20

In 1999, NBC introduced a new daytime soap to the mix called "Passions," which produced the show's scene-stealing star, Josh Ryan Evans, better known as the enchanted doll Timmy Lenox. Evans was born with a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, and even though he was 17 when "Passions" started, he appeared younger.

He played Timmy for three years, earning a Daytime Emmy nomination in 2000 for the role. Due to complications from his condition, Evans was written off the show in 2002, but not before he filmed a death scene for a future episode. Shortly after his exit, Evans underwent surgery and suffered complications that caused his death at age 20 on Aug. 5, 2002.

In an odd twist of timing, the "Passions" episode featuring Timmy's death on screen aired the same day the actor died in real life.

Jon Paul Steuer, 33

The '90s hit comedy series "Grace Under Fire" starred Brett Butler as a single mother with a smart mouth and a hustle mentality. At 9, child actor Jon Paul Steuer was cast to play her son Quentin Kelly. The young star appeared on the show for three years before his parents pulled him off the series in 1996, alleging Butler had created an inappropriate environment for the then-12-year-old actor. (Accusations soon followed that Butler exposed herself to Steuer on set.)

Steuer struggled to find work after "Grace Under Fire," causing him to quit acting entirely. After bouncing from job to job—and starting a few bands along the way—Steuer invested in a vegan restaurant in Portland, Oregon, that flourished.

Though his life seemed on an upturn, the former actor's struggles persisted. At 33, he died in his home from a self-inflicted headshot wound on Jan. 1, 2018.

Bobby Driscoll, 31

Bobby Driscoll was one of the original Disney child stars, appearing in '40s and '50s movies like "Treasure Island" and "So Dear to My Heart." Driscoll earned a special Juvenile Actor Oscar for his poignant turn as Tommy in 1949's "The Window," and in the 1953 animated feature film "Peter Pan," the then-16-year-old actor voiced the titular boy who refused to grow up.

Later in life, Driscoll had quite various run-ins with the law, along with stints in rehab. He had also earned a reputation for being less than easy to work with, which haunted him even after he got sober and prevented him from getting work. In the 1960s, Driscoll wound up unhoused in New York City and without resources.

By 1968, the years of drug use hardened his arteries, a side effect of heroin use, and he died at age 31. Driscoll's body was discovered by two boys while playing in an abandoned tenement in Greenwich Village.

Story editing by Jaimie Etkin. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

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