We tend to cling to and identify with certain actors pretty easily, whether we are crushing on them majorly due to their good looks or whether we are relating to a character they have played in a movie. Everyone has their favourite. People will flock to see a movie if a certain actor that they adore is in it. For example, I personally will watch anything with Christian Bale in it as I think he is golden. So, when a movie star dies it tends to make a big impact and it is always something that is hard to adjust to, as instead of them disappearing off into the ether like most, they hang around, frozen and beautiful on film, waiting to be brought to life again and again with every re-watch of their films.
Actors and actresses (usually in their prime) dying too young is a story almost as common as the ‘waitress that makes it big as an actress’ story. It is just a lot more tragic, but then it is always sad to see so much potential unused.
My list below focuses on some pretty amazing male actors chock-full of potential and heaps of talent who sadly died young and who I am sure would have brought some pretty stunning work to the table (to add to their already awesome body of work) if they had lived and got all grey-haired, craggy faced and Clint Eastwoody with age.
James Dean, 24 Years Old
Notable films: East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant
Perhaps the most notorious premature death of young Hollywood, James Dean’s fatal car crash behind the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder shocked the world. His role in Rebel Without A Cause cemented his status as a cultural icon with teenagers.
The fact that he managed to make such an impact with so few films in itself shows how much talent and potential he had. He had the possibility of Brando-like proportions.
James Dean was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and he is the still the only actor to receive 2 posthumous Academy Award Best Actor nominations (East of Eden and Giant).
River Phoenix, 23 Years Old
Notable films: Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho
River Phoenix was a man of many talents. An incredibly gifted actor respected by both actors and directors alike, he was an accomplished musician (he sang, and played guitar) and it was widely known amongst friends that his main passion was in fact music. He was also an activist who was passionate about animal, environmental and political rights. Phoenix won the PETA humanitarian award in 1992 for his fund-raising efforts.
His portrayal of a gay street hustler in Gus Van Sant’s avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho garnered rave reviews for the sensitivity and poignancy that he played the character with. His complete immersion and convincing depiction left critics and audiences astounded. His role in My Own Private Idaho won Phoenix Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards.
River Phoenix’s death outside of the Viper Room in LA of drug induced heart failure shocked most because his public image was one that was straight laced and clean cut. The shock, the hint of a contradictory lifestyle, and the fact that hard drugs (a mix of cocaine and heroin) were involved created a media frenzy of epic proportions.
He was an actor of considerable depth that, like a chameleon, could have taken on any type of role and made it truly his.
Brandon Lee, 28 Years Old
Notable films: The Crow, Showdown in Little Tokyo
Brandon Lee had only a few film credits to his name, most notably the buddy cop movie Showdown in Little Tokyo (which was his first studio film and American debut) co-starring Dolph Lundgren, his first starring role the action movie Rapid Fire, and of course his last movie, The Crow. It is widely thought that Lee was on the cusp of a pretty huge action career and the huge box office success of The Crow ultimately confirmed this.
Eight days before filming of The Crow was due to complete, Brandon Lee was accidentally shot on set whilst filming a scene. He was shot by a prop gun that was thought to contain only blanks but, due to negligence, a fragment of a real bullet was still in the chamber. His death was ruled an accident. With the support of his family and girlfriend the studio employed special effects to give Lee’s stand in his face and filming was completed.
Lee was the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
Heath Ledger, 28 Years Old
Notable films: 10 Things I Hate About You, Brokeback Mountain, Candy, The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger was at the height of his popularity with a career chock-full of box office successes, awards, nominations and a body of work that varied from teen comedy romances (10 Things I Hate About You), indie drug, love picture, Candy (which co-starred Abbie Cornish and Geoffrey Rush), gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain (which co-starred Jake Gyllenhaal) to the epic second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, for which he won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the Joker.
Ledger’s role as the Joker was a much talked about and, at the time, mysterious performance mostly due to rumours in the press about his sleeping problems during filming, his utter immersion in the character and the madness he needed to convey.
News of Ledger’s death by accidental overdose of prescription medication shocked and stunned the world and, with the above rumours adding to speculation about his state of mind, quickly created a media frenzy leading to what is now probably one of the most infamous cases of an actor who died too young.
His varied choice of roles and the quality of his performances strongly suggest that he had a very long, successful and interesting career ahead of him.
Brad Renfro, 25 Years Old
Notable films: The Client, Bully
Brad Renfro started out as a child star at the age of 11 in the John Grisham adaptation The Client, which co-starred Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. His performance garnered a lot of praise and the film went on to enjoy huge box office success. He has co-starred with some acting greats such as Rober De Niro (Sleepers) and Ian Mckellen (Apt Pupil).
Not afraid to take on grittier roles, he starred in the Larry Clark indie film, Bully in what was at points a fairly graphic, violent, highly sexual and at times disturbing performance. He managed to embody each of the characters he portrayed with a real truth to the protagonist, showing that he had a genuine talent.
Unfortunately, he succumbed to the cliche that dogs a lot of actors that started their careers as child stars and, along with a very promising acting career, he lived a life controlled by addiction and littered with trouble with the law. He was found dead in his LA apartment of a heroin/morphine overdose.
The above 5 actors all shared certain similarities, whether it be the ability to lose themselves within the characters they were portraying or their ability to enchant audiences with their performance. Though they are gone, their legacy of film remains intact to inspire, to enjoy and to serve as remembrance of their talent.