Once Famous Child Actors Who Passed Away

Child actors are proof that good things come in small packages. They're often precocious and talented way beyond their years, but here's the thing — Hollywood doesn't have a reputation as being a very kind place, and putting an inexperienced, naive young person in that kind of environment is just asking for trouble. Remember how hard it was to deal with middle school drama? Imagine that, but facing off against entitled adults, instead.

But as long as roles for children exist, stage parents will put their kids forward to star in them. That means fans watch young actors grow up in front of their eyes; some turn out surprisingly okay and even continue working in the entertainment industry, but for others, their lives turn out much more tragically. Here is a look at some of the many child stars who were famous in their time and have since sadly passed away.

Corey Haim

The poster children for tragic child stars are probably Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. The two famously costarred in 1987's "The Lost Boys", and stayed friends through some awful revelations that came out decades later, including accusations that they were preyed on by older, powerful men in the industry. Feldman told The Holywood Reporter that Haim's assault, in particular, was deeply traumatic, saying it explains why "he was erratic and not well-behaved on sets and things like that." It also resulted in a well-publicized issue with drugs. When Haim died in 2010 — just 38 years old — officials seemed to indicate that they assumed it was drug-related. It wasn't: The official ruling was respiratory and heart problems, coupled with pneumonia. Even before the ruling, Feldman spoke with CBS to say that he didn't think it was an intentional or an accidental death.

What he did know for sure was that it was a loss that broke his heart. "He made a lot of mistakes... He always tried to be the best person he could," Feldman said. "This is a tragic loss of a wonderful, beautiful, tormented soul, who will always be my brother, family, and best friend." While Haim's might be the most famous tragic story faced by one of the industry's biggest child stars, it's definitely not the only one, but part of a pattern of what working in an adult industry as a child can do to those kids.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Jonathan Brandis

In 2021, Soleil Moon Frye — who found fame at 7 years old starring as Punky Brewster — made a documentary called "Kid 90," about growing up in that decade. and she told People that in the process of making the doc and going through all her old '90s memorabilia, she was a bit blindsided by all the memories of her old friend Jonathan Brandis. "I found so many voicemails Jonathan left me when we were kids," she recalled. "Some of them were 10 minutes long, his innermost thoughts. It just made me cry listening to them. He was a real friend."

Brandis found fame in films like "The NeverEnding Story II," "It," and "Ladybugs," then went on to star in the Steven Spielberg-helmed television show "SeaQuest." When the Los Angeles Times announced his death in 2003, they added that the 27-year-old actor had been in front of the camera since he was 2 years old, but quoted "SeaQuest" co-star Roy Scheider as saying he remained a level-headed guy.

It was ultimately determined that Brandis had died by suicide, and his father, Greg, has been clear that even in hindsight, he doesn't blame the industry: "Jonathan ... was probably bipolar. [His death] wasn't due to the entertainment industry. I look back now, and in his 20s, he showed signs of manic depression. I hope that anyone suffering can go get help."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Jon Paul Steuer

Jon Paul Steuer sort of lucked into his first big role, because he had a talent unique among children. What's that? The ability to sit still for hours: The part was Worf's son on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and the prosthetics took a long, long time to apply. That part was ultimately recast, but Steuer went on to primetime fame as Brett Butler's son on "Grace Under Fire," before his parents pulled him from the show with allegations of a toxic environment. 

Steuer eventually got out of the acting business, going on to become a restaurateur and singer with the Oregon-based band P.R.O.B.L.E.M.S. In 2018, it was reported that Steuer — then 33 years old, and performing under the name of Jonny Jewels — had died by suicide.

His death was announced by the band, who said (in part, via E! News): "It is with heavy hearts and saddened minds that we announce the passing of our dear friend and singer Jonny Jewels, AKA Jon Paul Steuer. The addition of Jonny to our dysfunctional band family was one of the best choices that we have ever made, and he brought a much-needed sense of fun and lightheartedness to everything we did."

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org

Gary Coleman

Gary Coleman was an absolute phenomenon, and the face of child acting in the 1970s and 1980s. His longest-lasting role was "Diff'rent Strokes," where he was in nearly 200 episodes. After that, his acting career was peppered with one-time appearances, voiceover work, and the occasional movie, and he more commonly made headlines for personal problems. Coleman had struggled through a lifetime of health-related issues: He had been diagnosed with congenital kidney disease that required constant treatment and several kidney transplants, including one that took place when he was just five years old.

Coleman died in 2010, aged 42. According to his obituary, he was hospitalized after falling and suffering a brain hemorrhage. The same year, he had been through seizure-related health problems; it was reported that he had lost consciousness, and his former wife made the decision to remove him from life support. 

After his death, his mother gave a statement in which she shared her regret: She'd hoped she would reconcile with her estranged son before his death, but Coleman's comments about his childhood seemed to suggest there was little room for that to happen. First appearing in television commercials as a child, then making his way to Hollywood, he was lauded for his comedic timing and delivery even as a child, but once said in an interview, "I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy, and I don't even have a worst enemy."

Dana Plato

Gary Coleman wasn't the only child star of "Diff'rent Strokes" to die young: In 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported on the death of 34-year-old Dana Plato. She made her first on-screen appearance at 6 years old and found fame in the sitcom at 13 years old, but after her time on the show ended, she struggled. Released from her contract when she became pregnant, she married, gave birth to her son, and appeared in a series of B and adult movies. By the 1990s, she had several run-ins with the law for robbery and drug charges, and revealed in one 1992 interview that she'd been through "Three years of nonstop drinking."

Her death on May 8, 1999, was initially ruled an accidental overdose, then, suicide. The day prior, she had done an interview with Howard Stern, in which she had said that she was clean.

Her former costars have addressed her struggles with addiction (via People), and on what would have been her 55th birthday, Todd Bridges tweeted, "You were the one person i could always talk to. You were one of my best friends. I will never forget you and love you forever." Bridges has said that just days before her death, he had tried to convince her to check into a rehab center, and wrote that he still mourned her loss years after her death.

Judith Barsi

There are some animated movies that define the childhood of anyone born in a 10-year span around their release. One of those was 1988's "The Land Before Time," released back when cartoons meant for kids could still be traumatizing. Judith Barsi was the voice of Ducky, and in addition to doing voice work for the equally traumatizing "All Dogs Go To Heaven," she also starred in "Jaws: The Revenge," and around 100 commercials. 

Barsi was killed when she was 10 years old, and the details are horrific. In 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported on a murder-suicide in which the bodies of Barsi and her mother, Maria, were discovered in their San Fernando Valley home. Both had been shot and killed before being set on fire, and according to a neighbor, that's exactly what Jozsef Barsi had threatened to do: Neighbor Eunice Daly said that she had repeatedly tried to convince Maria to leave her husband, but "She said, 'I can't, because he'll come after us and kill us, and he's threatened to burn down the house.'"

Jozsef's remains were also found in the house, and it was ruled that he had died by suicide. In a bizarre footnote, the house was later featured on "Murder House Flip," where it was remodeled by a family looking to sell after years of dealing with what they described as unusual phenomena, cold spots, and unexplainable activity. 

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse or domestic abuse, please contact:

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Lucille Ricksen

Lucille Ricksen isn't a household name these days, and that's a shame: Hers is a sort of cautionary tale that needs to be remembered and was researched by Michael G. Ankerich for his book, "Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels." Although Ricksen was a massive star when she died in 1925, it's worth noting that she was only 14 years old when she passed away.

Ricksen, Ankerich recounted, had already worked as a model and on the stage by the time she was five years old. It wasn't long before she was starting to be cast in roles that today, the world would see as wildly age-inappropriate: In "The Rendezvous," for example, the 12-year-old played an unhappy and abused wife. She was regularly cast in adult roles, and if there were any doubts about whether or not the studio saw anything wrong with what they were doing, it's worth noting that they advertised her age as 16. She filmed 10 movies in the space of about seven months, and although she always swore that she loved her work, even her doctors said she needed to stop.

In 1925, Ricksen's mother, Ingeborn, was caring for the bedridden teen when she collapsed and died on her daughter's bed. Ricksen herself passed away three weeks later, and although her official cause of death was tuberculosis, it's believed that extreme overwork had something to do with it as well. She and her mother were cremated and placed in the same urn.

Lee Thompson Young

Child stars hit their stride in many ways, and Lee Thompson Young was doing some heavy lifting from the beginning: He was just 10 years old when he played a young Martin Luther King Jr. in "A Night of Stars and Dreams." That kick-started his own dream to become an actor, and after starring in "The Famous Jett Jackson," he went on to a slew of other roles, and a regular spot on "Rizzoli & Isles." Then, in August of 2013, friends called authorities to request a welfare check, and it was discovered that the 29-year-old had died by suicide. 

After his death, his mother, Velma Love, spoke openly about her son's struggles. She explained to WIS10 that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was a teenager, saying, "Some of a person's inner life, you really don't know. He would sometimes call me and say he was feeling a little sad again. It was always a quick recovery and I, too, feel that he was always concerned about us. He was always protective of us."

Love — along with her daughter, Tamu Lewis — went on to found the Lee Thompson Young Foundation, and told Healthline that it was their hope that they could fight the stigma that's long been associated with mental illness by promoting programs geared toward educating adults about what to look for in children that might be struggling. 

Brad Renfro

Child actors can make or break a movie, and when he was just 10 years old, Brad Renfro — in his first role — made it clear that he could seriously carry a movie. He was cast alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the adaptation of John Grisham's "The Client," and after he started out by playing the witness to a mob boss's suicide, he didn't shy away from the heavy roles. That included "Apt Pupil," — opposite Ian McKellan's ex-Nazi — and "Sleepers," as a young version of Brad Pitt's character, who suffers brutal abuse in a juvenile detention facility.

In the early days of 2008, the 25-year-old Renfro was found dead in his California home. The years leading up to his death had been punctuated with headline-making arrests for drug use, and although his friends said that he had been making strides toward sobriety, the official cause of his death was ultimately ruled as heroin and morphine intoxication. 

One of his first arrests happened when he was just 16 years old, for marijuana and cocaine possession. Even more shocking is that according to what he often told those he worked with, he'd already been dabbling in drugs for four years at that point. After his first arrest, he told People, "I'm glad I got arrested, because it taught me a lot. I've had several months of being sober — I wouldn't have it any other way. ... If you've never done it, don't. If you have done it, pray."

Mya-Lecia Naylor

British actress Mya-Lecia Naylor was best known for television shows "Tati's Hotel," "Millie Inbetween," and "Almost Never," but she'd made the jump over to Hollywood too: She starred alongside Tom Hanks in the mind-bending "Cloud Atlas" when she was just nine years old. In an interview for Tresa Magazine, she recalled, "Tom Hanks was so nice, he took us on a tour of the set on the first day I was filming." Naylor died in 2019, at the age of 16.

According to The Guardian, she was pronounced dead not long after emergency services were called to her home. The official cause of her death was ruled as misadventure, and according to what her parents said, "She had not been her normal self... she was stressed about her exams. She knew she needed to get on with her revision, and she had plans scheduled out for her revision. ... I genuinely believe she did not mean to do it... She clearly had plans for the future."

Naylor had previously spoken about those plans, saying that she had some goals in mind for promoting her YouTube channel once her exams were behind her, that she had been filming some small projects, and that she had other projects in the works. Tributes poured in from across England, with the director of BBC Children's, Alice Webb, saying (via the BBC), "It's unthinkable that she won't be part of our journey going forward."

Kevin Clark

It's no secret that it was the kids who made Jack Black's "School of Rock" so enduring, and Freddy Jones — played by Kevin Clark — had some seriously legit musical talent. He'd been drumming for a few years — which amounted to most of his life — by the time he was cast, and according to what costar Rivkah Reyes had to say on TikTok, he was actually the one who pitched the idea for the movie's ending. Still, even though he was in the massively popular movie, he didn't stick with acting: He did, however, stick with music, teaching at a School of Rock, and playing in several bands.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, he had just started another band shortly before he was killed in a car accident. He was riding his bike and passing through a notoriously dangerous intersection when he was hit, and pronounced dead at the hospital. He was 32 years old.

Tributes poured in, including a then-and-now photo of Clark with Jack Black, posted on Black's Instagram. "Devastating news," he wrote. "Kevin is gone. Way too soon. Beautiful soul. So many great memories. Heartbroken. Sending love to his family and the whole School of Rock community."

Heather O'Rourke

Heather O'Rourke was the adorably unsettling little girl from the "Poltergeist" films, featured in what's perhaps one of the most iconic images in horror movie history. It's also one of the most notorious film sets in history: JoBeth Williams has confirmed that those were definitely real skeletons. Also real? The bond that the cast had. Craig T. Nelson would later describe his on-screen daughter to Vanity Fair, saying, "Heather was just a sweetheart, and shy and beautiful. She was just this wonderful little girl, and she was perfect for the role, perfect for just who she was in her innocence.

O'Rourke would reprise her role as Carol Anne in two more "Poltergeist" films, including 1988's "Poltergeist III." That was the same year she passed away at only 12 years old, the apparent victim of a condition that she had been living with her entire life.

According to her obituary, she had been rushed to the hospital after complaining of abdominal pain. She was diagnosed with a severe obstruction, which led to septic shock, then cardiac and pulmonary arrest, and her death. Although her parents didn't comment at the time, they later told People that they were filing a lawsuit over her death, stating that she had never been diagnosed with the intestinal condition that may have been revealed by something as simple as an X-ray. O'Rourke had been suffering mysterious symptoms since the previous year, and the lawsuit was settled out of court.

Dominique Dunne

Heather O'Rourke was the second of the "Poltergeist" children to die; the first had been Dominique Dunne. She had a slew of credits to her name before getting her breakout role in "Poltergeist," and Dunne's on-screen mother, JoBeth Williams, described her to Vanity Fair as "just a delightful, a delightful young woman."

Dunne's father, Dominick, became her champion for justice, writing about her 1982 death and the following murder trial in a piece for Vanity Fair. He recalled getting the phone call that every parent dreads: His daughter, then 22 years old, was dying. He said that he had known something was wrong, and that it had something to do with his daughter's boyfriend. John Sweeney. Sweeney, he wrote, had struck him as obsessive, even shaking a fan who had quoted some of Dominique's lines from "Poltergeist" to her. Dominick wrote that by the time he had flown across the country to her and gotten to her side, the doctors were already telling him that they were preparing a series of brain scans: They needed inarguable proof that she was brain-dead, so they didn't prematurely turn off her life support.

Dominick later learned that his daughter had broken up with her boyfriend more than a month before her death, and friends told him that a choking and assault had occurred. His history of violence against women was presented at his trial, and was ultimately convicted of manslaughter. He would serve less than four years before he was released.

Anton Yelchin

When 27-year-old Anton Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in 2016, it was the kind of story that just didn't seem possible. Yelchin had been acting for years by the time he got his big break in "Star Trek Into Darkness," and he had such a big impact that The Guardian compared his death to that of Heath Ledger and Paul Walker. The details were horrible: Yelchin's Jeep Cherokee rolled backward, killing him in what was ruled to be "blunt traumatic asphyxia." 

There was a tragic footnote to this story, and that's the fact that his car — along with 1.1 million other individual vehicles — was the subject of a recall that had been issued after they were found to present a significant risk of rolling. The recall was issued after it was found that the gear shifts on the automatic transmission didn't give a clear enough indication of whether or not the car was actually in park.

Yelchin's parents, Victor and Irina Yelchin, filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, Fiat Chrysler. That lawsuit was settled in 2018 for an undisclosed amount, and according to the Los Angeles Times, Victor explained that yes, it had been an incredibly difficult thing to do even as they mourned their son: "In spite of our unbelievable grief, we decided to come here to prevent other families from the same tragedy."

Tommy Rettig

Tommy Rettig might not be a household name these days, but in the 1950s, he absolutely was — and even today, those who have never seen a single episode of 1950s-era television know of his most famous role: He was the first boy to be cast alongside everyone's favorite dog, Lassie. In spite of starring in some pretty big movies with some pretty big names — including Marylin Monroe, Natalie Wood, James Stewart, Barbara Hale, and Robert Mitchum, he didn't stick with acting and instead, got into computer software in the 1980s, and also became an early proponent of legalizing marijuana. 

Way back in 1983, Rettig spoke with the Los Angeles Times regarding California's attempt at legalization and offered an opinion that sounds like it would be right at home in the 2020s. He said, "The use of drugs has been made synonymous with the abuse of drugs. For the most part, they are natural substances and have been around long before man. Prohibition never worked; education is the answer."

Rettig died in 1996, at the young age of 54; according to his obituary, it was ruled that he had died of natural causes in his home. He left behind two sons.

Cameron Boyce

Before passing away at the incredibly young age of just 20 years old, Cameron Boyce had already established himself as one of the industry's wildly prolific and incredibly talented up-and-coming stars, with a ton of credits to his name. That included just under 100 episodes of the television show "Jessie," along with a starring role in "Gamer's Guide to Pretty Much Everything," and starring voiceover work in "Captain Jake and the Never Land Pirates," and "Descendants." He also earned honors for his charity work, particularly with the clean drinking water initiative the Thirst Project. 

When Boyce's death was announced in 2019, it was ruled as being the result of "an ongoing medical condition." The outpouring of grief and condolences was instant, and it took his parents a while to speak publicly about his death. When they did, it was to raise awareness of something called SUDEP.

SUDEP stands for "sudden unexpected death in epilepsy." Boyce had been diagnosed with epilepsy just a few years prior, had only a few seizures, and his parents revealed (via "The Doctors") that they had considered the diagnosis a relatively minor health issue. Libby Boyce has been candid about the fact that time does not heal all wounds: "I feel as though I'm in a tunnel. The tunnel will always be there. ... So, if people say, 'You come out the other side,' — you do not come out the other side from this kind of a loss, ever."

River Phoenix

Talking about River Phoenix is far from easy. Decades after he died outside Johnny Depp's Viper Room, it's still a complicated story. His breakout role was in one of the best movies from the 1980s, "Stand By Me." In 2018, director Rob Reiner told The Guardian that he had always been surrounded by his parents and family, but that ended up being complicated in itself. There was his childhood in the Children of God cult, his feelings of being the one supporting his family, and the pressures of earning enough to send his siblings to school.

It took Phoenix's girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, a long time to open up about the night he died. She later explained, "I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn't understand," she said. "I didn't see anyone doing drugs, but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head. Forty-five minutes later, he was dead." It was October 31, 1993.

Phoenix, it turned out, had purportedly spent the previous day with John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They'd been using pretty heavily, and it would later be ruled that his death had come from an overdose of cocaine and heroin. Years later, his brother Joaquin Phoenix would say (via the Independent), "I feel like virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way. And I think that we've all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways."

Matthew Garber

It's no secret that some movies just don't stand the test of time, but one of the classics that remains a family favorite is 1964's "Mary Poppins." The Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke classic remains one of the top 30 highest-grossing films of all time, was the highest-grossing film of 1964, and earned the cast and crew too many awards to list.

It's a brilliant story that's sure to warm hearts even in today's world-weary society, and when Glamour did a deep-dive into the movie's making around the more recent release of "Saving Mr. Banks," they said that Karen Dotrice — Jane Banks in the 1964 version — not only kept in touch with Andrews and van Dyke, but saw them regularly. The story of her costar, Matthew Garber, isn't as happy.

Details are surprisingly scarce, but Garber died when he was just 21 years old. After going on vacation, he unknowingly contracted hepatitis, which spread to his pancreas and developed into pancreatitis. (That, says Johns Hopkins, is a condition in which digestive enzymes attack and damage the organ.) Garber died a year later, and Dotrice made a statement following his death, saying (via Digital Spy), "I can't imagine making movies would have been half as much fun without him."