Child Stars Who Tragically Died Young

This article contains references to mental health struggles, suicide, murder, addiction, and abuse.

Child stars occupy a complicated position in pop culture. We love seeing talented kids who can entertain an audience, and it can be exciting to watch a skilled young performer age into a talented artist over time. However, the entertainment industry is rife with abuse and misconduct, as the shocking Nickelodeon docuseries "Quiet On Set" indicated. While some child stars grow up into well-adjusted adults, the same can't be said for everyone. Even the ones who do make it out often have a complicated relationship with their past. "Full House" star Mary-Kate Olsen once told Marie Clare that she had trouble relating to her childhood. "I look at old photos of me, and I don't feel connected to them at all," she said. "I would never wish my upbringing on anyone."

Accordingly, the history of child stardom is full of kids who unfortunately didn't get to experience their own happy Hollywood endings. The stars on this list all died tragically young, their bright flames extinguished far too early.

Cameron Boyce

Cameron Boyce found fame as a kid on The Disney Channel. In addition to starring on shows like "Jessie," he led the channel's ultra-successful "Descendants" franchise as Carlos, the son of Cruella de Vil. He reprised the character in two sequels; while promoting "Descendants 3," Boyce mused that his character had gone on quite the journey. "The old adage is 'Don't judge a book by its cover,'" he said (via USA Today). "Let someone really be who they are. And it's a cool thing that we tell."

Boyce died on July 6, 2019, at only 20 years old, before the release of the final "Descendants" film. He had epilepsy, and that night he had a fatal seizure in his sleep. In an essay for "Good Morning America," his mother drew attention to Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy, the name for that final seizure. "These past 10 months have been life-changing for me in a way that is beyond words," she wrote. "You can't compare it to anything because it is a trauma that is dissimilar to anything in the world. It has created a gaping hole that is raw and gut-wrenching."

Boyce's Disney Channel castmates paid tribute to him, too. During a "Jessie" cast reunion hosted by "Stars In the House," co-star Peyton List talked about her friendship with Boyce. "He made me such a better person," she said. "He was younger than me and he would teach me something every day."

Skye McCole Bartusiak

Child actor Skye McCole Bartusiak appeared in an impressive run of films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, showing up in hits like "The Cider House Rules," "Riding In Cars With Boys," and "The Patriot," where she played the daughter of Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War hero. She considered that her favorite role into her teenage years, when she told The Write Stuff that the cast felt like a family thanks to the film's long shooting schedule. "Remember that whole 'Poppa' scene, where I break down?" she said, referring to the emotional climax of the film. "We did that the last day of shooting, so it was easy to get emotional; I knew we'd all be separating soon."

As she aged, she managed to make the transition into teenage roles, starring in '00s hits like "Boogeyman." Unfortunately, the world never got a chance to see what kind of work Bartusiak would put in as an adult. In 2014, she died at only 21. "She was a kind and really beautiful girl," her mother told CNN, noting what an impressive career her daughter had at such a young age. "The girl has lived such an amazing life." Her parents told the outlet that Bartusiak experienced epileptic seizures, but it was later determined that she'd died from an accidental overdose.

Sal Mineo

In 1955, Sal Mineo starred in "Rebel Without a Cause," opposite James Dean and Natalie Wood. Mineo was only 15 at the time, but his performance was so tender and fully-realized that he was nominated for an Academy Award. He later suggested in an interview with writer Boze Hadleigh that he might've been more of a leading man had he not started acting so young. "When I started in films I was fifteen, sixteen, and I had this baby face that made me look like a wheat-flour dumpling or something," he joked.

James Dean died before the film premiered. Natalie Wood died under suspicious circumstances at 43 years old, and Mineo himself met an untimely end when he was murdered outside his West Hollywood home in 1976. He was only 37. Mineo had been in rehearsals for a new play by James Kirkwood, who told The New York Times that the actor had impressed him with his dedication to the part. "My admiration for him is inexpressible," he said. "He was a professional whose talent grew over the years, a dedicated actor, and there aren't many of those left."

Mineo told Hadleigh that he was bisexual, and for years after his death, rumors swirled that he had been killed by a hustler, or some kind of hookup gone wrong. However, for The Hollywood Reporter, "L.A. Confidential" writer James Ellroy reinvestigated the case and determined that the knifing was likely random.

River Phoenix

River Phoenix, the older brother of Joaquin Phoenix, was only 23 when he collapsed outside famed West Hollywood nightclub the Viper Room. He had been a child star, becoming massively famous thanks to stellar performances in films like "Stand By Me." He also played the young version of Indiana Jones at the beginning of "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade," perfectly mimicking Harrison Ford's charismatic performance. As he grew up, he found critical acclaim in films like "My Own Private Idaho." Unfortunately, River's career was cut short in 1993 by what turned out to be a drug overdose. "I was told that the cocaine and morphine [levels] were both high enough that either would have been lethal by itself," a spokesman for the coroner told the Los Angeles Times

While he was alive, River supported his younger brother's plan to follow in his footsteps. "River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn't really know it," Joaquin told Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes," explaining that the Phoenix family mostly didn't concern themselves with the trappings of Hollywood fame. Still, River had big plans for Joaquin's career. He showed his little brother "Raging Bull" and told him that someday, Joaquin would have the bigger career. Joaquin recalled, "Through my brother and his understanding and appreciation of that kind of acting, I think it just like, awakened something in me."

Aaron Carter

At first, fans might have known Aaron Carter as Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter's little brother. Pretty quickly, though, Aaron amassed a fanbase all his own thanks to catchy singles like "Aaron's Party," "I Want Candy," and "That's How I Beat Shaq." Teen stardom followed; he was even rumored to have been the cause of Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff's tumultuous relationship in the mid 2000s.

As Aaron grew up, however, his young adulthood was dogged by negative headlines. In 2012, Aaron and Nick were rocked by the loss of their sister Leslie Carter. Aaron was also in and out of rehab, evidently struggling with alcohol and drug addictions. "He is grateful for the support and love from his fans and looks forward to coming back stronger than ever before," a representative told Us Weekly in 2017. In 2019, in a series of troubling tweets (via E! News), he accused various members of his family of having abused him as a child. "Since my truth is all out there and I hope all survivors of assault or rape find peace and justice," he said.

Millennials everywhere mourned Aaron Carter's heartbreaking death in 2022. He died at the age of 34 from drowning, after falling asleep in a bathtub while under the influence of drugs like Xanax. Nick shared a post on Instagram after Aaron's death, writing, "My heart is broken. Even though my brother and I have had a complicated relationship, my love for him has never ever faded."

Corey Haim

Corey Haim was often paired with a fellow child star named Corey Feldman in the 1980s, including in films like "The Lost Boys" and "License to Drive." Together, they were known as "the two Coreys," which was also the title of the reality show about their adult lives that they starred on together in the 2000s. The reality show was a raw, unflinching look at child stardom, and in one episode Haim revealed that the Coreys had both been abused as children. Feldman was furious that Haim discussed that information on television, telling GQ, "That was one of those things that we'd discussed not bringing up ... You know how there's one thing that your friend's got against you that he could use as blackmail at any time? That was the one thing."

It seems that Haim's troubled early fame followed him into adulthood. On the show, he was open about his lifelong struggle with addiction and his mental health. In 2010, he died at 38 from pneumonia. Feldman wrote a piece for Entertainment Weekly in the wake of his friend's death, and he tied Haim's untimely passing to the difficulties they experienced as kids in the industry. "When we both fell into drugs, I, initially, was the one with the more intense problem," Feldman remembered. "I went through my recovery, but he decided he didn't want to grow up. I understood why: We'd never had the chance to live our childhoods."

Jonathan Brandis

Jonathan Brandis played the young Bill Denbrough in the Tim Curry-starring "IT" miniseries. He went on to star in movies like "NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter," and he led the cast of NBC's "seaQuest DSV." Brandis was the kind of child star whose face featured on countless "Teen Beat" posters, sparking fierce crushes from young people everywhere in the 1990s. "I never perceived myself like this — a teen magazine kid. As an actor, you just hope to continue working," Brandis once reflected (via the Los Angeles Times). "Then when you start getting mail! I sure never knew it was coming. It's not something you prepare for."

Unfortunately, Brandis' career slowed as the 1990s became the 2000s. In 2003, the LAPD reported that they'd received a troubling call about the former child star. "A friend of Jonathan Brandis called police to report that the actor had attempted suicide at his apartment," the press release read. Brandis had died by suicide, only 27 years old.

His death touched the fans who followed his career. "He is the only thing that was good about my childhood, and now I feel like my childhood has been shattered," one fan wrote in an email to The News-Times. "Punky Brewster" star Soleil Moon Frye told People that she'd come across old voicemails from her friend. "Some of them were 10 minutes long, his innermost thoughts," she said. "It just made me cry listening to them. He was a real friend."

Judith Barsi

Judith Barsi racked up an impressive filmography at a young age, appearing in films like "Jaws: The Revenge" and showing up on television shows like "Punky Brewster," "Cheers," "Cagney & Lacey," and "The Love Boat." She also moved into voice acting, playing Anne-Marie in "All Dogs Go To Heaven" and voicing Ducky, the little green dinosaur, in "The Land Before Time." 

In 1988, before "All Dogs Go To Heaven" had even been released, Barsi was tragically murdered by her father. She was 10 years old. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jozef Barsi killed his wife and daughter before burning down their house while he was still inside. Don Bluth, the filmmaker behind "The Land Before Time" and "All Dogs Go To Heaven," told Meridian Magazine that her death rattled the animators who were working on her final film. "We couldn't listen to the voice," he said. "Everybody would start tearing up ... so it stopped everything for a while."

In recognition of Ducky's catchphrase, Barsi's grave reads "Yep! Yep! Yep!"

Heather O'Rourke

In the classic horror film "Poltergeist," Heather O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a little girl who learns to communicate with the beyond thanks to some supernatural television static. Dominique Dunne played Dana, Carol Anne's older sister; mere months after the movie was released, Dunne was murdered by her boyfriend. In "Poltergeist II," Carol Anne comes face to face with a creepy preacher named Kane, played by Julian Beck; he died shortly after that film's release. So began the rumors of a "Poltergeist curse," which was further exacerbated by speculation that actual skeletons were used in filming rather than props.

Unfortunately, O'Rourke died later that decade. In 1988, when she was only 12, O'Rourke collapsed and was hospitalized for a cardiac arrest. She was found to have a bowel obstruction and unfortunately died due to the condition; it was believed that she had a congenital intestinal issue that wasn't discovered until it was too late. Decades after her death, co-star Craig T. Nelson — who played the Freeling family patriarch — had nothing but fond memories of O'Rourke to share with Vanity Fair. "Heather was just a sweetheart and shy and beautiful," he said. "She was just this wonderful little girl, and she was perfect for the role, perfect for just who she was in her innocence."

Sawyer Sweeten

The classic sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" followed the family adventures of a hapless father. Ray Romano played the Barone family patriarch opposite Patricia Heaton, while Doris Roberts was his meddling mother who lived in the neighborhood. The Barone family had several kids, including a set of twins, who were played by Sawyer and Sullivan Sweeten. In addition to "Everybody Loves Raymond," Sawyer Sweeten also appeared on "Even Stevens" and "Frank McKlusky, C.I."

In 2015, the Sweeten twins' sister Madilyn released a statement to Variety revealing that one of her brothers had died. "We are devastated to report that our beloved brother, son, and friend, Sawyer Sweeten, took his own life. He was weeks away from his 20th birthday," she said.

Elizabeth Gini, Sweeten's mother, went on "Larry King Now" in the wake of her loss and decried the media coverage of her son's death. The entertainment press had picked up the story quickly, meaning extended family members learned about Sawyer's death from the internet rather than from her. "It made it very difficult, because we got out of the Hollywood scene. We moved out of that. It wasn't part of our life anymore," she said. "This is someone's child."

Brad Renfro

Brad Renfro was discovered in the early 1990s and was given a prominent role in "The Client," a John Grisham legal thriller opposite Tommy Lee Jones. He had an impressive run throughout the rest of the decade, including playing Huckleberry Finn in Disney's "Tom and Huck" alongside fellow child star Jonathan Taylor Thomas. He went on to star in "Sleepers," "Apt Pupil," "Telling Lies in America," and more, making him one of the most promising up-and-coming actors of his generation. 

Unfortunately, as he grew up, Renfro dealt with addiction issues that led him to be on Skid Row in Los Angeles in 2005, when LAPD officers rounded up a number of people looking to buy drugs. The Los Angeles Times reported that he was booked into jail, and that a police officer told him, "If you don't like it, don't buy drugs down here."

A few years later, in 2008, Renfro died at the age of only 25. Craig Harvey, the Los Angeles County Coroner's chief investigator, told People that Renfro had been drinking the previous night. "All that we have is that he was last known to be alive during the morning hours," he said. Renfro was later determined to have died from a heroin overdose.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

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.

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).

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact its live chat services.