A while back I watched Bully for the second time, a 2001 film by Larry Clark starring Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl. Now whilst the film itself received mixed reviews, it gave me pause for thought concerning the two lead actors.
Like their respective characters in Bully, in real life both had a self destructive streak. I say had, Nick Stahl is just about still going but looks a sorry state of a human. Last decent piece of work he did was play Yellow Bastard in Sin City. All that talent… wasted.
Both Renfro and Stahl fell victim to the lure of drugs. In Renfro’s case, fatally. This got me thinking of other actors we’ve seen go the same way (mostly drugs but some, perhaps more tragically, from natural causes) and whether the frequency is increasing in recent years.
People say if only a lot. ‘If only we’d read the signs. If only we’d seen this coming.’ Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, the more you try to save them, the more they slip away.
Still… it’s a damn shame. Some had raw talent which promised to become something great, and some were doing the best work of their careers. Here are a few to consider.
Marilyn Monroe, 36 (barbiturate overdose) 1962
In 1999 she was ranked as the sixth-greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute. Her death remains – to this day – a source of speculation, marked down as ‘probable suicide’. Whatever the case, before we lost her she gave us some memorable performances, particularly Sugar in Some Like It Hot.
John Belushi, 33 (cocaine and heroin overdose) 1982
Always a wildcard, some say an overdose at the Chateau Marmont in LA was the way he’d have wanted to go. For me, I’ll remember him most fondly for Animal House and Blues Brothers. A sad loss to the world of comedy.
River Phoenix, 23 (multiple drugs overdose) 1993
If his brother Joaquin’s career is anything to go by, River could’ve been a real talent. Sadly another to succumb to drugs barely into his 20s. He did, however, leave us with memorable performances including Stand By Me, Running On Empty and My Own Private Idaho.
Jack Lemmon, 76 (colon cancer) 2001
Part of an elite group of actors to have won both a Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the others are De Niro, Hackman, Nicholson, Spacey and Washington) with a career that spanned more than 50 years – one of Hollywood’s true legends.
Brad Renfro, 25 (heroin overdose) 2008
Spotted aged 11 and cast as the lead in The Client, it’s safe to say Renfro slotted rather well into the burnout category. He had bags of talent and got 21 films under his belt – including Sleepers, Apt Pupil and Bully – before departing this world in blaze of class As.
Heath Ledger, 28 (prescription drugs, accidental overdose) 2008
Went out soon after his greatest performance as The Joker; one which won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. However the performance that first turned people on to his talent was Brokeback Mountain. One of the biggest losses to acting in recent years.
Paul Newman, 83 (lung cancer) 2008
One of the greats of the golden age of Hollywood with the most famous blue eyes in movie history. Received an Oscar for his part in Scorsese’s The Colour of Money and had a vast and successful career that spanned decades. His last screen appearance was an impressive one as a conflicted mob boss in Road to Perdition in 2002.
Brittany Murphy, 32 (pneumonia and prescription drugs overdose) 2009
Broke out in 1995 with Clueless, then put in a good performance in Girl, Interrupted before making people really sit up and take notice in 8 Mile and Sin City. Yet another death chalked down as ‘a bit of an accident’… so sad.
John Hughes, 59 (cardiac arrest) 2009
This man pretty much invented coming-of-age teen movies and hugely influenced this kind of storytelling for years to come. Indeed, Judd Apatow has been quoted saying his movies are ‘basically John Hughes films with four-letter words’. My favourite has and always will be… The Breakfast Club. John Hughes, we won’t forget about you.
Patrick Swayze, 57 (pancreatic cancer) 2009
A fighter, a lover, a dancer – Swayze has been them all. He got his foot in the door with The Outsiders, yet it was Dirty Dancing that cemented his place in the hearts of women everywhere. From Road House to Point Break, his wild genius will be remembered and cherished.
David Carradine, 72 (accidental asphyxiation) 2009
Received critical praise for his work in the 1970s on Bound For Glory and the Circle of Iron then became largely anonymous for the next few decades, until being brilliantly revived by Tarantino for Kill Bill. Then, just when you think he might be having a career surge late in life, he goes out in a fit of sexual glory.
Michael Clarke Duncan, 54 (cardiac arrest) 2012
Big man, big talent. His career began in the ’90s as a bodyguard for celebs like Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. An acting high point saw him pick up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Green Mile. All in all, he was a fearsome screen presence.
Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, 46 (multiple drugs overdose) 2014
Another vastly talented individual who had his demons and his work will take on new meaning following his death. The great skill he had as an actor was almost disappearing into the parts he played – often deeply flawed individuals, yet he made you care about them.
Bob Hoskins, 71 (pneumonia) 2014
Funny story: Hoskins was originally asked to play Al Capone in The Untouchables, then last minute De Palma replaced him with De Niro and wrote Hoskins a cheque for £20,000 to say sorry, prompting Hoskins to ask if there were any other films the director would like him not to appear in.