Actors we lost far too soon

Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, Anton Yelchin, Sharon Tate, River Phoenix, and John Belushi. Hollywood is filled with names of actors whose potential was cut short way too soon. Seeing their names on the big screen and in the bright lights of Tinsel Town is the dream of any actor, but when that stardom occurs at a young age, the pain of their early deaths rob their legions of fans of the promise of what might have been.

But while these actors are no longer with us, the work that they left behind serves as a testament to their lives and allows them to remain in our hearts forever as their final goodbye. So whether it be the pressures of fame, a tragic accident, a senseless murder, or private struggles they no longer had the will or support to fight, here are a few actors who you may not know that we lost too soon.

Skye McCole Bartusiak

Skye McCole Bartusiak, best known for playing Mel Gibson's youngest daughter in the Revolutionary War epic The Patriot, died on July 19, 2014. She was 21. According to CNN, Bartusiak was found by her boyfriend "sitting up in her bed" in their Houston apartment. Her mother stated that paramedics "[worked] on her for 45 minutes" but were unable to restart her heart. "We lost our girl," her mother told the publication. "She was a kind and really beautiful girl."

Her mother also stated that Bartusiak had been suffering from epileptic seizures in the days leading up to her death and believed that was the cause. "We think she had a seizure and choked and nobody was there," she told CNN.

However, according to The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences report (via Fox News), Bartusiak's cause of death was listed as an accidental overdose from "combined toxic effects of hydrocodone and difluoroethane with carisoprodol."

James Dean

Actor James Dean stopped by Blackwells Corner Grocery in Lost Hills, Calif. to buy a Coke and fill up the tank of his Porsche 550 Spyder on Sept. 30, 1955. A short while later, college student Donald Turnupseed veered into Dean's lane, causing a head-on collision and killing the Hollywood icon instantly. He was 24.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Rebel Without a Cause star died instantly at the scene "from a broken neck, numerous broken bones and severe lacerations over the entire body." Dean had just wrapped the filming of Giant the week of his death, a role that earned him a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His passenger in the vehicle, mechanic Rolph Wuetherich, survived and was rushed to the hospital with a fractured hip and jaw.

History reports that according to Hollywood legend, Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder was cursed. After the wrecked car was loaded onto a truck, it reportedly rolled off and crushed the legs of a mechanic. Parts of the car that were sold allegedly ended up in other vehicles that were involved in deadly car crashes. And the truck transporting the car's chassis was involved in a single-car accident that killed the truck's driver.

Brad Renfro

During the mid-90s, no other Hollywood child star was rising faster than Brad Renfro. Landing his first movie role in 1994's The Client alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, Renfro went on to star in such cult hits like Sleepers, Apt Pupil, Ghost World, and Bully. However, despite his success, Renfro struggled with heroin addiction, and started to be known more for his drug arrests than his work on the big screen. Unfortunately, we never got to see Renfro's full potential because, on Jan. 15, 2008, the versatile actor died of an accidental heroin overdose (via the Los Angeles Times). He was only 25. 

Larry Clark, who directed Renfro in Bully, recalled having to "kidnap" the troubled actor in 2000 to keep him from shooting up cocaine while they made the movie. "He kicked in the car. He had a seizure. There's nothing you can do. It doesn't last that long," Clark told the Los Angeles Times. "I've been around a lot of addicts and alcoholics, and I remember thinking at the time, this is one of the worst cases I've ever seen."

Natasha Richardson

On March 16, 2009, Tony award-winning actress Natasha Richardson fell and hit her head while taking beginner skiing lessons at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec. According to ABC News, paramedics arrived on the scene where Richardson joked about the fall, refused to be taken to the hospital, and walked back to her room. Two days later she died of an epidural hematoma due to a blunt impact to the head. She was 45.

Richardson's husband at the time, actor Liam Neeson, released a statement after her death. "Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha," the statement said. "They are profoundly grateful for the support, love, and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time."

During a 2014 interview with 60 Minutes, Neeson revealed that he still has trouble accepting her death. "She was on life support... I went into her and I told her I loved her, said, 'Sweetie, you're not coming back from this, you've banged your head," he told Anderson Cooper. "She and I had made a pact if any of us got into a vegetative state that we'd pull the plug. ... That was my immediate thought... 'Okay, these tubes have to go. She's gone.'" He also stated she "donated three of her organs" and felt she would be "thrilled and pleased" to know that she was "keeping three other people alive."

Nelsan Ellis

Rising star Nelsan Ellis died in 2017 at the age of 39 "after complications with heart failure," his manager Emily Gerson Saines told The Hollywood Reporter. "We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis," HBO said in a statement. "Nelsan was a longtime member of the HBO family whose groundbreaking portrayal of Lafayette will be remembered fondly within the overall legacy of True Blood. Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO."

After his passing, the Juilliard-trained actor's family released a statement that provided details about his untimely death. "Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own," the statement provided to Variety read. "According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control."

The family stated that Eliis was "ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it," but they wanted to make his struggles public to "serve as a cautionary tale" for others. "Nelsan was a gentle, generous, and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him," the family added.

Adrienne Shelly

Bursting onto the scene in two back-to-back films by legendary director Hal Hartley, Adrienne Shelly's performances in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust made her an indie darling. However, her love of the medium pulled her to work behind the camera instead, and she wrote and directed her first feature film in 1996, the low budget comedy Suddenly Manhattan.

Sadly, her life was cut short on Nov. 1, 2006, when she was found dead at the age of 40 in her Greenwich Village office. Initially thought to be a suicide, per The New York Times, a 19-year-old construction worker named was eventually charged for her murder. "He admits to hitting her, believes he had killed her, and wanted to fake her suicide. ... It appeared to be a suicide — he staged it as a suicide," an investigator said, adding that the detectives "never just accepted it for what it was staged to be."

Shelly's last directorial effort, Waitress, starring Nathan Fillion and Kerri Russell, premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival three months after her death. Met with rave reviews, Shelly's final film earned a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Tupac Shakur

Widely regarded as one of the greatest rappers of all time, many people forget that Tupac Shakur was also building a substantial film career. Garnering his first lead role in the 1992 crime drama Juice, Shakur went on to star alongside Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, and played the villain Birdie in 1994's Above The Rim

Unfortunately, we were never allowed to see the iconic rapper reach his full potential on the big screen because on Sept. 7, 1996, he was shot multiple times in Las Vegas and died six days later at Southern Nevada University Medical Center. He was 25.

Three of Shakur's films — 1996's Bullet with Mickey Rourke, the 1997 black comedy Gridlock'd with Tim Roth and Lucy Liu, and 1997's Gang Related where Shakur and Jim Belushi play corrupt cops — were all released after his death. The late Oscar-winning director John Singleton (who cast Shakur in Poetic Justice) envisioned Shakur being the Robert DeNiro to his Martin Scorsese. "We were going to grow together," he told Essence in 2013.

Lucy Gordon

British actress Lucy Gordon, best known for her role as reporter Jennifer Dugan in Spider-Man 3, was found dead in her Paris apartment in 2009. The cause of death was ruled a suicide, The New York Times reported. She was 28. "She's always loved being on stage and in front of the camera, and she has kept all her naturalness and charm all the way through," her father, Richard Gordon said, adding, "She has been the most beautiful daughter. We are obviously devastated."

According to the Daily Mail, Gordon left two suicide notes on her apartment and was described by neighbors as being "deeply affected" by the recent suicide of a friend. "Her death has come completely out of the blue and the entire family is devastated. Everything about how she died is just speculation at the minute, and we want to concentrate on paying tribute to our daughter," her father told the tab, adding, "We have loved her so much throughout her life. She was the light of mine, her mum's, and her sister's lives. Lucy was a lovely, generous and unselfish person who always gave so much thought to other people and put them before herself."

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Cameron Boyce

On July 6, 2019, Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce died at home in his sleep after suffering a seizure (via ABC News). He was 20. "It is with a profoundly heavy heart that we report that this morning we lost Cameron," a spokesperson for the Boyce family said in a statement. "He passed away in his sleep due to a seizure which was a result of an ongoing medical condition for which he was being treated. The world is now undoubtedly without one of its brightest lights, but his spirit will live on through the kindness and compassion of all who knew and loved him."

His family also revealed to E! News that Boyce's ongoing medical condition was epilepsy. "We are still trying to navigate our way through this extremely heart-wrenching time, and continue to ask for privacy so that the family and all who knew and loved him can grieve his loss and make arrangements for his funeral — which in and of itself, is agonizing."

Already an established Disney star, Boyce's career was poised to go mainstream, with roles in HBO's Mrs. Fletcher, and the sprawling music industry drama Paradise City. He was just 20 years old when he died. 

Bernie Mac

On Aug. 9, 2008, legendary comedian Bernie Mac died due to complications from pneumonia in his hometown of Chicago, Ill. (via People). He was 50. Mary Ann Grossett, Mac's sister-in-law, revealed The Original Kings of Comedy star suffered from an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body.

"He had sarcoidosis, but it was in remission," Grossett told the publication. "But because he had it, his immune system was compromised. He had an infection ... He was on a new medication that suppresses the immune system, and that's where the pneumonia came from." She also revealed Mac was in ICU during his entire stay in the hospital. "They tried to resuscitate him two times. One time he came back for about an hour, she said. "Then he went into cardiac arrest the second time."

A few weeks after his death, more than 6,000 people gathered at the House of Hope church in Chicago to remember and pay tribute to the iconic funny man (via The New York Times). Among those in attendance were Samuel L. Jackson, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and the then-mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley. A condolences letter written by Barack Obama was read at the service. 

John Ritter

Beloved television and film actor John Ritter died of an aortic dissection at a Burbank, Calif. hospital in 2003 after falling ill on the set of ABC's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter (via The New York Times). He was 54. The son of Tex Ritter, a Western film star and country musician, and star of the iconic '70s sitcom Three's Company, the Emmy award-winning actor "experienced severe nausea and vomiting" during set rehearsals and was rushed to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center (via Today). 

Ritter's wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, recalled that tragic day. "He was smiling at me. And I said ... 'I love you,'" she recalled, adding that Ritter said "I love you" back in American Sign Language. "And he held it as he went around the corner," she said. "That's the last time I saw him till I saw him dead after he died."

Ritter's son, actor Jason Ritter, revealed the life lesson that stuck with him the most. "My dad, I think one of the most important things he taught me is that sometimes the idea of celebrity, it can feel nice but it can't ever really take the place of true friends and family and things like that," the younger Ritter said during an appearance on People Now. "It's important to have friends go, 'Hey, calm down.'"

Brittany Murphy

With her breakthrough role as Tai Frasier in 1995's cult classic Clueless, Brittany Murphy was a star on the rise. Murphy was active throughout the decade with independent films and a Broadway debut, then transitioned to stardom in the 2000s with roles in 8 Mile, Sin City, and Happy Feet. And who can forget her long-running turn as the voice of Luanne Platter in the animated series King of the Hill?

At the age of 32, her future looked bright but on Dec. 20, 2009, emergency responders fielded "a medical request" at the actress' home (via the Los Angeles Times). She was later pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after going into cardiac arrest. Even more shocking than the news of Murphy's passing was The Los Angeles County coroner ruling that Murphy's death was "accidental," caused "by a combination of pneumonia, an iron deficiency, and 'multiple drug intoxication,'" according to CNN

The full autopsy report obtained by CNN stated that multiple antibiotics and cold medicines were found in Murphy's system, which the coroner suggested was a "pattern of use" in order to fight "a cold or other respiratory infection." Roughly three months after Murphy's death, her husband Simon Monjack was found dead in the same house. His autopsy results showed he died in a similar way to Murphy — of "acute pneumonia and severe anemia" (via CNN).

Jonathan Brandis

With roles in The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, Ladybugs, Sidekicks, and the popular sci-fi series SeaQuest DSV, Jonathan Brandis cemented himself as the teen heartthrob in the mid-'90s. He was hoping for a career comeback in 2002's Hart's War starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, but most of his scenes were cut from the film, according to LA Weekly. A year later, on Nov. 11, 2003, Brandis was found in his Los Angeles apartment after an apparent suicide attempt. He died the next day.

According to E! Online, Brandis' death was later officially ruled a suicide, but he did not leave a note. "Speculations as to the underlying cause of this tragedy are exactly that: speculations. It serves no purpose to leap to conclusions for none of us will really know what led Jonathan to his decision to take his life," said Paul Peterson, president of A Minor Consideration, a foundation that offers support to young actors. 

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Dominque Dunne

The daughter of producer Dominick Dunne and brother of actor Griffin Dunne, Dominique Dunne was set for superstardom after landing her first movie role in the iconic horror film Poltergeist. But while her career looked bright, her personal life was not. Although she ended her romantic relationship with the violently abusive and possessive chef John Thomas Sweeney, he continued to terrorize her. On October 30, 1982, Sweeney arrived at her Santa Monica, Calif. home uninvited, where he proceeded to choke her and throw her limp body on the driveway (via People).

After spending five days on life support machines due to heart failure and no brain activity, her family removed her from the machines and she died instantly. She was 22. Sweeney was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. After only serving three and half years of this six-year sentence, Sweeney was hired as the head chef of The Chronicle in Santa Monica three months after his release (via Medium). Dunne's brother Griffin and her mother, Lenny, handed out flyers to patrons that read: "The food you will eat tonight was cooked by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne." Sweeney eventually quit the job and moved from Los Angeles.