The totally unexpected and tragic accidental death on Sunday of Anton Yelchin is the kind of silly-yet-fatal mistake that gives us pause and encourages us to reflect on how short life can be. These young stars had lots ahead of them when their lives ends, but they had each achieved a level of success and stardom that will forever speak to the potential and possibility had their lives not been cut short.
Anton Yelchin, 27
The rising actor best known for playing Chekov in the new STAR TREK films, was killed by his own car as it rolled down his driveway early Sunday. Yelchin began acting as a child, taking small roles in independent films and various television shows, such as “ER,” ”The Practice,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” His breakout big-screen role came opposite Anthony Hopkins in 2001’s HEARTS IN ATLANTIS. He transitioned into teen roles in films such as the crime thriller ALPHA DOG and the comedy CHARLIE BARTLETT. He also played a young Kyle Reese in 2009’s TERMINATOR SALVATION. Yelchin, an only child, was born in Russia. His parents were professional figure skaters who moved the family to the United States when Yelchin was a baby.
James Dean, 24
James Dean was the original young star who burned bright and then died too soon. The Indiana-born actor solidified his A-List status through movies including EAST OF EDEN, GIANT and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Despite his fame, Dean reportedly dealt with severe mood swings and depression that resulted in erratic behavior, including heavy use of alcohol and drugs. Besides acting in big screen productions, Dean also took up an auto racing career, coming in second in the Palm Springs Road Races and third in Bakersfield in 1955. On his way to another race on Sept. 30, 1955, Dean died in a head-on collision.
Heath Ledger, 28
Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment from an overdose of prescription painkillers and other drugs. Considered to be one the best actors of his generation, Ledger received an Oscar nomination for playing a gay cowboy in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and won a posthumous OSCAR for is unforgettable turn as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. Ledger is one of only two actors to win an Academy Award posthumously; the other was Peter Finch who died after a heart attack at age 60.
Brad Renfro, 25
Renfro made his acting debut in 1994 at age 11, playing the title role in THE CLIENT alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. He went to on star with Brad Pitt, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Bacon and Dustin Hoffman in the 1996 film SLEEPERS and starred opposite Ian McKellen in APT PUPIL (1998), directed by Bryan Singer. Renfro quickly became a teen heartthrob, and his acting talents had critics thinking he’d last in Hollywood. But legal troubles and struggles with drugs and alcohol hindered his prospects, between 2005 and 2007 he was in and out of jail and rehab for drugs. On January 15, 2008 he was found dead from a heroin overdose.
River Phoenix, 23
Millennials have Heath Ledger; Generation X had River Phoenix. Phoenix began acting at age 10 and made 24 movies before his tragedy death from a drug overdose on the sidewalk in front of Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. His first notable role in 1986’s coming-of-age classic STAND BY ME. Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with his brief but memorable turn as young Indiana Jones in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, playing the son of fugitive parents in RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), which earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and playing a gay hustler in search of his estranged mother in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991). He and his brother Joaquin Phoenix hold the distinction of being the first and only brothers to be nominated for acting Academy Awards.
John Belushi, 33
Belushi is often seen as the example that proves the old adage “Comedians tend toward untimely deaths more often than actors (but not as much as musicians)”. The star of THE BLUES BROTHERS died in 1982 after overdosing on a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and speed at LA’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel. Belushi was near the top of both the acting and the comedy game when he died, following the success of THE BLUES BROTHERS, supposedly Dan Aykroyd had intended big parts for Belushi in both GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and SPIES LIKE US.
Chris Farley, 33
Farley idolized John Belushi. He followed his hero’s path to both SNL and an early grave: same age (33), same reason (overdose). Also, similarly, Farley had big things ahead: he was originally cast as the voice of Shrek. Instead, he’ll always be Tommy Boy.
Bruce Lee, 32
Where would martial arts films be without Bruce Lee? His films are classics and he helped people rethink the way actors of Asian descent could be portrayed in film. The martial arts expert and film star died of a cerebral edema in 1973. His death continues to be shrouded in mystery, a fact that only adds to his legend.
Brandon Lee, 28
Bruce Lee’s son Brandon, who starred in THE CROW, was shot dead at the age of 28 in a crazy accident while filming that movie. Brandon is one of the most well-known cases of an actor who died too soon. The events surrounding his demise are also stunning: he was shot accidentally on set by a gun that had been improperly handled and was supposed to be loaded with blanks but had enough of an actual bullet lodged inside that when it was fired at Lee from nearly point blank range, the result was fatal.
Freddie Prinze, 22
Kids today best know Freddie Prinze as the father of Freddie Prinze Jr., but at the time of his death, the original Freddie was on the brink of being a huge comedic star. He had just signed a massive $6 million deal with NBC. Unfortunately, marital problems and substance abuse led to depression and he shot and killed himself — in front of his business manager no less. Freddie is also the youngest actor on the list, making his story one of the most tragic.