20 Stars Who Died Way Too Young
by Reannon Muth
While it’s a tragedy when any young person dies, when stars die before their time, the ripple can be felt around the world. Celebrity deaths in particular serve as an uncomfortable reminder that our time on the planet is finite. None of us will live forever. And none of us—no matter how rich, famous or talented—are immune to unfortunate circumstance. What the following 20 starlets’ stories can teach us, however, is to cherish the time we have.
Sadly, the world will never know if Heather O’Rourke would’ve become an award-winning actress because she died at the tender age of 12, before her acting career could take off. If you don’t immediately recognize O’Rourke’s white-blonde locks and blue eyes, you might remember her from her famous line in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist: “They’re heeeere!” O’Rourke also made guest appearances in several TV shows, including Happy Days. O’Rouke died in San Diego on January 31, 1988, after she went into sceptic shock and cardiac arrest due to a misdiagnosed congenital intestinal stenosis. She died on the operating table.
Lee Thompson Young
Best known for his lead role in The Disney Channel’s “The Famous Jett Jackson,” Lee Thompson Young showed a lot of promise as an actor, even earning a Young Artist Award nomination. He stars in several films and television shows, including “Friday Night Lights” and TNT drama “Rizzoli & Isles,” but his career success was not enough to keep Young’s chronic depression at bay. Young, who had been seeking help for his bipolar disorder, was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment August 19, 2013. An investigation confirmed the 29-year-old had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death was ruled a suicide.
Brad Renfro made his acting debut at the age of 11, when he starred alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the critically-acclaimed The Client. Renfro had been cast in the role because his of convincing ability to portray a “tough” kid who had “grown up too fast.” Perhaps art was imitating life, because soon after, Renfro fell into trouble with the law. He was only 15 when he was first arrested for drugs and was arrested several more times on drug and theft-related charges over the next 10 years. Despite his struggles with substance abuse, Renfro managed to complete more than 20 films, including The Cure and Sleepers. Tragically, Renfro never lived to see 30; he died of an accidental heroin overdose on January 15, 2008. He was just 25.
Although Brittany Murphy won high praise for her roles in Girl, Interrupted, and 8 Mile, she will always be best known for playing the loveable airhead Tai Frasier in 1995 teen comedy Clueless. When Murphy died on December 20, 2009, rumors circulated that the 32-year-old star suffered from anorexia and a cocaine addiction. According to the coroner’s report, however, Murphy’s death was due to natural causes: pneumonia and anemia. In a strange and sad twist, Murphy’s husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, died five months later, also from pneumonia and anemia. Coincidence? Some people, including Murphy’s father, speculate Murphy and Monjack may have been poisoned.
Singer, actress, and model Aaliyah first catapulted into the spotlight at the age 10, when she performed on “Star Search.” She signed her first record deal two years later, launching a career that would include hit songs like “Are You That Somebody?” and a spot on VH1’s Greatest Women in Music list. Music critics speculate that she might have been the next Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson; she was that talented. Directer Michael Rymer described Aaliyah as a woman with “such a clarity about what she wanted. Nothing was gonna step in her way. No ego, no nervousness, no manipulation. There was nothing to stop her.” Nothing, that is, until August 25, 2001, when Aaliyah boarded a plane in the Bahamas; a plane that crashed into the airport runway moments after taking off, killing the singer and all on board. Aaliyah was only 22.
As the daughter of five generations of British acting stars, one could say Natasha Richardson was born to be an actor. Over her nearly 40-year career, Richardson won several prestigious theater awards, including a Tony for her performance in the Broadway musical Cabaret. She also starred in several films including The Handmaid’s Tale, The Parent Trap, and Maid in Manhattan. Richardson’s life was tragically cut short in March 2009 during a ski trip in Quebec, when Richardson fell and hit her head. Though she seemed fine in the hours after the accident, the fall caused a traumatic brain injury that later proved fatal. Richardson passed away at a hospital in Manhattan at the age of 45.
For a singer of romantic classics like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Let’s Get It On,” the circumstances surrounding Gaye’s death were startingly violent. Gaye was fatally shot by his own father, Marvin Gaye Sr., when he attempted to interrupt a fight between his parents. Gaye died April 1, 1984 at the age of 44. He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Actor Corey Monteith, who played singing jock heartthrob Finn Hudson on Glee, was just 31 when he died of an accidental heroin and alcohol overdose on July 13, 2013. Montheith’s death was particularly tragic given the fact that, at the time, Monteith was actively trying to stay clean. He’d entered rehab in April 2013, just three months before he was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room.
When the news broke on January 22, 2008 that Heath Ledger had died of an accidental prescription pill overdose, fans were shocked. The 28-year-old Australian thespian, who famously played the Joker in The Dark Knight, was more than just a pretty face, he was a true acting talent, as was evidenced by his highly regarded performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot. Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight.
Though Paul Walker had rocketed to fame playing a street-racing cop in the Fast & Furious films, it was a ride in the passenger seat that would lead to his untimely death. On November 30, 2013, Walker and his friend Roger Rodas were killed instantly when their car crashed into a light pole and burst into flames. The 40-year-old star was not only known for his baby-faced good looks, but for also for his humanitarian efforts as well. In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, for example, Walker personally flew to both countries to help victims. Walker’s Fast co-star Vin Diesel named his daughter Pauline, in a tribute to his late friend.
Soul singer Amy Winehouse did not live a long life, but she lived a full one, becoming the first British female to win five Grammy awards. Ironically, the “Rehab” singer was famous for her intoxicated performances and incoherrant interviews, but friends and family remember her as a generous spirit. Winehouse donated much of her wealth and time to charity. She once covered the full medical expenses of a sick man she met on the beach in St. Lucia. Winehouse was found dead at her home in London, England on July 23, 2011. She died of alcohol poisoning at just 27 years old.
Though Buckley only lived long enough to produce one album, Grace, he left his mark on songwriting greats like Bob Dylan, who pronounced Buckley to be “one of the great songwriters of this decade.” David Bowie once professed to Pulse Magazine that Grace would be one of the albums he’d want with him if he were stranded on a deserted island. Buckley’s career was cut short on May 29, 1997 when drowned during an impromptu night swim. No drugs or alcohol were found in Buckley’s system and, according to eyewitnesses, Buckley seemed to be in good health and state of mind when he entered the water, fully clothed. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.
Rapper Christopher Wallace, or Notorous B.I.G. as he was most famously known, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in March 1997 in California. The shooting remains unsolved today. In a eery bit of foreshadowing, Wallace had named his second—and last—album “Life After Death.” He died at the age of 24, and his album was released just two weeks later.
Unlike some of the other celebrities on this list, Robin Williams, who was 63 at the time of his death, did not die young. Williams had a successful career and family life, starring in over 50 films—one of which won him an Oscar and Golden Globe—and fathering three children. However, Williams death tragic left audiences with a lingering sense that although his film career had been full and notable, it still ended abruptly, and entirely too soon. Though Williams had suffered from addiction in the past and was clinically depressed at the time of his death, his suicide was thought to have been brought on by Parkinsons disease, which resulted in anxiety, paranoia, and dementia.
Mexican-American singer Selena was once named by Billboard magazine as the “top Latin artist of the ’90s” and the “best-selling Latin artist of the decade.” On March 31, 1995, when Selena was just 23 years old, the singer, songwriter, and “Queen of Tejano music” was fatally shot by the founder of her fan club in a motel in Corpus Christi, Texas. After her death, her first English-crossover album was released, reaching record-breaking sales and winning awards, including “Female Pop Album of the Year” at the Billboard Latin Music Awards. If Selena had lived, it’s likely she would have gone far. She was a trailblazer, paving the way for other Latina pop singers including Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
Child actor Rob Knox, who played Marcus Belby in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, died in 2008 outside a London pub at the young age of 18. Despite the location, Knox wasn’t the victim of overdose or addiction. Knox was murdered; stabbed while attempting to protect his younger brother during a fight. Tragically, he died at the beginning of what might have been a promising career. He’d been acting in small television and film roles since he was 11 and was ready to reprise his Potter role in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.
Though Otis Redding was recognized as a talented soul singer when he released the 1962 hit “These Arms of Mine,” it wasn’t until “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” hit airwaves in the late ’60s that Redding became a household name. Unfortunately, however, Redding wasn’t alive to see his dream of super stardom become a reality. On December 10, 1967, just one month before the single was released, the 26-year-old Redding was killed in a plane crash. “The Dock of the Bay” went on to sell four million copies worldwide and win two Grammy awards.
Though Tupac Shakur was only 25 when he was killed in a drive-by shooting, he’d already accomplished more than many accomplish in a lifetime. In the five years since the start of his music career, Shakur recorded five studio albums and acted in seven films. Rolling Stone named Shakur “one of the greatest artists of all time” and his record sales have earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, as the highest-selling rap artist in the world. To date, Shakur has sold 75 million albums and continues to break records even in death. Seven of his 11 platinum-selling albums have been released posthumously; landing Shakur on Forbes’ list of top-earning dead celebrities.
Michael Clarke Duncan
Michael Clarke Duncan worked in Hollywood for years before he started acting, mostly in security. Before his breakout role in the 1998 film Armaggedon, he served as a bodyguard for Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Notorious B.I.G., among others. But after Notororious B.I.G’s mysterious murder in 1997, Duncan quit and turned his focus to acting, starring in Blockbuster hits like The Whole Nine Yards and Planet of the Apes. He was even nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award for his role as gentle prison inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile. At the age of 54, Duncan’s career ended suddenly when he suffered a heart attack. Despite his girlfriend’s attempts at CPR, Duncan passed away in the hospital in Los Angeles on September 3, 2012.
When 23-year-old actor River Phoenix went into drug-induced convulsions outside of The Viper Room in Hollywood, people were suprised. The Stand By Me actor had a clean image. He’d been recently nominated for an Academy Award and was a well-publicized vegan and environmental rights activitist. A drug overdose simply hadn’t seemed in his cards. And yet, on October 31, 1993, shortly after exiting the famous Hollywood nightclub, Phoenix collapsed. He died on the sidewalk of heart failure. Prior to Phoenix’s death, all signs pointed to a long and successful career; he’d landed roles in Interview with a Vampire and Milk, among others. There had even been rumors he’d star in The Basketball Diaries, a part that would become one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakout roles.