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13 Dark Stories About Popular Actors Who Died In Their 20s

Every single one a tragedy.

Note: Mentions of suicide as well as some graphic content ahead.

1. Anton Yelchin, 27

Closeup of Anton Yelchin

What happened:

According to the LA Times, "The actor was killed [in 2016] when his 2015 Cherokee rolled backward down a driveway of his Los Angeles home, pinning him between a mailbox and a security fence."

Yelchin's parents ended up filing a lawsuit with Fiat Chrysler (the makers of the Jeep Grand Cherokee). That Cherokee model apparently was among 1.1 million vehicles recalled just two months earlier because "regulators said its gear shifters were confusing drivers, causing the SUVs to roll away unexpectedly and leading to dozens of injuries."

According to the lawsuit, Yelchin was not only crushed but "lingered alive for some time, trapped and suffocating until his death." Yelchin's parents, Viktor and Irina Yelchin, reached a confidential settlement with Fiat Chrysler in 2018.

2. Jonathan Brandis, 27

Closeup of Jonathan Brandis

What happened:

Brandis died by suicide on November 12, 2003 at his home in Los Angeles.

The LAPD released the following statement regarding Brandis's death: "On Nov. 11, 2003, at about 11:40 p.m., a friend of Jonathan Brandis called police to report that the actor had attempted suicide at his apartment, located in the 600 block of Detroit Avenue. Paramedics from the Los Angeles Fire Department responded and transported Brandis to Cedars Sinai Medical Center where he eventually died from his injuries. Brandis was pronounced dead by hospital staff on Nov. 12, 2003, at about 2:45 p.m."

In an interview with People, Brandis's father Greg Brandis said, "Jonathan was very smart, and he was very polite and always easygoing. ... In a sad way, he was probably bipolar. [His death] wasn't due to the entertainment industry. I look back now, and in his 20s, he showed signs of manic depression. I hope that anyone suffering can go get help."

3. Thuy Trang, 27

Thuy Trang in her yellow ranger costume

What happened:

Trang died in a car accident on September 3, 2001.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Trang, best known as the yellow Power Ranger, had been traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles with her friend Angela Rockwood, for whom she was to serve as a bridesmaid, when their vehicle — which was being driven by another bridesmaid — swerved off the road and hit the roadside rock face."

In 2018, some of her fellow Power Rangers cast mates shared fond memories of Trang with Entertainment Weekly. "'[Original Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson] was the person who called to tell me,' recalls original Blue Ranger David Yost. 'I was so shocked. I remember calling Thuy’s voicemail a few times after I found out just to hear her voice and leave her a message saying I’ll miss her. Learning about her early childhood and everything she and her family went through leaving Vietnam, becoming refugees and immigrating to the United States, I admired her and her family’s strength to rebuild their lives here. I’ll always remember her great laugh and infectious smile.'"

4. Heath Ledger, 28

Closeup of Heath Ledger

What happened:

Ledger died on January 22, 2008, in an apartment in SoHo that he had been renting. The New York chief medical examiner ruled that he had died of "an accidental overdose of prescription medications that included painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs." He was 28 years old.

In an Associated Press report, Ledger's uncle, Neil Bell, said the family was shocked: “He was in good spirits and having a wonderful time on this Terry Gilliam movie (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)."

Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law ended up stepping in for Ledger, playing "transformations" of his character as he travels through a dream world, in order to help complete the film. At the time, Gilliam said, "Each of the parts played by Johnny, Colin, and Jude is representative of the many aspects of the character that Heath was playing."

5. Aaliyah, 22

Closeup of Aaliyah

What happened:

Aaliyah died on August 25, 2001, alongside eight other passengers in a small plane crash in the Bahamas. 

According to the New York Times, "Aaliyah died on her way back to Miami from the Abaco Islands, where she had finished working on the video for her latest album’s third single, 'Rock the Boat,' directed by Hype Williams."

Later, an investigation into the crash revealed that the pilot had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his body. It was also found that the plane was at least 700 pounds overweight and had been loaded with one more passenger than it was certified to carry.

In 2003, Aaliyah's parents reached an undisclosed settlement in a negligence lawsuit. According to Billboard, the parents sued plane operator Blackhawk International Airways Corp., owners Skystream Inc. and Gilbert Chacon, and flight broker Atlantic Flight Group. Blackhawk did not have permission from the Bahamas for commercial flights."

6. Brad Renfro, 25

Closeup of Brad Renfro

What happened:

Renfro died on January 15, 2008 of an overdose of heroin and morphine. According to the Hollywood Reporter, paramedics had been called to his home at 9 a.m., and he was pronounced dead by the coroner at noon.

Renfro had a history of struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. In a highly-publicized 2005 incident, Renfro was arrested in Los Angeles's Skid Row for allegedly trying to buy heroin. And then in 2006, "he spent 10 days in jail after pleading no-contest to driving while intoxicated and pleading guilty to attempted possession of heroin," according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Renfro was finally laid to rest in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee a week later. "The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that more than 600 people attended the funeral and closed-casket viewing at the Stevens Mortuary in North Knoxville, where a simple arrangement of red, white, and yellow flowers sat next to the casket along with a photograph of the star in his younger, happier days."

7. Selena Quintanilla Pérez, 23

Closeup of Selena Quintanilla-Perez

What happened:

Selena died on March 31, 1995, after being shot and killed at a Corpus Christi, Texas motel.

The New York Times reported, "Shortly after 9:30 p.m., a 32-year-old woman identified by the young singer's father as the former president of her fan club abruptly surrendered after keeping the police at bay for nearly 10 hours as she sat in a red pickup truck in the motel parking lot with a  gun pointed at her temple. Hundreds of people who had congregated in the cold drizzle watched as she was rushed off in a police car, surrounded by officers."

Selena's funeral was held on April 2, 1995 and, according to the New York Times, a crowd of 3,000 people attended the event at the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center, which was "billed as a silent prayer service in memory of the singer."

Yolanda Saldivar, the former president of Selena's fan club and her killer, is currently serving her life sentence at Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. She is eligible for parole on March 30, 2025.

8. Freddie Prinze, 22

Closeup of Freddie Prinze

What happened:

Prinze died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on January 29, 1977. 

According to the New York Times, the television star (and father of Freddie Prinze Jr.) "died at the UCLA Medical Center 33 hours after shooting himself in the head in front of his business agent."

Also, according to the New York Times, Prinze "had just hung up the telephone after talking to his estranged wife, Kathy, mother of his 10-month‐old son, Freddie Jr." He never regained consciousness after firing the gun.

The funeral service for the 22‐year‐old star of Chico and the Man was held at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills a couple days later on January 31.

9. River Phoenix, 23

Closeup of River Phoenix

What happened:

Phoenix died on October 31, 1993, outside the Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood, California. According to an autopsy report, there was "acute multiple drug intoxication including lethal levels of cocaine and morphine." 

According to Variety, "Sheriff’s Deputy Diane Hecht said Phoenix was leaving the Viper Room in West Hollywood at about 1 a.m. when he fell to the ground. Friends reported that Phoenix was 'acting strange.' Paramedics rushed him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m."

In an interview with the Guardian, Phoenix's girlfriend at the time, actor Samantha Mathis recounted, "I knew he (Phoenix) was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything."

The same article continued, "When Mathis came out of the bathroom, she saw what she thought was Phoenix in a scuffle with another man, and the two of them being pushed out of the club’s side door by a bouncer. When she went out on to the street after them, she saw Phoenix drop to the ground and go into convulsions on the pavement."

"Mathis desperately tried to get back into the club to get help, but the side door was firmly shut. So she ran around to the main door, searched through the club for Phoenix’s siblings, and they all dashed outside. Joaquin (River's brother) called 911 for help in a phone call that would almost immediately be leaked to news stations."

10. Brandon Lee, 28

Closeup of Brandon Lee

What happened:

Lee died on March 31, 1993, after being shot on the set of The Crow with a gun that was supposed to fire blanks. He was 28 years old.

According to the New York Times, while filming a scene for The Crow, "The tip of a .44-caliber bullet had become lodged in the gun’s barrel in filming a close-up scene and dislodged when a blank cartridge was fired. The bullet pierced Mr. Lee’s abdomen, damaging several organs and lodging in his spine." 

In October of 1993, Brandon's mother, Linda Lee Cadwell settled a negligence lawsuit against filmmakers of The Crow for an undisclosed sum.

11. Sharon Tate, 26

Closeup of Sharon Tate

What happened:

Tate, along with four others, were murdered by members of the Manson Family cult on August 9, 1969.

An article in the New York Times from Aug. 10, 1969 reported, "Five persons, including the actress Sharon Tate, were found this morning brutally murdered in a home in a secluded area of Beverly Hills. The home, perched on a wooded hillside overlooking the city of Los Angeles, was being rented by Miss Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, the movie director, who was in London at the time writing a script for a new movie."

"The other victims were identified as Jay Sebring, a men's hair stylist well known in Hollywood social circles; Voytek Frykowski, a Polish film director said to be a close friend of Mr. Polanski; Mr. Frykowski's girlfriend, Abigail Folger, a member of the Folger coffee family, and a fifth man who remained unidentified." The fifth victim was later identified as Steven Parent, an 18‐year‐old friend of Tate's caretaker. It was also later revealed that Tate had been pregnant at the time.

The three main people who actually committed the Tate murders, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Tex Watson, were all sentenced to death. Atkins died in prison in 2009. Krenwinkel is still serving time in California, and a state panel recently (on June 15, 2022) recommended her for parole. Watson is also still serving time at a correctional facility in San Diego and was denied parole (for the 18th time) in December 2021.

12. James Dean, 24

Closeup of James Dean

What happened:

Dean died in a car accident on September 30, 1955, in California.

According to the BBC, "The actor was behind the wheel of his German-made Porsche sports car when it was involved in a head-on collision with another car 30 miles (48 km) east of Paso Robles."

As reported by the New York Times in 1955, "A spokesman for Warner Brothers, for whom Mr. Dean had just completed Giant, said he had no details of the accident except that the actor was en route to a sports car meeting at Salinas."

13. Edie Sedgwick, 28

Closeup of Edie Sedgwick

What happened:

Sedgwick died at her home on November 16, 1971 of barbiturate intoxication.

Sedgwick was an heiress and best known as an Andy Warhol "superstar" and "it girl" through the mid-1960s. Sedgwick struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and mental health throughout the majority of her life. In fact, she met her future husband, Michael Post, a fellow patient, in the psychiatric wing of a hospital.

According to the Independent, "On 14 November, she went to a fashion show [...] A man she met that evening said she asked to come and see him the next day for a chat, but they would need to have sex first; otherwise, she'd be too nervous to talk. The next morning, her husband woke to find her dead beside him. Whether her death was an accident or suicide, the coroner was unable to determine."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, can be reached at 1-866-488-7386.