Gone Before 30: Stars Who Died Young

Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro's deaths are the latest to hit young stars.

ByABC News
January 22, 2008, 10:20 PM

Jan. 29, 2008 — -- It's as common in Hollywood as the rags-to-riches tale: stories of stars who died young.

Actor Heath Ledger, who died Jan. 22 in New York, and Brad Renfro, who died just one week earlier, join the ranks of artists, actors and musicians who died before their 30th birthdays, often during the prime of their careers.

Heath Ledger, 28

Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Jan. 22, surrounded by bottles of prescription drugs. An initial autopsy was inconclusive, and a medical examiner said further tests would be needed to determine Ledger's cause of death. The actor, recently separated from actress Michelle Williams, his former fiance and mother of his 2-year-old daughter, is expected to be remembered as one of best of his generation. He got an Oscar nomination for playing a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain" and is slated to appear as the Joker in the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," this summer..

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." 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.

In December 2005, Renfro was arrested during an undercover drug sweep in Los Angeles and charged with attempted possession of heroin. He later admitted to having used heroin and methadone and was sentenced to three years' probation. Renfro went to rehab in 2006, but in 2007 he violated his probation by not enrolling in a long-term drug treatment program, People magazine reported. He was found dead in a Los Angeles apartment Jan. 15 after a night of drinking, according to the Los Angeles county coroner. An official cause of death has yet to be determined.

Aaliyah, 22

Aaliyah Dana Haughton, known simply as Aaliyah by hip-hop and R&B fans, was one of the industry's most promising female stars. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she appeared on "Star Search" at age 10 and performed with Gladys Knight at age 11. But it was her debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number," that got the attention of hip-hop heavyweights. The album went platinum within months.

R. Kelly, the singer who helped write and produce Aaliyah's album, married the 14-year-old singer. (He was 27 at the time.) Vibe magazine published a copy of their Illinois marriage license, dated Aug. 31, 1994, which showed the starlet's age had been listed as 18. Their marriage was annulled in February 1995. Aaliyah went on to release "One in a Million" at age 17, which was certified double-platinum within a year. She followed that up with "Aaliyah" in July 2001, after landing her first major film role in 2000's "Romeo Must Die." One month later, shortly after wrapping production of her music video for the single "Rock the Boat" in the Bahamas, Aaliyah and members of her record company boarded a small plane to fly back to the United States. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and all aboard were killed.

The Notorious B.I.G., 24

Chris Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls or Big Poppa, lived up to his various nicknames. He was a force to be reckoned with in the rap world and remains an enormous influence a decade after his death. Brooklyn born and bred, Wallace dropped out of school at age 17 and turned to a life of crime. He spent nine months in prison for dealing crack. Soon after getting out in 1992, he parlayed his amateur rhymes into a record contract and started working with some of the biggest names in the business: Sean "Puffy" Combs, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige and Tupac Shakur.

His 1994 album "Ready to Die" came at a time when the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry was going strong, and according to Rolling Stone, Biggie shifted the focus back to New York. This created tension with Shakur, who was leading the West Coast rap scene at the time. When Shakur was shot to death in September 1996, rumors swirled about Biggie's involvement, though he denied all allegations. In March 1997, while in California to promote his upcoming album, Biggie, 24, was shot to death while riding with his entourage in a GMC Suburban. His murder remains unsolved, and in 2007 his relatives filed a second wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. A movie chronicling his life is due out in 2009.

Tupac Shakur, 25

Like Wallace, Tupac Shakur's death was a tragedy of the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry. Though he hailed from Harlem, Shakur began rapping in California in the early 1990s. He released his first solo album, "2Pacalypse Now," in 1991 and formed the group Thug Life in 1993. As he gained fame, Shakur ran into legal troubles: He was accused of sexually abusing a woman in '93 and convicted of attacking a former employer in 1994.

In November 1994, Shakur was shot five times and robbed in the lobby of a New York recording studio. While serving a prison sentence for sexual abuse charges, Shakur released "Me Against the World," which went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. After getting out of jail, suspicious that former friend Biggie Smalls set him up for the '94 shooting, Shakur railed on Biggie and his associates on the track "Hit 'Em Up." On Sept. 7, 1996, while driving through Las Vegas with his entourage, Shakur was shot 12 to 13 times in a drive-by shooting. He died six days later of internal bleeding. Shakur's death remains a mystery, though some speculate Biggie was involved in the murder. Biggie's family has vehemently denied those claims. More than 10 years after his death, Shakur remains a hip-hop legend. He's been named the highest-selling rap artist by the Guinness Book of World Records, with more than 75 million albums sold worldwide.

Kurt Cobain, 27

Cobain, frontman for the iconic grunge band Nirvana, was a symbolic figure during the shift from the glam/pop rock of the 1980s toward early 1990s alternative rock with the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit," considered by many to be the anthem of Generation X. Some viewed him as the unofficial spokesman for '90s teens and 20-somethings, but Cobain turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the media, years of depression, chronic bronchitis and mysterious stomach pains. Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, shooting himself in the head in his home on Seattle's Lake Washington after leaving a one-day stay at a rehab center in Los Angeles. He died at age 27, leaving behind wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain.

Sid Vicious, 21

Alan Jones once said, "Sid, on image alone, is what all punk rests on." Sex Pistols' bass player and eventual solo artist Sid Vicious otherwise known as John Simon Ritchie was everything that the punk movement stood for: excess, anarchy, violence, total and absolute destructiveness and apathy. His personal philosophy of "live fast, die young" led him to a precarious lifestyle of drug use. After the suspicious death of his then-girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a New York hotel room, which Vicious said he could not recall because of a drugged stupor he was in that night, he was arrested, hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital for an attempted suicide, released, then sent to Rikers Island jail for assault. While there, he was weaned off his heroin addiction and released Feb. 1, 1979. Upon returning home, Vicious obtained heroin from his mother and overdosed that night. He was revived once only to have his heart slow to a stop. In the end, his death at 21 further romanticized his tragic life of junkie glamour.

Jim Morrison, 27

Morrison called a "rock god" by the music industry to this day was a poet, writer and film director as well as the lead singer and lyricist for psychedelic rock band The Doors. He was born into a military family, and his nomadic childhood helped shape his music. Morrison credited a car accident he saw as a young child, in which a group of American Indians were injured or possibly killed, as one of the most formative experiences of his life. (He wrote about the accident in the Doors songs "Peace Frog" and "The Ghost Song.")

Morrison joined The Doors in 1965 and released six studio albums with the band before moving to Paris in 1971, where depression may have led him to develop a heroin addiction. He died in Paris in July 1971 at age 27 from what many believe was a heroin overdose. The absence of an official autopsy has left unanswered many questions surrounding his death.

Janis Joplin, 27

Ranked No. 46 in Rolling Stone's 2004 list of the 50 Greatest Artists of All Time, Janis Joplin was an accomplished singer and songwriter in the 1960s hippie heyday. While her career break came as the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company in the '60s, she truly became famous as a solo artist singing the blues, folk music and rock. But behind her rich, powerful voice and great lyrical talents was a troubled star. Joplin was reported to have been deeply concerned about how the public would receive her and became prone to drinking and using drugs as a way to cope with her nerves. Sometime between late night Oct. 3 and early Oct. 4, 1970, Joplin, 27, died in a Los Angeles hotel room. The cause of death was determined to be a heroin overdose, possibly accelerated with alcohol. Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

James Dean, 24

James Dean was the original "rebel without a cause," a rising star who lived life in the fast line. 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. He was 24 years old.

River Phoenix, 23

Critically acclaimed but deeply tormented, River Phoenix was one of the brightest young actors of the 1980s and '90s. The Oregon-born star broke into Hollywood in the 1985 movie "Explorers," but it was his 1986 role in "Stand By Me" that made the industry and the public take notice of his talents. He scored a best supporting actor award from the National Board of Review for his role in 1988's "Running on Empty," and played a young Indiana Jones alongside Harrison Ford in '89's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." As his profile grew, Phoenix attached himself to a variety of causes, campaigning for PETA and endangered rain forests. Despite the actor's success, Phoenix's tumultuous childhood haunted him. In 1991, he told Details magazine that he lost his virginity at age 4 while in the Children of God, a religious cult his family belonged to in the early 1970s and that he reportedly suffered from depression. On Oct. 31, 1993, Phoenix died after overdosing on cocaine and heroin at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. He was 23 years old. Phoenix's legacy lives on in his younger brother Joaquin Phoenix, who won a Golden Globe for his role in 2005's "Walk the Line."

Selena, 23

Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, best known by her first name, was a Latin music sensation and crossover pop sensation in the United States. She began her singing career at the age of 6. Three years later, Selena's father made her the lead singer of the family band he founded, Selena y Los Dinos. Performing every gig they could get their hands on paid off when Selena landed her first record deal at the age of 12, recording her debut album for a local record company. She grew to be insanely popular with the Latin community and quickly reached star status, with a devoted fan club. With her musical success, Selena gained the financial means to launch her own fashion line. At the peak of the singer's career, her family discovered that the president of Selena's fan club and manager of her boutique, Yolanda Saldívar, had been pocketing income from the star's funds. Selena decided to confront Saldívar about the situation while collecting papers for tax purposes at a hotel in Corpus Christi, Texas. Saldívar refused to give Selena the papers and then shot her in the back. The singer was taken to a hospital, but she had lost too much blood. Her voice went quiet at age 23.