Brad Renfro: Inside the Actor's Shocking Death at 25 and Quick Rise to Fame

Venice 2001 - "Bully" Portraits
Photo: J. Vespa/WireImage

It’s been nearly a decade since the tragic death of former child actor Brad Renfro. During his too-short career he made over 20 movies, the last one being 2008’s The Informers, where he starred alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Winona Ryder. The Apt Pupil star was a gifted actor who battled several off-screen demons, which ultimately ended the life of the 25-year-old.

A Star on the Rise

The Knoxville, Tennessee native was only 10-years-old when he was discovered by director Joel Schumacher to play Mark Sway, a young witness in a Mafia case, in his 1994 movie The Client. In the film, the newcomer co-starred alongside Hollywood big hitters like Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon. Even though he was very young at the time, Sarandon told PEOPLE back in 1996 that the tween made an impact on her. “I learned a lot working with him,” Sarandon said. “Brad is full of surprises.”

Schumacher also praised Renfro for his emotional range in the film. “I think Brad had lived a great deal by the time he was 10 and had experienced many, many emotions,” he told PEOPLE. “When any actor brings that emotional experience to their gifts, there is an honesty coming from understanding.”

THE CLIENT, Brad Renfro, 1994, ©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Following his success in The Client, Renfro won The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Young Star” award and was nominated as one of PEOPLE’s “Top 30 Under 30.” At the time of his nomination, Renfro spoke to PEOPLE about his love of acting. “I’m really lucky– to love what I do and get paid for it,” he said. “I’d do it for free if it’s good.”

In the beginning of his career, Renfro also took on several other high profile roles such as Huck Finn in 1995’s Tom and Huck and the younger version of Brad Pitt‘s character in Sleepers (1996).

Renfro also had a passion for music. When the actor was younger, he spoke about how if showbiz didn’t end up working out for him, he could “always play the blues” in his hometown of Knoxville. His former roommate and Foster the People frontman, Mark Foster, reiterated Renfro’s talent for music telling PEOPLE in 2011, “…he was an amazing songwriter, and he could play bluegrass on guitar better than anybody.”

Trouble with the Law

Things off-screen however, were not as promising. Renfro had numerous run-ins with the law which began in 1998 with his arrest for possession of cocaine and marijuana. He was just 16 at the time and told PEOPLE that he was grateful for the wakeup call. “I’m glad I got arrested, because it taught me a lot,” Renfro said optimistically. “I’ve had several months of being sober– I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad it happened when I was 16, not 36.”

At the time, he also added a piece of advice for teens about drugs: “If you’ve never done it, don’t. If you have done it, pray. Then get some good sober time. Once you have that, you’ll have a natural high.”

Venice 2001 - Bully Premiere
J. Vespa/WireImage

Unfortunately, Renfro’s trouble with drugs and the law, didn’t stop there. He was later arrested and sentenced to two years probation in August 2000 for allegedly trying to steal a 45-foot yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with a friend.

Then in 2005, the former child actor was charged with driving under the influence in November and just a few short weeks later was busted in a police sting and charged with a felony count of attempting to possess heroin. He later plead guilty to the charge and entered rehab for it.

Untimely Death

Renfro’s trouble with drugs ended up catching up to him on the morning of Tuesday Jan. 15, 2008 when after a night with friends, he was found not breathing in a Los Angeles apartment by his girlfriend. In the 911 call, the operator asked what happened and his girlfriend responded, “I’m not sure. I mean, I think he might have taken a couple of pills last night. … He had an audition at 1 o’clock this afternoon. I’ve been trying to wake him up to get ready and he just won’t move.”

After the autopsy, Renfro’s death ended up being ruled an accident and was attributed to “acute heroin/morphine intoxication.”


As the news of his death spread, many former colleagues spoke out about their grief over the sudden loss. Renfro’s former defense attorney, Blair Berk, emotionally admitted feelings of failure in regards to the actor’s untimely death. “As critical and prescient as you become in this town, all I did was cry when I heard the news,” Berk confessed. “I feel in some respects like we all failed.”

His former co-star in The Client, Sarandon expressed her condolences after his death and said a kind word about the gone-too-soon actor. “I had the pleasure of working with Brad when he was eleven in The Client,” Sarandon said back in 2008.It was obvious to everyone that he was the sweetest, most incredible gifted young actor to come along for some time. My heart goes out to the family for their tragic loss.”

His great uncle Michael Earl officiated his funeral service on January 21, 2008 and remembered his grand-nephew in an emotional speech saying, “Brad had problems just like I have problems, just like you have problems… Was Brad perfect? Well, I can tell you, I’m not… I’m gonna see him again.”

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