Brad Barron Renfro
July 25, 1982
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Died||January 15, 2008 (aged 25)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heroin overdose|
|Resting place||Red House Cemetery, Blaine, Tennessee|
Brad Barron Renfro (July 25, 1982 – January 15, 2008) was an American actor. He made his film debut at the age of 11 in the lead role in The Client, and went on to star in 21 feature films. His career faded rapidly because of alcoholism and substance abuse. He died from a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
Prior to being cast in The Client, Renfro had no acting background and had been living with his grandmother in a trailer park. Director Joel Schumacher cast him after looking around the country for a "tough kid" who had the necessary life experiences to understand his character. He soon attracted a large fanbase as he continued to star in movies like Tom and Huck and Sleepers. After 1998's Apt Pupil, however, a series of criminal arrests and stints in drug treatment limited his choice of roles.
Renfro's early death has raised questions as to whether Hollywood's systems for protecting child actors' welfare are adequate for at-risk youth acting in films.
Early life and career
Renfro was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982. He was the son of Angela Denise Olsen (McCrory) and Mark Renfro, who was a factory worker. He was raised from the age of five by his paternal grandmother, Joanne (Barron) Renfro, a church secretary, after his parents divorced. He reportedly did not have a close relationship with his father.
When he was 10, Brad was discovered by Mali Finn, a casting director for Joel Schumacher. He had no prior acting experience or training; Finn had been talking to various agencies that worked with youth looking for a "tough" kid and settled on Brad after looking at five thousand such boys all over the country. At the time Renfro had been living in a trailer park outside Knoxville with Joanne following his parents' divorce five years earlier. "I wanted a kid who understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon," Schumacher later told The New York Times.
Cast by Finn as the lead in Schumacher's The Client, Brad Renfro starred alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. His casting was announced in May 1993, and the movie was filmed in the summer of that year. Based on the bestselling John Grisham novel, it became one of the top-grossing films of 1994. In 1995, he won The Hollywood Reporter's "Young Star" award, and was nominated as one of People's "Top 30 Under 30." That year, he played Huckleberry Finn in 1995's Tom and Huck with Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer. He also won a second "Young Star" award, as well as the "Young Artist" award, for his performance in The Cure.
In 1996, Renfro appeared in Sleepers, which was based on the novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The film was directed by Barry Levinson and co-starred Robert De Niro, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Ron Eldard and Brad Pitt (who played the older version of Renfro's character).
In 1998, he starred opposite Ian McKellen in Apt Pupil, directed by Bryan Singer. The several films that followed gained little attention, with the majority going straight to video. He played Leon S. Kennedy in a live-action ad for Resident Evil 2, which aired in Japan. Renfro went on to act in other films, including 2001's Ghost World and Bully, 2002's Confessions of an American Girl, and 2005's The Jacket. He also appeared in the 2006 Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Watch", and completed filming on the film The Informers, co-starring Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton.
Renfro was the cousin of Jesse Hasek, lead singer of the band 10 Years, and featured in the first version of the music video for their song "Wasteland". He also featured in the video for N*E*R*D song "Provider", playing the part of a petty drug dealer.
Renfro fathered one child, a son who was born in 2003. His name and age were initially withheld in Renfro's obituary out of his family's concerns for privacy. Renfro's son's existence was not known to the general public until after his father's death. He was raised solely in Japan by his mother.
Substance abuse and criminal record
Later in his life, Renfro reportedly told friends that his mother gave birth to him while she was addicted to heroin and that he himself had first used the drug when he was 12. According to a friend, his mother had enabled his use; SLC Punk director James Merendino recalled to BuzzFeed in 2018 that Renfro said his mother had actually given him his first dose. Dire media accounts of his childhood have reported that he had smoked marijuana for the first time at the age of 9, at one point supposedly getting expelled after he lit up a joint in front of a school official, and got drunk for the first time at 11. By the age of 18 he had already been in rehabilitation more than once.
On June 3, 1998, Renfro, then 15, and his 19-year-old cousin were arrested and charged with drug possession. He was carrying two small bags of cocaine in a cigarette box and a bag of marijuana in his sock. He avoided trial by agreeing to be screened randomly for drugs and evaluated for any substance abuse problems in his plea bargain.
On August 28, 2000, Renfro and his friend Harold Bond tried to steal a 45-foot yacht from Fort Lauderdale harbor. They were arrested on the same night and Renfro was charged with grand theft and criminal mischief. In January 2001, Renfro was sentenced to probation of two years and ordered to pay repair costs of the vessel to its owner and investigative costs to the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department.
In May 2001 he was arrested for underage drinking, which violated his probation. On January 14, 2002, Renfro violated his probation again and was arrested on charges of public intoxication and driving without a valid license in Knoxville. He was put into a three-month substance abuse treatment program as a result.
On November 24, 2005 he was charged with a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence and two counts of driving with a suspended license, leading to 10 days in jail and 18 months of alcohol education classes.
On December 22, 2005, Renfro was arrested by LAPD officers during an undercover drug sweep of Skid Row and was charged with attempted possession of heroin. A photograph showing the actor in handcuffs made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Renfro admitted to a detective that he was using heroin and methadone. In court, he pleaded guilty to the charges, and was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $450. In May 2006, he spent 10 days in jail for convictions of driving while under the influence and attempted heroin possession.
In June 2007, Renfro was found to have violated his probation by not enrolling in a long-term drug treatment program. A judge warned him that if he violated probation two more times, he could be sentenced to a live-in rehab program or to jail time.
Renfro was found dead on January 15, 2008 in his Los Angeles apartment. He was 25 years old. His body was returned to Tennessee, where he was buried on January 22, 2008, north of Knoxville, at Red House Cemetery in the small community of Blaine. On February 8, 2008, the Los Angeles County Coroner's office ruled his death accidental, attributing it to acute heroin/morphine intoxication.
Seventeen days after Renfro's death, his grandmother Joanne, who had accompanied him regularly during his early acting career, died at her home at the age of 76. Local officials said she died of natural causes.
Role of film industry
Ten years after Renfro's death, and again the following year, the website BuzzFeed devoted a long article to retelling his rise and descent, particularly during the 1990s, while he was still a teenager, and whether the film industry's methods of protecting the welfare of child actors during production were adequate to situations with an at-risk child like Renfro. It found no definite instance in which laws or contractual provisions had been violated on his films, but suggested that the system had nonetheless failed the actor by delegating responsibility to his mother and grandmother when he was off set, neither of whom were recalled as effective in those roles. Both women were also dead by the time the article was published, and BuzzFeed could not locate Mark Renfro, Brad's father.
Many adults who came into contact with the young actor believed, because of his worldliness and self-confidence, that he was some years older than he actually was at those times. "He had these street smarts and the swagger of a 19- or 20-year-old," said Dennis Bowman, the retired Knoxville police officer who had first referred the 10-year-old Renfro to Mali Finn for his breakthrough role in The Client. Gemma Jackson, production designer on Tom and Huck, was dumbstruck to learn that he was 13 during shooting.
This apparent maturity was reflected in his onscreen portrayal. In his early roles he was often sexualized and shown shirtless, most notably in Apt Pupil, which showed him showering from the waist up at one point. He developed an ardent following among adolescent girls; Peter Horton, director of The Cure, recalled how the actor received many birthday cards from local girls in the Minnesota town where the film was being shot expressing sexually suggestive messages to him, notwithstanding that he had just turned 12. Some of his female admirers were older; Jackson's surprise at Renfro's actual youth came after she had recounted to BuzzFeed how he had had an adult girlfriend during production and was "sexually active".
In the only incident which might have crossed legal boundaries, Fernando Altschul, the first assistant director on Apt Pupil, who had taken it upon himself to supervise Renfro since the young man seemed to respect him, recalled director Bryan Singer apparently preparing to go beyond permitted daily hours in shooting scenes with Renfro and some other teenaged actors at one point. He threatened to leave the set, all he could do since only the studio teacher on set would have the authority to stop production over that issue. Singer, through his lawyer, told BuzzFeed he never went over hours and Altschul never left the set.
Later Altschul saw Renfro, then 14, at a party on set, the only underage attendee at an event where alcoholic beverages were available. While he was astonished, he decided not to say anything since "it would have been out of place" and Renfro looked like he had chosen to attend. Taking him home would have properly been the role of his grandmother, and "[h]e didn't really respect her, in the sense that he wouldn't listen to her ... I'm sure she did the best she could with him."
In 2012, actor James Franco had the name "Brad" tattooed on his right shoulder in memory of Renfro, which was documented by the art magazine The Thing Quarterly. Franco also produced a limited edition series of switchblades bearing the words "Renfro" and "Forever."
|1994||The Client||Mark Sway|
|Tom and Huck||Huckleberry Finn|
|1996||Sleepers||Young Michael Sullivan|
|1997||Telling Lies in America||Karchy "Chucky" Jonas|
|1998||Apt Pupil||Todd Bowden|
|The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter||Young man||Video short|
|1999||2 Little, 2 Late||Jimmy Walsh|
|2000||Recess||(Voice)||Episode: "Germ Warface"|
|Herschel Hopper: New York Rabbit||Tanner|
|Skipped Parts||Dothan Talbot|
|Meter Man||Sal||Short film|
|The Theory of the Leisure Class||Billy|
|The Car Kid||Vernon||Short film|
|American Girl||Jay Grubb|
|2003||The Job||Troy Riverside|
|Citizen Tony||Thoren (voice)||Television film|
|2004||Mummy an' the Armadillo||Wyatte|
|10 Years: Wasteland, Version 1||Man||Video short|
|2005||The Jacket||The Stranger|
|Coat Pockets||Kenny||Short film|
|2006||Law & Order: Criminal Intent||Duane Winslow||Episode: "Watch"|
|10th and Wolf||Vincent|
|Collector||Justin||Short film; final film role|
|YoungStar Awards||1995||Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama Film||The Cure||1995||Won|
|Young Artist Award||1995||Young Artist Award for Best Performance by a Young Actor Starring in a Motion Picture||The Client||1994||Won|
|YoungStar Awards||1996||Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Comedy Film||Tom and Huck||1995||Nominated|
|Young Artist Award||1996||Young Artist Award for Best Young Leading Actor in a Feature Film||The Cure||1995||Won — Shared with Joseph Mazzello|
|YoungStar Awards||1997||Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama Film||Sleepers||1996||Nominated|
|Tokyo International Film Festival||1998||Best Actor Award||Apt Pupil||1998||Won|
|Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films||1999||Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor||Apt Pupil||1998||Nominated|
|Sedona International Film Festival||2004||Director's Choice Award for Most Spirited Rising Performer||—||—||Won|
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