We’ve seen a great number of young actors live long and productive lives, with some continuing to find tremendous success well into their later years. However, there have unfortunately been dozens of cases of beloved Hollywood stars dying before they even reached the age of 40.
Below is a list of actors and actresses from the worlds of film and television whose lives and careers were cut tragically short, as well as the events that led to their early passing.
River Phoenix, the star of movies like Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, was one of the most promising young actors in the latter part of the 20th century. However, his life came to an abrupt end in October 1993 when the 23-year-old died of a drug overdose, according to the Los Angeles Times. The impact of his death can still be felt 30 years later.
Marilyn Monroe, one of the most well-known actresses of all time, died at the age of 36 in August 1962, after, according to the New York Times, she was found unresponsive in her bed with pills nearby. She was in the middle of production on Something’s Got to Give at the time of her death.
Anton Yelchin, star of films like Star Trek, Green Room, and Charlie Bartlett died when he was only 27 years old. According to the Los Angeles Times, Yelchin was involved in a freak accident in June 2016 that resulted in him being pinned between his SUV and a security gate at his Studio City home.
Brittany Murphy, who made a name for herself with roles in movies like Clueless, 8 Mile, and Girl, Interrupted, has one of the most perplexing Hollywood death stories. According to People.com, the 32-year-old actress passed away in December 2009 as a result of a combination of pneumonia and anemia and multiple drug intoxication.
Despite having a career that lasted only five years, James Dean remains one of the icons of Hollywood. Dean was tragically killed in a car accident in September 1955, per the Los Angeles Times, less than a month before the release of Rebel Without a Cause, his most well-known film. He received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his role in East of Eden, which landed in theaters less than six months before his untimely death.
In January 2008, the world was shocked after hearing of the passing of Heath Ledger, who died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 28, according to CNN. Ledger would receive a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor the following year for his unforgettable portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Chris Farley was and forever will be one of the greatest Saturday Night Live cast members, but like other greats, his life was cut tragically short. Farley, who also starred in movies like Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Almost Heroes (released following his death), died in December 1997 from an overdose at the age of 33, according to CNN.
In April 1993, at the age of 28, Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, died after being shot on the set of The Crow. According to the New York Times, a blank discharged from the gun during a sequence, hitting the actor who later passed from his injuries.
Jayne Mansfield, a legendary actress, Playboy model, and entertainer made a name for herself with roles in movies like The Girl Can’t Help It, Promises! Promises!, and The Wayward Bus. Tragically, Mansfield died at the age of 34 after her car slammed into the back of a semi truck in southern Louisiana in June 1967, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Many of Bruce Lee’s movies are still considered landmark achievements in the martial arts genre 50 years after his passing on July 20, 1973. For years, the 32-year-old actor’s death was attributed to cerebral oedema (brain swelling), but a study carried by Variety years later proposed that his sudden death was the result of kidneys not being able to excrete excess water.
Andy Kaufman, the unique actor, comedian, and former women’s wrestling champion of the world, passed away in 1982 when was just 35 years old, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, some still think he’s not actually dead.
Legendary rapper and actor Tupac Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas in September 1996, when he was just 25 years old. After years of his murder being an unsolved homicide case, an arrest was finally made in September 2023, according to the AP. It was believed that the Grammy winner was up for the role of Mace Windu, which eventually went to Samuel L. Jackson in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
Glee star Cory Monteith’s life came to a tragic end in July 2013 when he was found dead in a Vancouver, British Columbia, hotel room. ABC News later reported that the 31-year-old actor died of mixed drug toxicity.
On August 25, 2001, R&B singer Aaliyah was one of several people to perish when a Cessna plane crashed shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas, per NPR. The up-and-coming actress, who had appeared in Romeo Must Die the previous year, was only 22 years old at the time of her passing.
Sharon Tate’s murder is possibly one of the most well-known crime stories in the history of Hollywood, as the actress and four others were brutally killed by the Manson family in August 1969, per the Los Angeles Times. Tate, who had appeared in movies like Valley of the Dolls and The Wrecking Crew, was only 26 years old at the time of her death.
Corey Haim, the star of movies like The Lost Boys, Lucas, and Silver Bullet passed away at the age of 38 in March 2010. According to CNN, the former child actor died of natural causes.
Angus Cloud, one of the main stars of HBO’s harrowing drama series, Euphoria, tragically passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 in July 2023. According to EW, the young actor died as a result of an accidental overdose from the combined use of methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, and benzodiazepines.
Freddie Prinze, the father of ‘90s teen heartthrob and former WWE writer Freddie Prinze Jr., was a star in his own right back in the 1970s. Known for his starring role on Chico and the Man and stand-up comedy, Prinze committed suicide in January 1977, according to the New York Times. He was only 22.
Best known for his portrayal of John “Plato” Crawford in Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo was another actor from the 1955 movie to die young. According to the New York Times, the 37-year-old actor was stabbed to death in Hollywood in February 1976.
Cameron Boyce (pictured far-right in the image above) was one of the Disney Channel’s biggest stars in the 2010s thanks to roles on shows like Jessie and Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything, as well as the Descendants film franchise. The young actor died in his sleep in July 2019, with Los Angeles-based ABC7 Eyewitness News reporting it was caused by epilepsy. He was 20 years old at the time of his passing.
Bobby Driscoll, the young child actor who appeared in Disney films like Song of the South before voicing the title role in the 1953’s Peter Pan, suffered what can best be described as a lonely and incredibly tragic death. According to EW, Driscoll died in March 1968 when he was only 31 years old, but at the time, his body was unclaimed and then buried in New York City’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island.
With big roles in movies like The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, Ladybugs, and Sidekicks, it felt like Jonathan Brandis was everywhere in the early 1990s. However, the former child actor and model wouldn’t survive the next decade, as he committed suicide in November 2003, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. He was 27 years old at the time of his passing.
Anna Nicole Smith
Anna Nicole Smith, who was at the center of the 2023 Netflix series, You Don’t Know Me, led quite the eventful life, one that saw her go from Guess model to Playboy Playmate to B-movie actress to one of the biggest names in reality television. The pop culture figure tragically died in February 2007 when she was only 39 years old. According to the New York Times, her death was ruled an accidental overdose.
Jean Harlow, one of the defining actresses of the pre-Code era of Hollywood, died in June 1937 when she was only 26 years old. According to the Guardian, the in-demand star had fought internal inflammation for 10 days prior to her sudden and tragic passing.
One of the supposed victims of the Poltergeist curse, Heather O’Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling in the 1982 horror film and appeared to have a promising career ahead of her at the time. However, six years later, the child actress would die at the age of 12 due a long-standing bowel obstruction, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Lee Thompson Young
Lee Thompson Young, who appeared on shows like The Famous Jett Jackson and Rizzoli & Isles, had a remarkable career on the small screen throughout his teenage years and early adulthood. But his story ended in August 2013 when he committed suicide. According to TMZ, Young died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound when he was only 29 years old.
Brad Renfro, the star of movies like The Client, Sleepers, Ghost World, and Bully, died in January 2008 when was only 25 years old. According to People.com, the young actor died of an overdose.
Nelsan Ellis’ Lafayette Reynolds was one of the best and most unforgettable characters on the long-running HBO supernatural drama series, True Blood, a role that allowed the dynamic actor to show off his remarkable acting talents. Tragically, Ellis died at 39 years of age in July 2017 as a result of heart failure during his attempt to quit his alcohol addiction, according to NBC News.
Ryan Dunn, who rose to prominence on the CKY skate videos and later MTV’s Jackass TV show and movies, was involved in a fatal car crash in June 2011 that claimed his life and that of his passenger, Zachary Hartwell. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Dunn, who was 34 years old at the time of his passing, was driving at speeds reaching 130 mph before crashing his Porsche.
Former Sons of Anarchy star Johnny Lewis, who played Kip “Half-Sack” Epps on long-running FX show, died in September 2012 when he was only 28 years old. According to People.com, the actor fell from a building in Los Angeles moments after beating his 81-year-old landlord to death.
Judith Barsi, who voiced Ducky in The Land Before Time and Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven, was killed by her father in a murder-suicide that also claimed the life of her mother, according to the Los Angeles Times. At the time of her death in July 1988, Barsi was only 10 years old.
Each of these deaths are tragic in their own way, but all leave us asking “what could have been” for these actors whose careers, and lives, were cut tragically short.