Jonathan Brandis: How Life After Teen Stardom Can Take a Wrong Turn

Jonathan Brandis hanged himself 10 years ago this week (November 12, 2003) at Sixth and Detroit in Los Angeles, in the second-floor hallway of an apartment building south of Hollywood near a decent doughnut shop and a cat groomer. He was 27 years old. And he was my first big crush.

How did a kid who graced a hundred Bop covers get so quickly forgotten?

If you're picturing him in your head, you're imagining him young. Brandis began modeling at 2, scored a soap opera gig at 6, and by 10 was a TV regular with guest appearances on Alien Nation, Who's the Boss?, Blossom, L.A. Law, Full House, The Wonder Years and Murder, She Wrote. He was 16 when he made Ladybugs, 17 when he was cast as teen genius Lucas Wolenczak in Steven Spielberg's seaQuest 2032. You can't picture him any older than that, because when seaQuest was canceled in 1996, just before Brandis turned 20, the casting offers stopped.

"A time's coming when I'm going to play the father in a movie," Brandis insisted to a journalist that year while on a small publicity tour for a TV flick where he played a boy befriending a lion. He vowed that would be his last kiddie role.

Brandis in Ladybugs.
Brandis in Ladybugs.

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Brandis had 4,000 reasons to believe that was true -- the year before, at the height of his fame, that was the number of fan letters he received each week. Three security guards had to escort him through the screaming girls who staked out the seaQuest set at Universal Studios in Orlando, and the editor of Tiger Beat put him on the cover of eight out of 12 issues. "I never perceived myself like this -- a teen magazine kid," Brandis said. "As an actor, you just hope to continue working."

Brandis tried everything to keep working. He dyed his hair black to play a drug addict, wore goofy glasses to play a murderer, and grew a beard for a Western. No one noticed. He went two years without a job. Then he finally won a small part in the Bruce Willis World War II film Hart's War, but got depressed when his part was cut even smaller, with less than two minutes of screen time. The year after Hart's War was released, he was dead.

Over the years, a friend and I have half-joked about painting an Elliott Smith–style memorial to Brandis on the block where he died -- maybe something with a soccer ball and a dolphin? -- but half-jokes are cruel to someone who ended his life as a pop culture punchline. Also, when we've half-joked about it around people, half of them have to be reminded who he even was.

See also: Remembering River Phoenix: New Book Revisits the Actor's Too-Short Life

How did a kid who graced a hundred Bop covers get so quickly forgotten? Because male child stars are always overlooked. While the culture frets over what really got between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, how much Mary-Kate and Ashley are eating, and all things Lohan, the mental struggles of actors like Brandis go ignored.

It's the odd gender paradox of young fame: Girls get more scrutiny, boys get more puff-piece press. Part of it is the hand-wringing moralization we force on kid actresses. But the simpler reason is economics: Teen female fans buy stuff. They squeal over posters, snatch up pencil boxes with their favorite stars, and sardine themselves outside movie premieres with a fervor that your average teen dude would find embarrassing. (Besides, teen guys tend to aspirationally age up and lust after underwear models.)

Take the teenybopper magazine that seems so culturally normal when filled with photos of high school guys in flannel shirts posing on trees and flip the genders. Can you imagine a cheesecake mag of underage girls on sale at 7-Eleven?

Then add in the middle-school preference for boys who look soft: big eyes, round cheeks, full lips, thick hair. Muscles and chest fur are scary -- tweens favor male stars who look like their idea of a hot date is a milkshake and a cuddle. The No. 1 insult boys in my eighth grade had for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin, Edward Furlong and, yes, Jonathan Brandis was, "He looks like a girl." Which was especially hard to deny when Brandis came to fame playing a soccer star who dressed in drag and called himself Martha.

See also: How River Phoenix Inspired a Generation

How many of those teen heartthrobs transitioned into adult stars? One. DiCaprio acknowledged the cull in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. "My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose," he said. The suicide is Brandis. The OD could have been any one of several.

Four thousand fan letters every week aside, it's tough being a girly-looking guy with your face all over the newsstands, even if the articles themselves are nice. For one, your face probably won't age into something masculine enough to play adult roles and action heroes -- even DiCaprio has had to disguise his soft features with a thick layer of fat. Worse, teen girls are fickle. When they get a new crush, those letters stop.

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27 comments
melies
melies

DiCaprio is overload. I'm sure Brandis could be much better than him...

coreyrod
coreyrod

It's too bad that child actors that don't get roles in later years(20+) take it so personal, as to commit suicide. I feel for them, and for others that contemplate suicide, I hope that in this message, that they can perhaps find the courage and strength to carry on life.

HeyNow
HeyNow

Thanks for writing about Jonathan. He deserves to be remembered.

Doc Trower
Doc Trower

How coincidental is it that I was watching "Marc Summers' Mystery Magical Tour" which featured Brandis and Shiri Appleby (pre-Roswell). Too bad...he could've been one of the great ones.

Gog Rey de Magog
Gog Rey de Magog

¿Ese guey tiene diez años????...Parece de dieciocho...

Karl Wolff
Karl Wolff

Considering he missed the career of Ted Cruz, I think he didn't miss much that life had to offer.

Amy Nelson
Amy Nelson

I loved IT. He had been such a great actor. I miss him.

Sylvia Barreto Monge
Sylvia Barreto Monge

I believe suicide is a sign of deep depression, therefore mental illness, so blaming the media here seems, well, silly. Life is tough for 99% of the population and not being famous later in life is not the end of the world. There are so many more important things one can do in life!

Solomon Kelsie Mcqueen
Solomon Kelsie Mcqueen

The fact that this kid took his life is new to me. I am surprised and saddened as well.

Luis Hernandez
Luis Hernandez

Extremely sad. One of Hollywood's most tragic tales.

Lupa Alexander
Lupa Alexander

To be fair Cristina, I think your photos should indicate you were intelligently designed, cause damn you're fine.

Jennifer Convery
Jennifer Convery

He was a really wonderful actor. Too bad no one helped prepare him for the fickle temporal nature of the reality of being a working actor. The average successful career is 5 years of steady income & work. People who think that they will be paid actors their whole lives are why they become so devastated when reality bites. I wish teachers would explain the truth about the profession-you're lucky if you have a shelf life of a ballerina so have a plan for your income & other career.

Lupa Alexander
Lupa Alexander

I know, but if something appears in print, you still credit where it originally appeared if you use it. It's like a syndicated radio host shouting out their flagship station.

Jamie Lennon
Jamie Lennon

He was my childhood crush, I was so sad when he died.

Dan Albertson
Dan Albertson

I didn't even know that guy died. So much for Sidekicks II.

Lupa Alexander
Lupa Alexander

Why does the voice publish other weeklies stories without crediting the original publication? This was originally in LA weekly

marielinovergon
marielinovergon

No seas pendejo, dice que murió hace 10 años. Si sólo vas a opinar chingaderas por qué no mejor le vas a lavar el yoyo a tu puta madre pedazo de calabaza?

 

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