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

Categories: Film and TV

Airwolfberlin
By Amy Nicholson

Jonathan Brandis hanged himself 10 years ago this week 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.

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 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?


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42 comments
MargoF
MargoF

He "hanged" himself? Where did you go to school? That school did nothing good for you.

He hung himself.


Kristin Kalamaris
Kristin Kalamaris

Sad... I didn't realize he had killed himself. I was definitely a fan as a teeny bopper. :(

Jennie Mork
Jennie Mork

Wow. I loved loved him back in the day. I recorded IT and watched it probably a hundred times. So sad.

Erin Johnson
Erin Johnson

i remember this kid from It; another sad tale - I have to say that I do not think I would have the strength or levity to process what it means to be loved by the world one day, forgotten then next. Not that his choice makes sense, but it makes one think there is maybe a bigger problem...sad, sad, sad...

Maggie Strugala
Maggie Strugala

Trace Lynn, you should be pretty ashamed of yourself for saying something like that. He is somebody's son, somebody's ex...a person. Maybe you should take that comment down, since you're only making yourself look gross.

Amy Lynn
Amy Lynn

Not to mention I was in his fan club and he sent me autographed pictures and letters.

Becky Kotera
Becky Kotera

I had the hots for him when I was younger!

James Cox
James Cox

boy bands actors come and go like I change my sox woopie

Nick Beheng
Nick Beheng

"It" was the best movie to watch growing up

Heidi Kowalke
Heidi Kowalke

Seaquest was my favorite show growing up! I had multiple pictures of him hanging in my bedroom! Such a tragic event! I was just watching Seaquest on Netflix the other day! Also love Ladybugs!

Amy Lynn
Amy Lynn

Who says hes forgotten?! He joined the stupid club tho. He made a great Stuttering Bill. BBBBBbUUUHHHHbuuuhh Biiiiiiilllll....

Jake Lundgren
Jake Lundgren

My bad Shannon. I assumed "Bop" was some top 40 b.s. Like I said I never heard of him. So be it, I can handle the D bag comment. More worried about the people actually in my life that struggle with suicidal issues. That all and all is unfortunate yes.

Liz Golden
Liz Golden

Jesse Thompson this is creepy that we were wondering about him on Tuesday and I said "I hope he didn't kill himself"

Ian King
Ian King

HAHA oh god this made my day...

Stephen Biondo
Stephen Biondo

Killed himself because the world is filled with cruel assholes like the ones commenting here. This writer opened part of herself to remember a human being , no more or less important than you. Go to hell, heartless people.

Jake Lundgren
Jake Lundgren

Never heard of him. My guess, his music sucks and he was a marketable face in the redundant, turn them out, cookie cutter downfall of artistic impression, otherwise known as music.

Melissa Mj
Melissa Mj

My first "love" as a teen :) I wrote him letters and would always include a poster to autograph. Every single time I'd get a letter in return and the poster signed. So sad he killed himself.

Maggie Strugala
Maggie Strugala

He just RANDOMLY popped into my head the other day and I googled and read a bunch about him. Tragic! =/

TheWordsmith
TheWordsmith

@MargoF  

I hate to break this to you (and I wouldn't, in this tone, to someone who had written a comment respectfully), but anyone who speaks correct idiomatic English  would recognize that this is the correct (in the sense of legal terminology) and certainly acceptable form of the past tense of the verb hang (when applied to death by suspension by the neck).  To wit:

Verb

hanged

    (archaic and law) simple past tense and past participle of hang

Usage notes
    Formerly, at least through the 16th century, the past tense of hang was hanged. This form is retained for the legal senses "to be executed by suspension from the neck" and "to execute by suspension from the neck" and hung for all other meanings. However, this rule is not uniformly understood or observed. Hung is sometimes substituted for hanged, which would be considered inappropriate in legal or other formal writing (for the applicable senses only) or, more rarely, vice versa. See also the etymology – in Old English there were separate words for transitive (whence "hanged") and intransitive (whence "hung").
    "Hanged" may sometimes be used as the simple past tense, but "hung" could be taken as the past participle of "hang", though there is no good rationale for this distinction.

ergo...   If you failed to recognize this to be the correct form, it's your education that is lacking, not the writer's.

T.S.Moody
T.S.Moody

@Jake Lundgren Did you read the article?  He was an actor.

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