A precociously talented child star who fell prey to Hollywood's all-too-common tragic trajectory, Brad Renfro wowed critics and fans with his debut opposite Susan Sarandon in the John Grisham adaptation "The Client" (1994). Tween-friendly turns in the AIDS-themed drama "The Cure" (1995) and opposite Jonathan Taylor Thomas in "Tom and Huck" (1995) augured teen idolhood, but the hard-edged Renfro resisted being packaged. Gravitating towards darker, unconventional material, Renfro revealed much of himself in a string of sensitive but emotionally damaged characters in projects like "Sleepers" (1996) as the younger version of Brad Pitt, "Apt Pupil" (1998) as a twisted teen homoerotically fascinated by a former Nazi, an abused youth driven to murder his best friend in Larry Clark's powerful "Bully" (2001), and a sweet-natured but aimless convenience store clerk in the cult favorite "Ghost World" (2001). Renfro's personal demons and drug and alcohol addiction proved his undoing, and just as his child stardom was transitioning into an interesting and offbeat adult acting career, Renfro descended into never-ending legal troubles that destroyed his personal and professional lives. Tragically, the talented young actor died of a heroin overdose on Jan. 15, 2008, reminding more than a few of River Phoenix, and robbing himself and the world of ever realizing his amazing, unconventional potential.
Born July 25, 1982 in Knoxville, TN, Brad Barron Renfro experienced an underprivileged, tumultuous childhood and was raised from the age of five by his paternal grandmother, a church secretary. Discovered by Joel Schumacher's casting director, Renfro proved a natural and charismatic talent and was chosen to play the young lead in the movie adaptation of John Grisham's thriller "The Client" (1994) opposite Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. Unlike many prepackaged, preprocessed child stars, Renfro's rough-edged vulnerability and streetwise smarts coupled with a genuine acting ability made critics take note. The actor even received a Young Artist Award for his amazing work in the film. Renfro delivered on his initial promise by next co-starring as a neighborhood tough who helps a shunned, HIV-positive child (Joseph Mazzello) search for "The Cure" (1995), nabbing a YoungStar Award as well a nomination for a second Young Artist Award.
Pairing Renfro's bad boy appeal as Huckleberry Finn with proto-heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer in the tween-friendly "Tom and Huck" (1995) helped solidify the actor's fame with a certain age group, but Renfro showed his more rebellious, spikier stripes when he publicly slammed the movie for being too bland and innocuous. Drawn to darker material and haunted by his own demons, Renfro seemed more at home in grittier projects such as the adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra's bestseller "Sleepers" (1996). The tale of the far-ranging effects of the abuse perpetuated by a sadistic juvenile detention guard (Kevin Bacon) on a group of Hell's Kitchen teens, the project boasted a dream cast including Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro as well as Renfro as the younger version of Brad Pitt. He next reunited with Bacon in Guy Ferland's acclaimed "Telling Lies in America" (1997) to play a Hungarian immigrant apprenticed to a corrupt radio DJ.
At a professional crossroads, Renfro proved himself dedicated to a more challenging career path with his starring role in Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" (1998). Based on a Stephen King novella, the film featured Renfro as a twisted student obsessed with Nazism who blackmails an elderly neighbor (Ian McKellen) and former concentration camp guard into a heavily homoerotic and murderous relationship. Although the Saturn Award-nominated Renfro and Saturn Award-winning McKellen gave admirably committed performances, the material was too dark and challenging to enjoy commercial success, especially with allegations arising that director Singer had manipulated several underage boys into performing a fully nude shower scene in a fantasy sequence. With the film, Renfro fully shook off his mantle of teen idolhood, revealing himself to be a more layered, unpredictable young talent.
The sad-eyed star next earned critical acclaim for his powerful performance as a sexually confused, troubled Florida teen who helps carry out the murder of his abusive, domineering best friend (Nick Stahl) in Larry Clark's searing "Bully" (2001). Continuing to accrue artistic credibility, Renfro took a small role as Josh, a convenience store clerk who alternately fascinates and bores two disaffected lost girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) in the cult hit "Ghost World" (2001). Although he continued to work, Renfro's iconoclastic tastes and increasing personal problems hindered his career with little-seen nonstarters like the 1980s-set drama "Tart" (2002) and the street gang action dramedy "Deuces Wild" (2002). Drugs, alcohol and a trouble-seeking personality all helped orchestrate Renfro's downfall. As with many child stars, his initial breakthrough was followed by a difficult transition into adulthood, and his own issues helped destroy his professional reputation and momentum. Arrested in his home state for possession of marijuana and cocaine in 1998, Renfro pled no contest and agreed to random drug tests to stave off a conviction. Unfortunately, he was unable to resist his demons and was arrested in 2000 for grand theft and criminal mischief for attempting to steal a yacht. Although he managed to avoid serious jail time, he found himself standing in front of a judge again in 2001, when he was arrested for underage drinking.
Tragically, Renfro's descent did not stop there, and he was arrested yet again less than a year later for driving without a license and public intoxication. The charges were compounded by his violating probation, and he ended up behind bars and then in rehab for three months. Slated to begin his comeback as the male lead in the horror mash-up "Freddy vs. Jason" (2003), Renfro was dropped from the film and his professional instability helped exacerbate the influence of his personal demons. Although he pulled himself together enough to lens the starring role in a straight-to-video action flick "The Job" (2003) as well as a small role in the Adrien Brody/Keira Knightley time travel thriller "The Jacket" (2005), his professional reputation suffered irreparable damage from this string of events and the once-promising rising star was relegated to tabloid footnote and cautionary tale.
The severity of Renfro's case only truly came to light in December 2005, when he was arrested in downtown Los Angeles for attempting to purchase heroin. Pleading guilty, Renfro attempted rehab again, but faced with the tatters of his personal and professional lives, was unable to escape the vicious cycle of addiction. Stringing together the occasional project but clearly in desperate straits, the actor had completed the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation "The Informers" (2008) with Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton when his tragic story came to an abrupt close. On Jan. 15, 2008, at the age of 25, Renfro was found dead in his Los Angeles home of an accidental heroin overdose. With his death, many were surprised to discover Renfro had fathered a secret son with a Japanese woman. A week later came a sad footnote to Renfro's story when 28-year-old Heath Ledger died of an overdose, completely eclipsing Renfro in terms of public interest, ultimate legacy and critical appraisal.