Brad Renfro had insisted over the phone that he was clean. That's what the teen actor, hot from his performances as a troubled youth with sad eyes in such films as "The Client" and "Sleepers," told director Larry Clark. Clark, one of America's foremost chroniclers of teenage desperation, had just cast Renfro as the lead in "Bully," his true-life tale of a bunch of pot-smoking Florida teenagers who murder the local bully.
But then Clark met his 18-year-old star.
The director, who'd once battled heroin addiction himself, stopped by Renfro's Knoxville, Tenn., home on the way to the film's Florida location. It was the summer of 2000, and Renfro emerged from the house that he shared with his grandmother with blood streaming down his arms. He was bloated and looked 35. And so continued a painful, downward spiral -- one of the most excruciating Hollywood has seen of late.
"I said, 'What the [hell] are you doing?' " recalls Clark. "He'd been banging coke. He has tracks running down both arms. He looks horrible. I just saw the whole movie going down the drain." (Financing was contingent on Renfro's participation.)
Clark spent the next three days with Renfro. They talked. The young actor cried a lot, and continued to shoot up cocaine. Clark hatched a plan to get him clean for production.
"I kidnapped him," says the director. The pair jumped in the car one day, on the director's pretense of going somewhere, and Clark just "gunned it" for Florida. "He kicked in the car. He had a seizure. There's nothing you can do. It doesn't last that long."
In Florida, the production hired a trainer and a minder for Renfro. Clark took Renfro to 12-step meetings. Still, in the evenings, Renfro would manage to finagle alcohol.
Clark adds, "I've been around a lot of addicts and alcoholics, and I remember thinking at the time, this is one of the worst cases I've ever seen."
Brad Renfro died Jan. 15, 2008. He was 25.
A week later, 28-year-old Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment. He died of a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs -- among them medications that go by the brand names OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Xanax, Restoril and Unisom.
Saddening, not surprising
The cycle of destructiveness seems to have accelerated. It was shocking in 1993 when River Phoenix overdosed from heroin and cocaine at age 23, shocking because of his youth. Now we live in a time when the Associated Press is pre-writing Britney Spears' obituary. Has Hollywood become an incubator of abuse or a mirror of society? Or are we all just more aware of its troubled denizens because of the hyper 24/7 coverage?
Renfro's death saddened those who knew him, but did not surprise them. Many in Hollywood had tried to help him, but his addiction torpedoed relationships and his career. There were small obits, much smaller than his last high-profile appearance in the press, a photograph of Renfro in handcuffs on the front of The Times, arrested during a 2005 raid of skid row for trying to buy heroin.
In contrast, Ledger's passing provoked an outpouring of public grief about talent cut short before its full blossoming. The fiercely talented Ledger certainly did not seem like a man in self-destruction's grip. Yet after his death, tabloids ran stories of the Oscar nominee's supposed double life. Unnamed sources talked about his use of cocaine, heroin and other drugs, which were said to have contributed to the dissolution of his relationship with girlfriend Michelle Williams and subsequent despair.
Still, unlike Renfro, Ledger had spent the last year of his life working frantically, hurling himself into a multi-continent shoot as the crazed Joker in "The Dark Knight," and then plunging into Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
All through January, Ledger worked despite having a bad cold that turned into pneumonia. He told the New York Times in November, "Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted and my mind was still going."
In his professional drive, Ledger was different from the members of young Hollywood who usually end up in the tabloids and the police blotters. Paparazzi have been bolstering their bottom lines with an endless array of women in distress -- pretty twentysomethings such as Lindsay Lohan and Spears. Who knows whether women are actually suffering more than men? It's just that the tabloid-fashion-restaurant industries depend on pretty girls to sell magazines, clothes and trendy clubs.
"Drug abuse is so much more underreported than anyone realizes," says one former studio chief, who declined to be named, adding, "I think they [actors] all take a lot of drugs."
Just in recent days, which included Spears' midnight motorcade to the hospital, starlet Eva Mendes checked into rehab. The hit list of young actors with onetime substance abuse problems includes Balthazar Getty, Ben Affleck and Juliette Lewis.