Prescription Hypocrisy: The Deaths of Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger - Page 2

By John Lavitt 09/06/17

Despite dying of the same disease, Brad Renfro was forsaken as a pathetic junky while Heath Ledger was canonized as a fallen Hollywood legend.

Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro
There is a huge discrepancy between how these two actors were treated in their respective overdose deaths.

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There is no question that many people tried their best to guide and support Renfro along the way. As Hollywood veteran Don Murphy, the producer of Renfro’s last major studio film Apt Pupil, explains: “You could tell he didn’t have any sort of adult guidance. People couldn’t help themselves but become unofficial guardians of him. There were a lot of people on the crew — everyone from costumers to electricians — always trying to support him.”

The long-term persistence of Renfro's disease of addiction burned virtually all of his professional bridges. By the end, unlike the formidably successful Ledger, Renfro had sunk most of his close relationships as well as his career. Still, should he have been forgotten upon his death? Does a dark history make his death any less tragic?

Moreover, isn't it significant that Renfro was struggling to get sober in the weeks before? Yes, he was a chronic relapser, but he also was trying to find a viable path to real recovery. Such efforts should never be ignored, but they so often are shunted away after the fact. Unlike the front-page news of his downtown heroin bust, Brad Renfro's minuscule obits were relegated to the back pages of most newspapers.

A week after Renfro overdosed, Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment. Ledger died of a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs, including OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Xanax, Restoril, and Unisom. Unlike Renfro, Ledger did not have a history of being arrested or public displays of drug abuse and intoxication. Unlike Renfro, Ledger was at the height of his career and was well-loved and regarded in the Hollywood community. In fact, he was seen as one of the great stars of his day with a long and glorious career laid out before him. He would have his choice of roles, and a plethora of huge paydays and red carpets loomed in his future.

If Ledger was still alive, he might have a decent explanation for his extreme prescription drug abuse. Playing extreme parts like the Joker and a Bob Dylan figure in I'm Not There had creatively pushed Ledger to the breaking point. As he told a New York Times reporter a few months before his death, “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.”

Although this rationalization for why he abused drugs sounds good, and Ledger did indeed push the boundaries in preparation for his performances, such an excuse does not hold up under scrutiny. The day after Ledger's death, Rebecca White, a former assistant to Naomi Campbell, described her past experiences with the actor. She reported to have witnessed Ledger taking drugs. The young woman told the UK tabloid The Sun, "The first time I met him, at Puff Daddy's house in Los Angeles, Heath asked Naomi for cocaine. At another party in Paris, Heath took at least six ecstasy pills, popped them in his mouth all at once, and swigged them with a bottle of Champagne."

Like Brad Renfro, Heath Ledger had a dark history of drug abuse. His accidental prescription drug overdose was not an exception to the rule. In contrast to Ledger, Renfro was sloppy, and his addiction clearly was more extreme. Unlike Renfro, Ledger was not struggling with sobriety in his final days. Rather, he was living at his home in New York, working on a major motion picture, and doing the bevy of prescription drugs given to him by fawning doctors and his Hollywood buddies.

When you are a successful actor, prescription drugs are absurdly easy to obtain. How many doctors are going to deny a prescription to a famous actor? Indeed, unlike Renfro, Ledger managed to keep his reputation in perfect shape until the day he died. Perhaps this amazing maintenance job contributed to his death. If he had stumbled more in public, would he have gone to rehab and attempted sobriety? Unlike Renfro, it seems more likely that such steps might have worked for Ledger. Then again, we will never know. What we do know is that Ledger was not trying to get sober in the weeks before his death. If anything, his addiction to the prescription drugs was spiraling out of control while Renfro was fighting to stay on a path that could have led to sustainable sobriety.

Image via A Knight's Tale

There is no target on the back of Heath Ledger. A charismatic actor from his fun start in Hollywood in 10 Things I Hate About You to his breakout leading role in A Knight's Tale, Ledger's early work led directly to the later award-winning performances that now define his career. The point is not to bring down Ledger, but rather to recognize that he and Renfro were not that different. Both were talented actors plagued by drug abuse and the disease of addiction. Like Ledger, Renfro deserved to be recognized for the excellence he achieved beyond the ugliness. In the end, due to prescription hypocrisy and Renfro's very public decline, this was never a reality.

Not everyone in Hollywood was okay with the manner in which Brad Renfro was abandoned in the end. For example, Susan Sarandon made a point to honor Renfro's passing by speaking to the media in the weeks after. Having starred alongside the young actor, Sarandon told People magazine, "I had the pleasure of working with Brad when he was eleven in The Client. It was obvious to everyone that he was the sweetest, most incredibly gifted young actor to come along for some time. My heart goes out to the family for their tragic loss."

Several years later, another friend expressed his discomfort at the In Memoriam slight. In 2011, James Franco directed a documentary short called Brad Renfro Forever to memorialize his friend and express his belief that Renfro deserved better than what he got. In the short film, Franco discusses the death of his friend. To honor his memory, Franco had several limited edition switchblades made. The switchblades had Brad Renfro’s name engraved on the hilt and "Forever" engraved on the blade. Taking it one step further, in the documentary short, Franco has the word "BRAD" carved into his arm by tattoo artist Mark Mahoney. Through the process of scarification, he believed Brad Renfro’s memory would be honored.

Franco explains why he believes such drastic steps were needed to honor and remember his friend: “Brad had such a big impact on me. Then he was forgotten so violently. It was such a slap that he didn’t get mentioned at the Oscars. Acting is what he gave his life to, and I felt he should be treated with love and respect. I wanted to do something where we just say, ‘We remember you, Brad, and we know you were an angel. You were also a really talented kid who gave some really incredible performances at a really young age.'”

Image via Deuces Wild

Franco had become friends with Renfro when they co-starred in Deuces Wild, a lousy independent film that Franco calls utterly forgettable. Being sober, Franco identified with the younger actor's struggles. He also admired his work and hoped that his friend would find his way back from the depths of his addiction. Regrettably, he did not. Still, Renfro deserved to be remembered. As Gertrude Stein might have written, an overdose is an overdose is an overdose: It does not matter if you take too many pills or die with a bloody needle by your side. What matters is the pain we all face when any life is cut short by the disease of addiction. Such a loss deserves recognition, and the scarred scrawl of Brad Renfro's name on James Franco's shoulder is one bitter reminder.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.