Prescription Hypocrisy: The Deaths of Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger

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.

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

At the 80th Academy Awards on February 24, 2008, the annual In Memoriam tribute was presented by Oscar-winning actress Hillary Swank. The tribute marks the passing of notable actors and film industry professionals who have died in the past year. Although the tribute included The King and I actress Deborah Kerr and legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the biggest response elicited by far from the audience happened at the crescendo when actor Heath Ledger appeared. Recently dead of an accidental prescription drug overdose, the loss of the 28-year-old actor was seen as a great tragedy. With his highly anticipated performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight yet to be released, the unexpected passing of Heath Ledger deeply affected the industry as a whole. The impact of that loss would be carried over into the 81st Academy Awards when Ledger would be honored with a rare posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

The 2008 In Memoriam tribute also included Donfeld, Dabbs Greer, Ousmane Sembène, Freddie Francis, and Melville Shavelson. Although each had a remarkable career, if you don't remember them or even recognize their names, it's not surprising. In total, over 42 film notables were included in the video montage, but the majority of them had long fallen into relative obscurity. Even during their lifetimes, many had not been well-known outside of their specific fiefdoms in the film industry. For some odd and still unexplained reason, however, actor Brad Renfro, the star of major Hollywood films like The Client, Sleepers, and Apt Pupil, was left out. In January of 2008, Renfro had died of a heroin overdose a week before Heath Ledger's celebrated passing. Then again, unlike Ledger, Renfro was a junky with track marks marking his young body. Apparently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not feel that he deserved any recognition. Willfully ignored, Brad Renfro's death is a prime example of the ugly truth behind America's prescription hypocrisy.

When it comes to drug abuse and the national perspective on addiction, there is a prescription hypocrisy that reigns supreme across the United States. In truth, prescription drugs are just as dangerous and just as widely abused as street drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, twice as many people die from overdoses due to prescription opioids than from heroin and cocaine combined. Yet, in the popular media and the public consciousness, prescription drug abuse is swept under the rug while illegal drug abuse is marked with a scarlet letter of stigma and shame. Perhaps no other national tragedy ever highlighted this hypocrisy than the back-to-back drug overdose deaths of Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger.

Only 25 years old when he died, Renfro was three years younger than Ledger. Although both actors had impressive careers in Hollywood, the public reaction to their deaths could not have been more different. While Renfro died from a heroin overdose, Ledger died of an overdose from a cocktail of prescription drugs that included opioid painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medication. Renfro's death was widely ignored and brushed off as the expected consequence of his descent into illegal drug addiction. In contrast, Ledger's death was seen as an accidental tragedy that rocked the Hollywood community to the core. Ledger’s death had a tremendous and lasting effect on the national consciousness and played out in countless magazine covers and tabloid news stories.

There is another oft-cited reason for the vast difference in response to their respective overdoses. Unlike Ledger's, Renfro's career had faded rapidly due to alcoholism and substance use disorder. Unlike Renfro, Ledger was at the height of his fame when he died. Beyond his highly anticipated role in The Dark Knight, Ledger had been nominated for Best Actor in 2005 and lauded for his performance as the cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Playing a character struggling with his sexual identity, Ledger brought a restrained and quiet flavor of humanity to the character that impressed critics and audiences.

Image via The Dark Knight

Although he had small parts in several films and television episodes in the years before he died, the “golden child” moment of Brad Renfro was well in the past. There is no doubt he could have made an impressive comeback like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction if a director like Quentin Tarantino had made him his latest cause célèbre, but Renfro's glory days had faded. Still, from his initial success as the child lead in the film adaptation of John Grisham's The Client (1994) to his disturbing performance as Marty Puccio in Larry Clark's Bully (2001), Renfro's success in Hollywood had been notable. Regardless of how he died, he undoubtedly deserved to be remembered. His death was as tragic as Heath Ledger's passing, and his accomplishments were worthy of being celebrated. They were not.

Indeed, Brad Renfro's own words might have haunted him in his final hours. Asked by Perez Hilton what he would say to young child stars entering the business, Renfro foreshadowed his tragic fate—he stated that they should stay away from the party scene. Speaking from the darkness of his own experience, Renfro said, "A lot of people don't make it. They don't live through it.”

The tragic irony is that this sentiment would become his truth.

Did Renfro have a sense of what was coming? Probably not. What most people don't realize is that the young actor had been struggling to live a sober life in the months before his death. In truth, the night that he died could have been a relapse. When it comes to getting sober for heroin addicts, one of the greatest ironies also is one of the greatest tragedies. Many long-term heroin addicts who overdose do so right after trying to get clean. They do not realize that their period of sobriety has significantly reduced their tolerance to the drug. Hence, when they relapse, they shoot what is called their old “package,” or the previous dosage that they used to get high. Given their reduced tolerance, an addict's old package acts like a time bomb and so often proves to be deadly. 

At the time of his death, Renfro was still on probation for an arrest during an LAPD sting on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. On Dec. 22, 2005, he was one of 14 people who bought fake heroin balloons from undercover officers and got caught. Since a Los Angeles Times reporter and photographer were along on the sweep, a photo of Renfro being arrested was featured prominently on the front page of the paper. Following a long history of run-ins with the law, this arrest severely hurt the actor's chances of making a comeback. Since the age of 15, Renfro had been arrested several times, including a conviction for stealing a yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

As the director of Renfro's last noted film, Bully, Larry Clark was not surprised by the actor's untimely death. Right before shooting the film, when he went to pick up the actor from his grandmother's trailer to travel with him to the film's Florida location shoot, the sober Clark encountered a bloated young old man with blood streaming down his arms from recent injections. As Clark describes in a visceral account of what happened, “He’d been banging coke. He has tracks running down both arms. He looks horrible.”

Image via Bully

Still, Clark did not give up on the young man. Instead, he spent the next three days with Renfro, talking about the dark consequences of his dangerous actions. Often in tears, the ragged young star continued to shoot up cocaine. Seeing that there was a light of hope amid the darkness, Clark came up with a plan to get his leading man clean for production. Although a sober companion on set and Clark’s insistence on attending 12-step meetings during production with Renfro kept him off the hard stuff, the young star continued to finagle and drink alcohol during the shoot. Shaking his head, Clark notes, “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.”

When Renfro died, people were not surprised. Like Clark, many in the Hollywood community had tried to help. During the filming of Sleepers, director Barry Levinson insisted that Renfro be accompanied by a sober companion 24 hours a day. Describing his work with the young man, Levinson told a reporter, “He was fraught with demons and needed help.”

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.

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