DEATH SPIRAL

Times Staff Writer

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.

"I just think what we see in young Hollywood is reflective in what we see happening in young America -- the pandemic of drug addiction," says Dr. Drew Pinsky, who appears in VH1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." "Where we're losing ground is pharmaceuticals drug addiction."

According to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while illegal drug use remains steady, pharmaceutical drug abuse is going up among young adults. Pinsky reels off some popular culprits: Valium, Ambien, Vicodin, OxyContin, Ritalin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses kill more people than guns, second only after car accidents. In the most recent data, accidental poisoning deaths (primarily from prescription drugs) rose 62.5% from 1999 to 2004. Indeed, the New York medical examiner declared Ledger's death an accident, caused by the "abuse of prescription medications."

Pinsky sees a higher incidence of drug use among celebrities because Hollywood is a magnet for the troubled: "People who come from traumatic backgrounds gravitate toward the solution of becoming a celebrity."

And the environment doesn't help. "A lot of people who get into trouble with drugs are also people who feel emptiness in their day-to-day lives. They seek drama," says Southern California psychotherapist and addiction specialist Jim Conway. "For actors who do features, they have this huge circus environment for a few weeks. Then it's over and they're empty."

It's notoriously hard to control an addicted celebrity and sometimes the only reliable checks seem to be the insurance companies and the police. The insurance companies can refuse to insure substance abusers. A representative for Fireman's Fund Insurance, which covers most studio films, says about 10% of productions have actors with these issues.

Once an actor has a brush with the law, it can become much harder to get insured. In the recently published "Conversations With Woody Allen," the director bemoans how he'd wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder in "Melinda and Melinda" but couldn't get them covered. Downey had spent a stint in jail on drug charges; when authorities busted Ryder for shoplifting in 2001, they found eight different painkillers in her purse. "We were heartbroken because I had worked with Winona before and thought she was perfect for this."

Yet one lawyer who deals frequently with insurance issues points out that all kinds of deals can be made for a superstar, like daily drug testing or furnishing a sober companion, but "as someone's star begins to fall, there's a lot less will to justify the hoops."

A key break

BRAD RENFRO'S whole career started, improbably enough, because as an 11-year-old fifth-grader he'd been difficult in a Drug Abuse Resistance Education class taught by a retired policeman. "He was absolutely your problem child," says Dennis Bowman. "The very first day, I kicked him out of class." Bowman grew to like Renfro, but "he was still a piece of work as far as being out of control."

By many accounts, he came from a troubled background. His dad, a factory worker, and his mom split up when he was a toddler, and his mom deposited him on the Knoxville inner-city steps of his paternal grandmother. Says Bowman, "The grandmother was trying her best to raise a kid who was taking advantage of the situation and creating a lot of stress on her."

At the time, the late casting director Mali Finn was conducting a search for a kid to star in "The Client," the movie version of the John Grisham legal thriller about a Southern trailer-park kid who winds up embroiled in a Mafia hit. "We wanted that kid in the principal's office. That endearing, mischievous boy that may be lying to you, may not be telling you the truth, but you're still charmed by him," says casting director Emily Schweber, Finn's associate at the time. When one of Finn's letters describing their search arrived at the Knoxville Police Department, Bowman immediately thought of Renfro.

After auditioning him in her hotel room, Finn called Schweber and said, "I found him." Renfro and his grandmother later flew to California to screen-test. They'd never been on a plane or stayed in a hotel.

"He was really fun, really charming, a little bit wild, and amazing in the scenes. Where he learned how to do this, I don't know. Some kids really enjoy role-playing and acting," says Schweber. "He had a lot of energy but sometimes he did have dark moods."

Both Finn and Joel Schumacher later called J.J. Harris, who now manages such stars as Charlize Theron, to check out their child lead. Harris flew to the North Carolina set to watch Renfro work and was charmed. "You just wanted to take care of this boy. He was a gorgeous little boy. Rough-and-tumble. Very self-aware," she says. "He'd say things like 'Nobody can put up with me 'cause I'm too hot to handle.' " Adds Harris, "He was just obviously screaming for someone to establish some kind of boundaries for him, something that never happened in his life."

When Bowman finally saw "The Client," he thought Renfro "wasn't acting. Brad played himself. He had these street smarts and the swagger of a 19- or 20-year-old. If you met somebody like that now, your first reaction would be, 'What a punk.' But you scrape away all these layers, you think this is a 12-year-old trying to act tough."

Launching a career

Even back then there were signs of addiction issues. Renfro could be sneaky. As one who knew him well noted, any bottles of booze would invariably disappear when Renfro was around. Still, he managed to launch his career, flying from Knoxville to Los Angeles, often by himself, for auditions. The assistants at his agency, United Talent Agency, would drive him to meetings with casting directors, and the rest of the time he'd mostly cruise the agency halls and flirt with all the women. "This wasn't a bad kid -- this was a really emotionally abandoned person," says Harris.

His vulnerability combined with a tough persona entranced Hollywood. He was cast as a compassionate roughneck who befriends a kid suffering from AIDS in "The Cure," and as Huck Finn in "Tom and Huck." "He was exactly what you would expect -- a brooding, intense, rebellious fellow," says "Tom and Huck" producer Larry Mark. "He got a kick out of not going the straight and narrow."

In "Sleepers," Barry Levinson's drama about four neighborhood kids who are abused by sadistic guards in juvenile prison, he played the younger version of Brad Pitt's character. Knowing of his wildness, Levinson mandated that Renfro be accompanied by a minder 24 hours a day. Levinson later told a reporter, "He was fraught with demons and needed help."

Harris admits that initially she didn't realize the depth of Renfro's problems -- in part because so many child actors she dealt with came from chaotic families. Indeed, bouncing around UTA at the same time were both Drew Barrymore and Bijou Phillips, very young actresses who've both gone public about their teenage problems with substance abuse. "I just tried to have a sense of humor and be there for them," she recalls.

In "Apt Pupil," Renfro's last major studio movie, he played a compassionless A-student entranced by a former Nazi commandant -- played by Ian McKellen -- living incognito in the suburbs. "I knew he'd been wrestling for years with different problems," says director Bryan Singer. "But on workdays, he was always focused and into it. Quite professional." And good, particularly in his mad tango with the British pro McKellen. "You could see moment by moment them learning from each other and a lot of mutual respect."

But off-screen, there could be a manic energy and a radiating neediness. "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," says producer Don Murphy.

Through the legal system

IN 1998, the year "Apt Pupil" was released, Renfro was busted for cocaine and marijuana, and began what became a long odyssey through the legal system, with a half-dozen arrests.

Although Clark had a minder staying with Renfro during the "Bully" production in the summer of 2000, the actor climbed out a second-story window and stole down to a nearby marina. According to Clark, Renfro "met some coke dealer and got [messed] up." He hot-wired a yacht and gunned it -- except he forgot to untie the boat. Renfro was arrested and charged with grand theft. He ultimately pleaded out and was sentenced to a fine and two years' probation.

"Bully" had to shut down for a day, and when the young actor got out of jail, he had to go straight to shooting a scene in which he emerges from the ocean and impresses a raft of girls with his youthful charisma. "He's all dehydrated and feels terrible," recalls Clark. "But he could just do stuff like that and he was young. He was a very natural actor. He didn't study his lines. I doubt he read the whole script, but when you turned on the camera, he was magic.

"He was so good you would kind of forgive him for being a [screw]-up." He pauses. "For a minute."

Yet, after causing a delay on "Bully," it became hard for Renfro to get insurance, says Harris, and hence harder for him to land parts. "It got to a place where I ran out of options," says the agent, who'd seen him through two stints at rehab and numerous futile conversations about staying clean. "He'd either get really angry, laugh it off or change the subject," she says, remembering how Renfro used to come into her office, lie on the couch and complain about what seemed like alcohol poisoning. " 'I'm nauseous. I can't see straight. I feel like my heart is palpitating,' and then he'd usually fall asleep.' "

To those in Hollywood, he inevitably seemed worse when he returned from his home in Knoxville. Or when he wasn't working, and there wasn't a Hollywood-designated minder watching over him.

"He wasn't good at that going-home bit, going back to his life" after the social activity of a movie set, adds Guy Ferland. As an associate producer on "The Client," Ferland would help keep Renfro healthily occupied in off hours with activities like trips to an amusement park. He later helped get him into a Knoxville Montessori school (Renfro dropped out within weeks) and directed him in "Telling Lies in America." "I'm not sure Brad really liked being alone. There was always some party, whatever he needed to do to keep the energy going."

Renfro quit J.J. Harris around 2001 and never spoke to her again, although he continued to work on smaller films, little seen, sometimes low-rent indies such as "Deuces Wild" and "The Job."

In 2006, he spent 10 days in jail for DUI and heroin possession. "He was very conscious that he was alone in the world and didn't have the kind of family and support system that others had," says his former lawyer Blair Berk.

As recently as last June, a judge declared he'd violated his probation by not enrolling in a long-term drug-treatment program, which he subsequently did. "We thought he turned the corner over the last six months. He'd been clean," says another of his lawyers, Richard Kaplan.

What caused Renfro's death is still unknown. The police have not released autopsy results. Apparently, Renfro had been drinking heavily the night before, and a Los Angeles roommate found him dead in his bed. Two days earlier, he'd had an obscene tattoo applied to his chest.

Even when plunging into the darkness, Renfro always tried to maintain his bad-boy bravado. On his MySpace page, on which he last posted in 2005, he described his career highlights and wrote, "When I started I didn't have any experience but now I would say I'm your typical Marlon Brando. . . . My friends sometimes say that I have the attitude of Eminem on Prozac but at the same time I also have a caring but loving side 2 me as well. . . ."

Bowman, who still lives in Knoxville, remembers telling his wife when Renfro landed "The Client," "This will be either the best thing that happened to Brad Renfro or the worst." In retrospect, Bowman's not sure that Hollywood made any difference in Renfro's fate. Neither is anyone else. "I think he was troubled before he got to Hollywood," says Singer, who went on to launch the "X-Men" franchise. "I think that when there's enough drugs involved it has less to do with the pressures of Hollywood and more to do with the pressures of life."

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed reporting.

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