Brad Renfro (July 25, 1982 — January 15, 2008) was an acclaimed American film actor whose promising childhood career was eventually overshadowed by a serious substance abuse problem that eventually took his life at the age of 25.
Born Bradley Barron Renfro in Knoxville, Tennessee to parents Mark Renfro and Angel Olson, his early life in southern Appalachia was filled with familial chaos and strife. His blue collar father and his mother separated when he was still a toddler, and at the age of five when his parents divorced he came into the custody of his paternal grandmother, Joanne Barron Renfro. A homemaker and church secretary, Joanne raised Brad in her home and accompanied him regularly in his travels during his early acting career. She died less than two weeks after his passing, at the age of 76, from what local officials described as "natural causes".
Brad's childhood in rural eastern Tennessee was fraught with drama and difficulty. "He was absolutely your problem child," explained retired Knoxville policeman Dennis Bowman, who taught Renfro in a D.A.R.E. class when he was eleven. "The very first day, I kicked him out of class." Eventually Bowman found a fondness for Renfro, but "he was still a piece of work as far as being out of control." Bowman described Renfro as a bright kid who was clearly needing to have structure and limits imposed upon him, but whose grandmother was "trying her best to raise a kid who was taking advantage of the situation and creating a lot of stress on her."
Thanks to the inquiries of the late casting director Mali Finn, who was working for director Joel Schumacher to find a Southern kid for the role of Mark Sway in the upcoming production of "The Client", Bowman suggested Renfro as a possible candidate. After auditioning Renfro in her hotel room, Finn called her associate Emily Schweber and said she'd found the child lead, after reviewing over 5,000 little boys for the role in nine Southern cities. A blockbuster film based on the popular John Grisham novel of the same name and starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, "The Client" was among the top-grossing films of 1994, and thrust young Renfro into the Hollywood limelight. Shortly after the film's release, he became Knoxville's favorite new celebrity, serving as the grand marshal for the University of Tennessee's homecoming parade and making numerous public appearances.
But given that Renfro's career started because a cop remembered him as a pain-in-the-ass fifth grader, his wildness was not the kind to be tempered by movie sets and the attention of being in front of the camera lens. His first agent, J.J. Harris at United Talent Agency, recalls that "He'd say things like 'Nobody can put up with me 'cause I'm too hot to handle.'" As a teenager he would fly from Knoxville to Los Angeles for auditions, often by himself, and assistants at UTA would drive him to meet with casting directors. His toughness and bravado in real life belied his vulnerability and signs of addiction issues that began to appear early on. "This wasn't a bad kid," adds Harris, "this was a really emotionally abandoned person."
The major studio movie roles in which he was cast after "The Client" played off his talent for basically being himself. From his portrayal of a compassionate tough kid from a neglectful home in "The Cure" and his brooding, rebellious, intense delivery of Huckleberry Finn in "Tom and Huck", to the younger version of Brad Pitt's character he played in "Sleepers" and the cold A-student who idolizes a former Nazi in "Apt Pupil", Renfro embodied the youthful face of the angry, abused outsider - an archetype that's first cousin to the cowboy, and among the most romanticized characters in American culture. Hollywood loved him, as did the grist mill of pop culture and teen magazines. But producer Don Murphy ("Apt Pupil", "Bully") remembers, "You could tell he didn't have any sort of adult guidance. People couldn't help themselves but become unofficial guardians of him." Sadly, this wasn't enough to keep Brad out of trouble.
In December 1997, Renfro was honored by his home town when a cinema auditorium at Knoxville Center was named after him. But six months later he was arrested for marijuana and cocaine possession, the summer before "Apt Pupil" was released. It was the first bust of a half dozen over the next decade, and the end of the line for Brad's work with major studios. Because of his entanglements with the law, he could not get insured to work on films - particularly after the incident that occurred during production on "Bully", a Larry Clark vehicle based on true events. According to Clark, during shooting in Florida in the summer of 2000, Brad escaped from his supervised hotel room one night, where he "met some coke dealer and got fucked up." He tried to steal a yacht from a Fort Lauderdale marina, but forgot to release the moorings. The charge was grand theft, which resulted in a plea bargain of a fine and two years probation. Shooting on "Bully" was shut down for a day as a result.
Clark's odyssey with Renfro leading up to production on "Bully" is a truly harrowing tale. The following is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, Valley Edition, Section E, Sunday February 10, 2008:
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 fuck 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."
After production on "Bully" and during work on "Ghost World", Renfro's relationship with his agent J.J. Harris became strained to the breaking point. After continuing to work with the actor through two stints in rehab and numerous conversations about getting clean and staying that way, "It got to a place where I ran out of options," she said. Brad left Harris and UTA in 2001, and never spoke to her again. He managed to find work on smaller, independent films like "The Job" and "Deuces Wild", usually about one project a year. He made a guest appearance on an episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" in January 2006, the year he spent 10 days in jail for DUI and heroin possession. He had been snared the month before in a high profile sting operation conducted by the LAPD in downtown Los Angeles, and pictures of Renfro in handcuffs during his arrest for attempted purchase of heroin balloons were published in the LA Times. These photos are widely available on the Internet, and show an engorged, shocked young man whose face is awash with disbelief, confusion and fear.
Brad really had no one in this world who he felt he could rely on. As Guy Ferland, an associate producer on "The Client" puts it, "I'm not sure Brad really liked being alone. There was always some party, whatever he needed to do to keep the energy going." Even this past June (2007), a judge declared he'd violated his probation by not entering a long-term drug treatment program. He subsequently enrolled, participated to the program's completion, and was clean and sober for some short period of time prior to his death in January. Apparently Renfro had been drinking to excess on the night before, and toxicology reports indicated that the cause of death was ruled "acute heroin/morphine intoxication," and that the drugs were injected, according to the coroner's office. "The final manner of death has been ruled an accident," the coroner reported. Renfro had just completed his final film, "The Informers" (based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel), which was shot on location in Buenos Aires and is currently in post-production as of this writing.
Director Joel Schumacher was interviewed shortly after Renfro's death by a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel. He believes Brad continued to prove his talent in films after "The Client", but he doubts the actor ever knew how good he was. "I sometimes think the only people who think they're really talented are the ones I know who aren't," he said. "I think that Brad was always gifted with great looks and an incredible ability to tap into his complex emotions from a very early age as an artist. I mean, if you look at 'The Client' again he's just extraordinary, and believe me, it has nothing to do with me or John Grisham. It's Brad."
Brad Renfro was buried on January 22, 2008, on a hillside cemetery north of Knoxville in the rural community of Blaine, Tennessee. He is survived by his mother and father, and by a four-year-old son, Yamato, who lives with his mother in Japan.Filmography
(2008) (post-production) .... Jack10th & Wolf
(2006) .... Vincent
"Law & Order: Criminal Intent" .... Duane Wilson (1 episode, 'The Watch') (2006) Coat Pockets
(2005) .... KennyThe Jacket
(2005) .... The StrangerHollywood Flies
(2004) (TV) .... JamieMummy an' the Armadillo
(2004) .... WyatteThe Car Kid
(2003/I) .... Troy RiversideAmerican Girl
(2002/I) .... Jay GrubbDeuces Wild
(2002) .... BobbyGhost World
(2001) .... JoshBully
(2001) .... Marty PuccioTart
(2001) .... William SellersHappy Campers
(2001) .... WichitaThe Theory of the Leisure Class
(2001) .... BillyMeter Man
(2000) .... SalSkipped Parts
(2000) .... Dothan TalbotHerschel Hopper: New York Rabbit
(2000) .... Tanner2 Little, 2 Late
(1999) .... Jimmy WalshApt Pupil
(1998) .... Todd BowdenTelling Lies in America
(1997) .... Karchy 'Chucky' JonasSleepers
(1996) .... Young Michael SullivanTom and Huck
(1995) .... Huck FinnThe Cure
(1995) .... ErikThe Client
(1994) .... Mark Sway
(2001) (associate producer)
The Los Angeles Times, Valley Edition, Sunday February 10, 2008.