Brad Renfro

Brad Barron Renfro (July 25, 1982 – January 15, 2008) was an American actor. He made his film debut at the age of 11 in the lead role in The Client, and went on to star in 21 feature films. His career faded rapidly because of alcoholism and substance abuse. He died from a heroin overdose at the age of 25.[1]

Brad Renfro
Renfro in the movie Apt Pupil
Brad Barron Renfro

(1982-07-25)July 25, 1982
DiedJanuary 15, 2008(2008-01-15) (aged 25)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of deathHeroin overdose
Resting placeRed House Cemetery, Blaine, Tennessee
Years active1993–2008

Prior to being cast in The Client, Renfro had no acting background and had been living with his grandmother in a trailer park. Director Joel Schumacher cast him after looking around the country for a "tough kid" who had the necessary life experiences to understand his character. He soon attracted a large fanbase as he continued to star in movies like Tom and Huck and Sleepers. After 1998's Apt Pupil, a series of criminal arrests and stints in drug treatment limited his choice of roles.

Renfro's early death has raised questions as to whether Hollywood's systems for protecting child actors' welfare are adequate for at-risk youth acting in films.

Early life and career

Renfro was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982. He was the son of Angela Denise Olsen (McCrory; 1961–2012)[2] and Mark Renfro, who was a factory worker.[3][4][5] He was raised from the age of five by his paternal grandmother, Joanne (Barron) Renfro, a church secretary,[6] after his parents divorced. He reportedly did not have a close relationship with his father.[7]

When he was 10, Brad was discovered by Mali Finn, a casting director for Joel Schumacher. He had no prior acting experience or training; Finn had been talking to various agencies that worked with youth looking for a "tough" kid and settled on Brad after looking at five thousand such boys all over the country. At the time Renfro had been living in a trailer park outside Knoxville with Joanne following his parents' divorce five years earlier. "I wanted a kid who understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon," Schumacher later told The New York Times.[7]

Cast by Finn as the lead in Schumacher's The Client, Brad Renfro starred alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. His casting was announced in May 1993, and the movie was filmed in the summer of that year. Based on the bestselling John Grisham novel, it became one of the top-grossing films of 1994. In 1995, he won The Hollywood Reporter's "Young Star" award, and was nominated as one of People magazine's "Top 30 Under 30." That year, he played Huckleberry Finn in 1995's Tom and Huck with Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer.[8] He also won a second "Young Star" award, as well as the "Young Artist" award, for his performance in The Cure.[9]

In 1996, Renfro appeared in Sleepers, which was based on the novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The film was directed by Barry Levinson and co-starred Robert De Niro, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Ron Eldard and Brad Pitt (who played the older version of Renfro's character).

In 1998, he starred opposite Ian McKellen in Apt Pupil, directed by Bryan Singer. The several films that followed gained little attention, with the majority going straight to video.[10] He played Leon S. Kennedy in a live-action ad for Resident Evil 2, which aired in Japan. Renfro went on to act in other films, including 2001's Ghost World and Bully, 2002's Confessions of an American Girl, and 2005's The Jacket. He also appeared in the 2006 Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Watch", and completed filming on the film The Informers, co-starring Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton.

Renfro was the cousin of Jesse Hasek, lead singer of the band 10 Years,[3] and featured in the first version of the music video for their song "Wasteland". He also featured in the video for N*E*R*D song "Provider", playing the part of a petty drug dealer.

Renfro fathered one child, a son,[11] who was born in 2003. His name and age were initially withheld in Renfro's obituary out of his family's concerns for privacy. Renfro's son's existence was not known to the general public until after his father's death.[12] He was raised solely in Japan by his mother.[13]

Substance abuse and criminal record

Later in his life, Renfro reportedly told friends that his mother gave birth to him while she was addicted to heroin and that he himself had first used the drug when he was 12. According to a friend, his mother had enabled his use; SLC Punk! director James Merendino recalled to BuzzFeed in 2018 that Renfro said his mother had actually given him his first dose. Dire media accounts of his childhood have reported that he had smoked marijuana for the first time at the age of 9, at one point supposedly getting expelled after he lit up a joint in front of a school official, and got drunk for the first time at 11. By the age of 18 he had already been in rehabilitation more than once.[7]

On June 3, 1998, Renfro, then 15, and his 19-year-old cousin were arrested and charged with drug possession. He was carrying two small bags of cocaine in a cigarette box and a bag of marijuana in his sock.[14] He avoided trial by agreeing to be screened randomly for drugs and evaluated for any substance abuse problems in his plea bargain.[15]

On August 28, 2000, Renfro and his friend Harold Bond tried to steal a 45-foot yacht from Fort Lauderdale harbor. They were arrested on the same night and Renfro was charged with grand theft and criminal mischief. In January 2001, Renfro was sentenced to probation of two years and ordered to pay repair costs of the vessel to its owner and investigative costs to the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department.[15]

In May 2001 he was arrested for underage drinking, which violated his probation.[16] On January 14, 2002, Renfro violated his probation again and was arrested on charges of public intoxication and driving without a valid license in Knoxville.[17] He was put into a three-month substance abuse treatment program as a result.[18]

On November 24, 2005 he was charged with a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence and two counts of driving with a suspended license,[19] leading to 10 days in jail and 18 months of alcohol education classes.[20]

On December 22, 2005, Renfro was arrested by LAPD officers during an undercover drug sweep of Skid Row and was charged with attempted possession of heroin. A photograph showing the actor in handcuffs made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Renfro admitted to a detective that he was using heroin and methadone. In court, he pleaded guilty to the charges, and was sentenced to three years' probation[21] and fined $450.[22] In May 2006, he spent 10 days in jail for convictions of driving while under the influence and attempted heroin possession.[23]

In June 2007, Renfro was found to have violated his probation by not enrolling in a long-term drug treatment program. A judge warned him that if he violated probation two more times, he could be sentenced to a live-in rehab program or to jail time.[24]


Renfro was found dead on January 15, 2008 in his Los Angeles apartment. He was 25 years old.[24] His body was returned to Tennessee, where he was buried on January 22, 2008, north of Knoxville, at Red House Cemetery in the small community of Blaine. On February 8, 2008, the Los Angeles County Coroner's office ruled his death accidental, attributing it to acute heroin/morphine intoxication.[25][26]

Seventeen days after Renfro's death, his grandmother Joanne, who had accompanied him regularly during his early acting career, died at her home at the age of 76.[27] Local officials said she died of natural causes.[28]

Role of film industry

In 2018, 10 years after Renfro's death, and again the following year, the website BuzzFeed devoted a long article to retelling his rise and descent, particularly during the 1990s while he was still a teenager, and whether the film industry's methods of protecting the welfare of child actors during production were adequate to situations with an at-risk child like Renfro. It found no definite instance in which laws or contractual provisions had been violated on his films, but suggested that the system had nonetheless failed the actor by delegating responsibility to his mother and grandmother when he was off set, neither of whom were recalled as effective in those roles. Both women had since died by the time the article was published, and BuzzFeed could not locate Mark Renfro, Brad's father.[7]

Many adults who came into contact with the young actor believed, because of his worldliness and self-confidence, that he was some years older than he actually was at those times. "He had these street smarts and the swagger of a 19- or 20-year-old," said Dennis Bowman, the retired Knoxville police officer who had first referred the 10-year-old Renfro to Mali Finn for his breakthrough role in The Client. Gemma Jackson, production designer on Tom and Huck, was dumbstruck to learn that he was 13 during shooting.[7]

This apparent maturity was reflected in his onscreen portrayal. In his early roles he was often sexualized and shown shirtless, most notably in Apt Pupil, which showed him showering from the waist up at one point. He developed an ardent following among adolescent girls; Peter Horton, director of The Cure, recalled how the actor received many birthday cards from local girls in the Minnesota town where the film was being shot expressing sexually suggestive messages to him, notwithstanding that he had just turned 12. Some of his female admirers were older; Jackson's surprise at Renfro's actual youth came after she had recounted to BuzzFeed how he had had an adult girlfriend during production and was "sexually active".[7]

In the only incident which might have crossed legal boundaries, Fernando Altschul, the first assistant director on Apt Pupil, who had taken it upon himself to supervise Renfro since the young man seemed to respect him, recalled director Bryan Singer apparently preparing to go beyond permitted daily hours in shooting scenes with Renfro and some other teenaged actors at one point. He threatened to leave the set, all he could do since only the studio teacher on set would have the authority to stop production over that issue. Singer, through his lawyer, told BuzzFeed he never went over hours and Altschul never left the set.[7]

Later Altschul saw Renfro, then 14, at a party on set, the only underage attendee at an event where alcoholic beverages were available. While he was astonished, he decided not to say anything since "it would have been out of place" and Renfro looked like he had chosen to attend. Taking him home would have properly been the role of his grandmother, and "[h]e didn't really respect her, in the sense that he wouldn't listen to her ... I'm sure she did the best she could with him."[7]


Mark Foster of Foster the People was Renfro's roommate and wrote a song about his death called "Downtown".[29]

In 2012, actor James Franco had the name "Brad" tattooed on his right shoulder in memory of Renfro, which was documented by the art magazine The Thing Quarterly.[30] Franco also produced a limited-edition series of switchblades bearing the words "Brad Renfro" and "Forever."[31]


Year Title Role Notes
1994 The Client Mark Sway
1995 The Cure Erik
Tom and Huck Huckleberry Finn
1996 Sleepers Young Michael Sullivan
1997 Telling Lies in America Karchy "Chucky" Jonas
1998 Apt Pupil Todd Bowden
The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter Young man Video short
1999 2 Little, 2 Late Jimmy Walsh
2000 Recess (Voice) Episode: "Germ Warface"
Herschel Hopper: New York Rabbit Tanner
Skipped Parts Dothan Talbot
Meter Man Sal Short film
2001 Happy Campers Wichita
Tart William Sellers
Bully Marty Puccio
Ghost World Josh
The Theory of the Leisure Class Billy
2002 Deuces Wild Bobby
The Car Kid Vernon Short film
American Girl Jay Grubb
2003 The Job Troy Riverside
Citizen Tony Thoren (voice) Television film
2004 Mummy an' the Armadillo Wyatte
10 Years: Wasteland, Version 1 Man Video short
2005 The Jacket The Stranger
Coat Pockets Kenny Short film
Hollywood Flies Jamie
2006 Law & Order: Criminal Intent Duane Winslow Episode: "Watch"
10th and Wolf Vincent
2008 The Informers Jack
Collector Justin Short film; final film role


Occasion Year Award Movie Movie year Notes
YoungStar Awards 1995 Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama Film The Cure 1995 Won
Young Artist Award 1995 Young Artist Award for Best Performance by a Young Actor Starring in a Motion Picture The Client 1994 Won
YoungStar Awards 1996 Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Comedy Film Tom and Huck 1995 Nominated
Young Artist Award 1996 Young Artist Award for Best Young Leading Actor in a Feature Film The Cure 1995 Won — Shared with Joseph Mazzello
YoungStar Awards 1997 Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama Film Sleepers 1996 Nominated
Tokyo International Film Festival 1998 Best Actor Award Apt Pupil 1998 Won
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films 1999 Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor Apt Pupil 1998 Nominated
Sedona International Film Festival 2004 Director's Choice Award for Most Spirited Rising Performer Won

See also


  1. "Brad Renfro Warned Of Perils Of Drugs In 'Last' Interview". Access Hollywood. 13 Feb 2008. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  3. "Brad Renfro biography". Yahoo! Movies. Archived from the original on March 14, 2007.
  4. "Brad Renfro". Film
  5. Details - Google Books. 2010-09-02. Retrieved 2015-03-03.
  6. Weinraub, Bernard (July 12, 1994). "For 'Client,' a Survivor, Age 10". The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2007.
  7. Vary, Adam (May 4, 2018). "How Hollywood Failed Brad Renfro". BuzzFeed. Retrieved May 9, 2018.
  8. "Young star Brad Renfro dies at 25". Herald Sun. January 16, 2008. Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  9. Carroll, Larry (January 16, 2008). "Brad Renfro Dead At 25 - MTV Movie News". MTV. Retrieved February 18, 2012.
  10. Bergan, Ronald (January 17, 2008). "Obituary: Brad Renfro". The Guardian. London.
  11. "Exclusive: Brad Renfro told cousin he wanted to marry his son's mother". US Magazine. Archived from the original on January 28, 2008.
  12. "Obituaries - Brad Barron Renfro". Knoxville News Sentinel. January 20, 2008.
  13. "Brad Renfro spent several days with secret son before he died". Now magazine. January 24, 2008. Retrieved October 4, 2009.
  14. "Renfro faces charges" (Fee required). Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 6, 1998. Retrieved December 2, 2010 via NewsLibrary.
  15. "Actor must pay for yacht damages". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. January 6, 2001. p. 2. Retrieved December 2, 2010.
  16. "Brad Renfro Obituary". Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  17. "Actor Renfro back in jail; allegedly broke probation" (Fee required). The Miami Herald. February 6, 2002. Retrieved December 2, 2010 via NewsLibrary.
  18. "Actor Renfro told get clean and sober, or else" (Fee required). The Post and Courier. February 9, 2002. p. 2. Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. Retrieved December 2, 2010.
  19. Silverman, Stephen M. (26 December 2005). "Actor Brad Renfro Busted in Police Sting". People. Meredith Corporation. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  20. "US actor Brad Renfro dies aged 25". BBC News. BBC. 16 January 2008. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  21. Winton, Richard (January 17, 2008). "Renfro autopsy planned for Thursday". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 6 February 2008. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  22. "Ex-child star Renfro jailed in LA". BBC News. BBC. 9 March 2006. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  23. "Actor Brad Renfro found dead in Los Angeles home". Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. January 15, 2008. Archived from the original on 19 September 2008. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  24. Breuer, Howard; Lehner, Marla (February 8, 2008). "Brad Renfro Dies at 25". Retrieved February 8, 2008.
  25. Silverman, Stephen M.; Aradillas, Elaine (February 8, 2008). "Coroner: Brad Renfro Died of Heroin Overdose". Retrieved February 8, 2008.
  26. "Actor Brad Renfro died from heroin overdose". Los Angeles Times. 2008-02-08. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-08-04.
  27. "Brad Renfro's grandmother, 76, dies". Knoxville News Sentinel. February 3, 2008.
  28. "Brad Renfro's grandmother dies". Knoxville, TN. February 3, 2008.
  29. Redmond, Caroline (17 November 2017). "Brad Renfro: Inside the Actor's Shocking Death at 25 and Quick Rise to Fame". People. Meredith Corporation. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  30. "Issue 14: James Franco". The Thing Quarterly. 2012. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03.
  31. "James Franco: Limited Edition Switchblade". The Thing Quarterly. 2012. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03.
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