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Brad Renfro: Actor with a 'bad boy' reputation

Brad Barron Renfro, actor: born Knoxville, Tennessee 25 July 1982; died Los Angeles 15 January 2008

Brad Renfro was once asked a simple question: if he was offered the opportunity to look into the future, would he take it? "No," he replied. "I don't want to know." It was perhaps just as well; this was early 2005, and at the age of 22 the curse of the child star was starting to take its toll.

Since being launched into Hollywood in the John Grisham adaptation The Client (1994) at 12, Renfro had shown great promise in a variety of dark and challenging roles – most notably the controversial Nazi drama Apt Pupil (1998), alongside Ian McKellen – until the inevitable tabloid headlines began in the late 1990s to suggest that his life was not on an even keel. After several arrests, and a noticeable downturn in work, the actor was found dead in his Los Angeles home on Tuesday, after a social night out with friends.

Renfro was born in 1982, in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Mark and Angela Renfro. The couple divorced in 1987 and Brad was raised by his paternal grandmother, Joanne. At 10, he was known as a troublemaker in the local community – by his own admission he smoked his first joint at nine and was drunk at 11 – and came to the attention of casting agents after taking part in a series of plays staged by the anti-drug charity D.A.R.E.

Ironically, it was Renfro's depth and maturity that struck the Client director Joel Schumacher when he saw Renfro's audition tape a year later. "Brad Renfro got the part of the wise-ass kid in The Client because that's exactly what he is," Schumacher said. "He has the qualifications, being that he's the product of a broken home, extremely sensitive, and too smart for his own good."

The troubles began in 1998, in his hometown, where he was charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana, avoiding jail time by making a plea bargain. In Florida two years later, while filming the sexually explicit teen drama Bully (2001) with the film-maker Larry Clark, Renfro had to be bailed out of prison on the first day of shooting, having attempted to steal a 45ft yacht, without first unmooring it. He was placed on probation and ordered to pay $4,000 for repairs.

It was around this time that Renfro's behaviour became noticeably erratic: promoting the film at the Venice film festival in 2001, the actor went missing for long periods, gave interviews while lying down in a state of obvious disrepair, and reputedly checked out of his hotel in order to move to a backpackers' hostel nearby.

He was arrested again in January 2002 and charged with underage drinking, driving without a licence and violating the terms of his probation, and was ordered into rehab for 90 days. The sobriety was short lived, and Renfro was back in the news again in December 2005, when he attempted to buy heroin from an undercover Los Angeles police officer. Though he was given three years' probation, a count of driving under the influence meant that those terms were immediately broken and Renfro served 10 days in LA County Jail in May 2006.

In that time, Renfro's career had wound down considerably, and after the strong run that had included The Client, Apt Pupil and Sleepers (1996), in which the vulnerable young star exuded a sad-eyed, wounded masculinity, the former lead was now playing small parts in low-budget movies that, with the exception of Ghost World (2001) and The Jacket (2005), didn't even get a UK release. The drink and drugs were blamed, but Renfro, a guitarist and rock fan in his spare time, maintained this image was a case of mistaken identity. "Everybody thinks I'm, like, a bad boy," he once said. "I've had my day, but I just sit at home and play the blues mostly."

Sadly, his premature death will only reinforce his bad-boy status. He joins River Phoenix in the Hollywood pantheon of lost boys whose true talent never really stood a chance.

Damon Wise