Jonathan Brandis hanged himself 10 years ago this week (November 12, 2003) at Sixth and Detroit in Los Angeles, in the second-floor hallway of an apartment building south of Hollywood near a decent doughnut shop and a cat groomer. He was 27 years old. And he was my first big crush.
If you’re picturing him in your head, you’re imagining him young. Brandis began modeling at 2, scored a soap opera gig at 6, and by 10 was a TV regular with guest appearances on Alien Nation, Who’s the Boss?, Blossom, L.A. Law, Full House, The Wonder Years and Murder, She Wrote. He was 16 when he made Ladybugs, 17 when he was cast as teen genius Lucas Wolenczak in Steven Spielberg’s seaQuest 2032. You can’t picture him any older than that, because when seaQuest was canceled in 1996, just before Brandis turned 20, the casting offers stopped.
“A time’s coming when I’m going to play the father in a movie,” Brandis insisted to a journalist that year while on a small publicity tour for a TV flick where he played a boy befriending a lion. He vowed that would be his last kiddie role.
Brandis had 4,000 reasons to believe that was true — the year before, at the height of his fame, that was the number of fan letters he received each week. Three security guards had to escort him through the screaming girls who staked out the seaQuest set at Universal Studios in Orlando, and the editor of Tiger Beat put him on the cover of eight out of 12 issues. “I never perceived myself like this — a teen magazine kid,” Brandis said. “As an actor, you just hope to continue working.”
Brandis tried everything to keep working. He dyed his hair black to play a drug addict, wore goofy glasses to play a murderer, and grew a beard for a Western. No one noticed. He went two years without a job. Then he finally won a small part in the Bruce Willis World War II film Hart’s War, but got depressed when his part was cut even smaller, with less than two minutes of screen time. The year after Hart’s War was released, he was dead.
Over the years, a friend and I have half-joked about painting an Elliott Smith–style memorial to Brandis on the block where he died — maybe something with a soccer ball and a dolphin? — but half-jokes are cruel to someone who ended his life as a pop culture punchline. Also, when we’ve half-joked about it around people, half of them have to be reminded who he even was.
How did a kid who graced a hundred Bop covers get so quickly forgotten? Because male child stars are always overlooked. While the culture frets over what really got between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, how much Mary-Kate and Ashley are eating, and all things Lohan, the mental struggles of actors like Brandis go ignored.
It’s the odd gender paradox of young fame: Girls get more scrutiny, boys get more puff-piece press. Part of it is the hand-wringing moralization we force on kid actresses. But the simpler reason is economics: Teen female fans buy stuff. They squeal over posters, snatch up pencil boxes with their favorite stars, and sardine themselves outside movie premieres with a fervor that your average teen dude would find embarrassing. (Besides, teen guys tend to aspirationally age up and lust after underwear models.)
Take the teenybopper magazine that seems so culturally normal when filled with photos of high school guys in flannel shirts posing on trees and flip the genders. Can you imagine a cheesecake mag of underage girls on sale at 7-Eleven?
Then add in the middle-school preference for boys who look soft: big eyes, round cheeks, full lips, thick hair. Muscles and chest fur are scary — tweens favor male stars who look like their idea of a hot date is a milkshake and a cuddle. The No. 1 insult boys in my eighth grade had for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin, Edward Furlong and, yes, Jonathan Brandis was, “He looks like a girl.” Which was especially hard to deny when Brandis came to fame playing a soccer star who dressed in drag and called himself Martha.
How many of those teen heartthrobs transitioned into adult stars? One. DiCaprio acknowledged the cull in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. “My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose,” he said. The suicide is Brandis. The OD could have been any one of several.
Four thousand fan letters every week aside, it’s tough being a girly-looking guy with your face all over the newsstands, even if the articles themselves are nice. For one, your face probably won’t age into something masculine enough to play adult roles and action heroes — even DiCaprio has had to disguise his soft features with a thick layer of fat. Worse, teen girls are fickle. When they get a new crush, those letters stop.
“When you’ve been on covers of magazines for years, when that stops happening, what’s your identity?” Tatyana Ali, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star and Brandis’ ex-girlfriend, explained in an interview about his death. At least young actresses who never experience that Tiger Beat fan frenzy don’t have to surf its sudden dropoff. More of them survive: Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Williams, Dakota Fanning, Christina Applegate, Claire Danes.
Girls, of course, have their own problems: the intense media fascination with their weight and virginity, the dulling de rigueur “naughty” phase. As a culture, we need to stop caring if our teen actresses have sex. Let’s start caring about if they — and their male co-stars — are happy.