Saturday, August 08, 2009
The short life and tragic death of Jonathan Brandis
Once upon a time in Connecticut, there lived a charming little boy wonder named Jonathan Brandis. Jon expressed an interest in the arts from a very early age, and had a strong desire to be an actor. In seemingly no time at all, Jonathan found himself in countless commercials. His parents supported his ambitions and the family moved to Los Angeles, where Jonathan made his mark performing several television guest spots and made his entry into the movie world in films such as Stephen King's "It" and "The Neverending Story 2".
It was Jonathan's role in the 1992 teen comedy "Ladybugs" with Rodney Dangerfield that brought him to the attention of screaming teen girls everywhere, and when Stephen Spielberg cast him in the sci-fi TV series "SeaQuest DSV", the rest was history.
During the early 90s, there was not a teen rag that didn't have Jonathan on the cover, where he dominated the scene as the top ranking teen idol of that time, a position reinforced by the fact that every teen idol magazine in which he appeared not only featured multiple pinups, but the centerfold and a non-stop slew of articles chronicling all aspects of Jonathan's life - from his close relationship to his parents as an only child to his prom night, which he attended with Brittany Murphy.
Jonathan wasn't your typical teen idol. Sure, he had the dazzling blue eyes and the ever-present charisma, but he was clearly a deep thinker and a man who had his own way of doing things. During the 90s, his longterm girlfriend at the time was Tatyana Ali from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and he was proud of his interracial romance (Unfortunately, even by today's standards you don't see that often). Jonathan was one of the most prolific autograph signers and letter writers. Despite receiving 4,000 pieces of fan mail a week from around the world, he took every opportunity to return a letter to fans or sign a photo wherever possible. He even had his own advice column in teen magazines and enjoyed a tremendously positive reputation. Jonathan was not part of the wild teen star scene and was a low key character who stayed away from the party and drug scene while trying to remain as accessible as possible to his adoring public. The possibilities for his future seemed endless.
Fast forward to 1997. Jonathan's run as the boy genius with the pet dolphin aboard SeaQuest ended, and Jonathan found himself struggling for parts. Much of the mainstream public wasn't aware, but he was still actively working. He continued acting via made-for-TV movies and independent films and bit parts in larger films including Hart's War (starring Colin Farrell and Bruce Willis, which Jonathan had high hopes for resuscitating his career). Sadly and through no fault of his own, that role ended up on the cutting room floor. George Lucas auditioned him for the role of young adult Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. The part eventually went to Hayden Christensen.
I vividly remember sitting at my computer in 2004 digging for entertainment updates. This was in the days before blogging had become all the rage, and while reading news on the E! news website, I saw a single line "Jonathan Brandis, star of SeaQuest DSV, committed suicide by hanging at the age of 27." At first I thought it was a rumor, so I Googled it only to find one other location reporting it, a small newspaper based in Middle America. Eventually the news would be confirmed as true.
I remembered Jonathan well, like any other girl growing up during that era, I thought I would end up marrying him. I couldn't believe that someone with such astronomical fame had been reduced to not being worth more than a few words in a sentence on E!, without a picture or any other mention. To put it into perspective, if Zac Efron died in 15 years, would he have this to look forward to? Seeing Zac, one can't help but think of the similarities. Both were a little too pretty, multi-talented and underestimated, proud of their girlfriends, bore big flashy grins, positive attitudes and endless charm, and were squeaky clean compared to their counterparts.
If you ever see the last known photograph of Jonathan, he was stopped by a fan a few days prior to his death where he posed for a photograph. Looking at the picture, I can honestly say as big a fan as my teenage self had been, I would have never recognized him. He didn't look like the Jonathan I had remembered - his face had filled out, he wore scruffy facial hair, and frankly looked a bit out of sorts. I probably did pass him numerous times on the street, unbeknownst to me he lived a few blocks away from my then West Hollywood apartment and in my favorite neighborhood.
No matter how much one tries, they can never understand what it is to go from thousands of pieces of fan mail a week to walking down a street unrecognizable and forgotten. Apparently, Jonathan's suicide came with a few friends in another room. He had come back from an outing flustered, and threw a rope over the rafters of the hallway in his apartment complex completely sober. By the time his friends found him, he was unconscious, and died from his injuries the following day.
The only magazine that took the time to remember his life in any way was People magazine, who wrote a half-page article on him. Apparently, he wasn't important enough to make it on mainstream entertainment news programs, even though he once ruled the world for an era of teen girls everywhere. Are teen idols really a dime a dozen? How can anyone be on top of the world one day and forgotten the next and maintain the sanity to live a quality life afterwards? I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite films, 1950's "Sunset Boulevard", which gave us the iconic character of Norma Desmond - the aging film star forgotten by the world who mentally unwinds in her Sunset Blvd mansion after discovering the extent of her public neglect. Clearly, here-on-day-gone-tomorrow in Tinseltown is nothing new.
Suicide can touch the lives of just about anyone. Upon researching, I found a few old advice columns Jonathan Brandis wrote in teen magazines. A few people wrote in about contemplating suicide, and he claimed such topics were among the hardest he could ever read. He advised that they call the suicide prevention hotline, something he sadly didn't choose in the end. By all accounts, Jonathan was a good kid from a loving home, not the typical child star with the forceful stage parents and didn't have a long history of addiction, and took his life free of any drug or alcohol impairment. He also had aspirations as a writer and director which we will never see fully realized. In an uncharacteristic move, I wrote a letter to his parents. I remembered he was an only child and couldn't imagine how anyone could make that choice without taking that into account, not to mention the many good friends Jonathan seemed surrounded by who would ultimately be so profoundly affected. His mother wrote me back (in true Brandis fashion) and seemed touched her son was remembered and that the time was taken to write. She said Jonathan was the light of her life and would be, and sent a laminated card of Jonathan in his later years, smiling, with the dates of his birth and death. Above his picture, the card was titled "Fade to Black: Gone but far from forgotten".
To this day, many people don't even know he passed, despite it having been five years. However, several fans picked up the torch and created online website memorials, and JonathanBrandis.org became a suicide prevention site as well as an online testamonial to a beautiful life. We are all left to wonder what could have been, and fated to contemplate how something so awful could have happened to such a once-hopeful and optimistic young man. Jonathan made tremendous contributions to the film and television industry with his enormous talent and will be sorely missed and indeed remembered by those whose lives he touched. He is forever chrystallized on film as the young boy with the bluest of eyes and the biggest of dreams.
To those contemplating suicide - Please take the advice Jon didn't and call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free 24-hour suicide prevention hotline. No matter how much you think people won't notice or care, they will. It's never too late.