Jonathan Brandis hanged himself 10 years ago this week 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.[jump]
"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?