Brad Renfro in The Client ( 1994 )
Author John Grisham did not want a professional Hollywood child actor, complete with phoney southern accent, to play the pivotal role of Mark Sway in The Client (1994). Enter the 11 year-old unknown Brad Renfro from Memphis, Tennessee. His only acting experience was in a school production, yet he beat out thousands of contenders for the part, including hot shot Macaulay Culkin. He was about to get a wonderful acting opportunity, to play in a film opposite major stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon. The Client would go on to gross over $100 million and would establish the boy as a shining new talent.
Within four years of making this film, however, he was in trouble with the law. Charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana in 1998, he avoided jail time in a plea bargain, agreeing to undergo random drug testing. Three years later he copped two years’ probation when he and a friend attempted to steal an expensive yacht from its moorings in Fort Lauderdale. They neglected to notice that the craft was still tied to the dock when they tried to drive off with it on a trailer. The yacht bounced off onto the road and sustained considerable damage.
In May that same year Brad was arrested for underage drinking. In 2002 he was busted again, this time for driving without a license and for public intoxication. He was ordered into rehab. Three years down the track the charge was more serious. He was arrested while attempting to purchase heroin during a drug sting operation in the skid row section of L A. Attempting to buy heroin is a felony in California, so in 2006 the 23 year-old actor was sent off to a rehabilitation program yet again. Somewhere along the way he fathered a son (a boy named Yamato) to a woman who then moved to Japan with the child. Two years later, on 15 January 2008, Brad Renfro was found dead at 25 from a heroin – morphine overdose. He once made a personal plea to fans: ‘If you’ve never tried drugs, DON’T. And if you have, pray’. Sadly, he failed to heed his own advice.
If you watch The Client today his enormous acting talent is clearly evident; his charisma and screen presence not unlike that of the equally tragic River Phoenix at the same age. He more than holds his own with his established co-stars in what is an engrossing drama. Three years after The Client he featured alongside Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt in Sleepers, and again acquitted himself well. In all he made 21 films during his brief life, although many of his later ones went straight to video. In 2000, he auditioned for the role of Gabriel Martin in the Mel Gibson film The Patriot, but lost out to Heath Ledger. In a tragic coincidence, Ledger’s death from a prescription overdose on 21 January, 2008, would come less than a week after Renfro’s.