Scouts to the Rescue
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Yes, it’s a cliché -- but fame is indeed a fickle friend. And its emotional toll, when it’s withdrawn from those it has once embraced, can destroy even the strongest soul. The seemingly blessed life, and utterly tragic death, of Jonathan Brandis is proof of that.
Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1976 – Jonathan was the only child of Mary and Greg Brandis. His blond hair, blue eyes and radiant smile were child-model-perfect -- and the Brandis family decided to run with it. His first print modeling job, at age two, was for Buster Brown clothing. But soon TV commercials beckoned -- for products such as Fisher-Price toys and Kix cereal.
Jonathan’s first steady acting job came when he landed a recurring role on the soap opera, One Life To Life (1968). And though the daily commute into New York City was a hassle, young Jon seemed to love the stability of going to work at the same studio everyday. It was wonderful too for him to be able to supplement his fire fighter father’s salary with a fat and regular paycheck at the end of each week.
After his family moved to Los Angeles - specifically to further Jon’s career - acting work did continue to come his way. But most of it was one-shot guest roles, and rarely more than two a year. This up and down roller coaster of an actor’s life did seem to wear on young Jonathan’s emotions.
But in late 1990, Jon won his first feature film starring role in The Neverending Story II. And though the sequel was not as high-profile a project as its predecessor, it did put Jonathan on the movie casting radar at last. Plus now his All American Boy good looks were in full bloom as well.
Sidekicks (1992) paired him up with Chuck Norris, in a fairly forgettable martial arts comedy. But 1992’s Ladybugs still has great legs to this day – no doubt fueled by Jonathan’s hilarious in-drag antics as a girls’ soccer team star coached by legendary funnyman Rodney Dangerfield.
In 1993, when Steven Spielberg tapped him to portray teen computer genius Lucas Wolenczak in the futuristic underwater sci-fi series seaQuest DVS, Jonathan was happily in his element again. He had steady work, a steady paycheck, and a new bonus – girls by the thousands willing to worship the ground he walked on.
It’s estimated that at the height of his seaQuest fame, when his face was on the cover of virtually every teen magazine in the world, Jonathan was getting four thousand fan letters a week. He needed to be escorted to and from the set by studio security guards constantly. Though, according to co-star Roy Schieder, Jonathan did use his pinup boy cache to hook-up with quite a few of these admiring young females.
Also, during his exciting Spielberg-produced voyage, Jonathan began to expand creatively as well. Smartly following Rule # 1 in every writer’s manual, he began scribbling about what he knew best. And that, of course, was seaQuest. So at the young age of nineteen, with no other writing credits under his belt, Jonathan had two of his seaQuest scripts produced.
But when Jon climbed out of the DSV submarine for the last time at the end of the 1996 season, there was no immediate major project on the horizon. Luckily, the Disney channel soon changed that with a minor career shift for Jonathan. He would be “voicing” a character called “Mozenrath” in the new Alladin (1994-1995) animated TV series.
After only eight episodes, that job ended too, and it was back on the audition circuit for Jonathan. There were more sporadic TV appearances, and then the predictable assortment of straight-to-video features that so many fading television stars end up in.
In 2002, hoping to change his self-perceived downward career trajectory, Jonathan began looking for roles in small independent films. There, the money is not so great, but an actor has more of a chance of being taken seriously by critics, film festival audiences, and high-end producers.
The Year That Trembled (2002), was based on the well-known coming-of-age novel by Scott Lax - about the aftermath of the historic shootings at Kent State University. Also in 2002, Jonathan appeared in a small film called Hart’s War. His performances in both pictures were very well received and the “indie” experience encouraged him greatly.
So much so that he began to make plans for his own producing / directing debut. He wrote a short Civil War era screenplay called The Slainesville Boys, and was able to raise the money to shoot it in early 2003. Filming took place in and around Austin, Texas - and everyone involved seemed happy with the experience. And all were confident that the film could be a big turning point in Jon’s career.
But sadly, that was not to be. On November 11, 2003 - after an early evening of dinner and drinks with a few friends - Jonathan and company returned to his Hollywood apartment. It was obvious that Jon seemed a bit agitated that night. As everyone else relaxed, he paced the room and eventually at some point slipped away. About fifteen minutes later, when he hadn’t returned to the living room, his buddies began searching for him. He was found just outside the apartment, hanging from a stairwell railing. At the age of 27, Jonathan Brandis had ended his own life.
In retrospect, some friends admitted that he had made hints about being lonely and unhappy. Others claim they saw no signs. For his parents, the news was agony, and that continues still. His mother believes the acne drug Acutane is to blame for Jonathan’s, and other, suicides. The jury is still out on that. But what is certain is that a very talented and loved young man lived a life that was much too short and still full of great promise.