As a brand, Disney is a star-maker: Household names such as Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Shia LaBeouf, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Hilary Duff, and Lindsay Lohan all got their big breaks through the House of Mouse. While all those stars have gone through trials and tribulations, they’ve also found tremendous professional success.
Unfortunately, for every Disney alumnus with a success story, there seems to be another whose life took a tragic turn. The trappings of fame and the challenges of navigating the path from child star to adult performer can be traumatizing. The following celebrities’ lives were plagued by problems. Some stumbled down bad paths and others experienced bad luck, be it poor health or falling victim to alleged criminals. From Mary Poppins star Michael Garber to Cameron Bryce of The Descendents, these Disney stars all died in heartbreaking ways, making the final chapters of their lives the very antithesis of the brand’s signature happy endings.
Dennis Day’s mysterious disappearance and alleged homicide
Dennis Day was one of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club of the fifties. While he lived to be 76 years old, the conditions surrounding his death are heartbreaking. According to The Oregonian, Day’s husband, Henry "Ernie" Caswell, who suffers from memory loss, reported him missing in July 2018. Caswell was hospitalized at the time. Day reportedly "left his dog with a friend on the day he disappeared," and his car was "found at the Oregon coast" later that month. Also in July, neighbors complained of a foul smell coming from Day’s home, prompting police to search the property.
It wasn’t until April 2019 that Day’s remains were discovered in his home with the help of a cadaver dog, reported CNN. In June 2019, Daniel James Burda was arrested in connection with Day’s death and disappearance. Burda was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, abuse of a corpse, identity theft, and more. Burda has called the charges "messed up."
Matthew Garber’s tragic trip overseas
Matthew Garber starred in 1963’s The Three Lives of Thomasina, then broke out the following year as the young Michael Banks in the original Mary Poppins movie. He did one more film, 1967’s The Gnome-Mobile, before going back to school. Between 1976 and 1977, Garber traveled to India, where he reportedly contracted hepatitis. His brother told the Mail on Sunday (via Reel Classics) that Garber had returned home to London for medical treatment, but by then, the disease had caused pancreatitis and was no longer treatable. Garber died in 1977 when he was just 21 years old.
Actress Karen Dotrice, who played Garber’s on-screen sister, Jane Banks, in the Mary Poppins classic, talked to the New York Post about grappling with her co-star’s death. "I’ve felt a huge responsibility these years representing both of us," she said. "I hope he’s OK with the way I talk about the movie, because he’s 50 percent of it."
Marque ‘Tate’ Lynch’s dazzling career took a tragic turn
Marque "Tate" Lynch, starred in the 1990s revival of The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling. Lynch later appeared in The Lion King on Broadway and competed on Season 3 of American Idol. Tragically, Lynch’s roommate found him dead in their New York City apartment in December 2015, reported the New York Daily News. He was just 34 years old. At the time of his passing, the performer had reportedly taken a break from showbiz to cope with the death of his mother. In March 2016, People reported that Lynch’s official cause of death was listed as acute and chronic alcoholism.
One of Lynch’s Mickey Mouse Club co-stars, Dale Godboldo, talked to People magazine about his late friend: "Knowing Marque during the MMC days — as my little brother — I knew he was hugely talented with a passion for the arts, and a passion for life. … Marque was a beautiful spirit, that although had endured so much, only wanted to spread love and inspiration."
Bridgette Andersen battled addiction
Bridgette Andersen starred in Disney’s The Parent Trap II in 1986 and appeared in several other TV shows throughout her short life, including Gun Shy, Golden Girls, and Fever Pitch. She was best known for playing the titular role of Savannah in the 1982 film Savannah Smiles. Andersen’s early talent earned her critical acclaim, but unfortunately, her acting opportunities appeared to dry up as the years went by. Andersen reportedly struggled with addiction throughout her adolescence and died of a heroin overdose at age 21 in 1997.
Actress Amber Tamblyn referenced Andersen’s tragic demise in her 2015 poetry book Dark Sparkler, telling Paper magazine that she drew connections between Andersen and adult film actress Shannon Marie Wilsey. "Shannon went under the porn name Savannah. I read in an interview that she gave herself that name from her favorite childhood movie, Savannah Smiles…" Tamblyn said. "Real cheerful anecdote, right?"
Hollywood may have ‘failed’ Brad Renfro
Brad Renfro was a prolific and acclaimed actor in his tragically short life. One of his early roles was Huckleberry Finn to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ Tom Sawyer in Disney’s Tom and Huck in 1995, but behind the scenes, Renfro was reportedly dealing with serious substance abuse problems. According to BuzzFeed, sources claimed Renfro was born addicted to heroin, was smoking pot at 9, started drinking by age 11, and began shooting up when he was 12.
Renfro’s troubles may have been exacerbated by Hollywood, where he was objectified for his "sex appeal" as a child. Fernando Altschul, the first assistant director on 1998’s Apt Pupil, told BuzzFeed that a teenage Renfro attended parties for adults involved with the film. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie was enveloped in disturbing controversy. "I feel like we’ve failed children like Brad in some ways," Altschul told BuzzFeed. "Maybe there should be someone who says a person in his situation isn’t psychologically ready to be on such a volatile place as a film set. I don’t know how you make that judgment, and if you’re offering somebody money, [how] they’re going to say no to it."
As an adult, Renfro was arrested several times for offenses that included DUI, drug possession, and attempting to steal a yacht. According to The Seattle Times, he died from a heroin overdose in January 2008 at just 25 years old.
Michael Galeota’s tragic and ‘puzzling’ death
Michael Galeota starred in the Disney Channel series The Jersey in 1999. He died in January 2016 at just 31 years old. TMZ reported that Galeota had been hospitalized for abdominal pains and left before medical professionals gave him the all-clear. Galeota, who reportedly had a history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diverticulitis, was found dead in his Glendale, Calif. home.
The actor’s brother, Jimmy, told People that their family was uncertain about the competency of care that Galeota received. "My family and I are concerned that he was not getting diagnosed properly," Jimmy told the outlet. "We’re seeing reports from various doctors with different diagnoses about Mike’s health. We’re confused as to why one doctor would not pick up the other doctor’s diagnosis." Jimmy called the circumstances leading up to the tragedy "puzzling." He added, "This whole situation, what happened to him, is heartbreaking he left so quickly and unexpectedly and it’s got a lot of people in shock." Heart disease was eventually determined to be the cause of death, People reported.
Lee Thompson Young’s family honors his memory through advocacy
Lee Thompson Young, who starred as a teenage secret agent in the Disney Channel series The Famous Jett Jackson from 1998 to 2001, died in August 2013 by suicide. He was just 29 years old. Young’s body was found after he failed to appear for a scheduled call time during production of the TNT drama Rizzoli & Isles. According to the New York Daily News, Young was being treated for bipolar disorder and depression. Lee’s family launched the Lee Thompson Young Foundation after his passing to raise awareness and help remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
"It sort of makes it okay. People know that Lee wasn’t the only one. And for them to see everything he accomplished in the 29 years, it’s more than some people accomplish their whole lives," Young’s sister, Tamu Lewis, told WIS News 10. "He was able to do that with a mental illness and, yes, it ended tragically but, through that we’re inspired."
Cameron Boyce shared poignant words to live by before his tragic death
Cameron Boyce, a veteran of several Disney Channel original shows and movies, including Jessie and The Descendants franchise, died at just 20 years old in July 2019. Boyce reportedly suffered a seizure in his home before his roommate found him unresponsive. An autopsy was conducted, but an official cause of death has not yet been determined at the time of this writing. Boyce’s parents confirmed to People that he suffered from epilepsy, a condition characterized by recurrent seizures.
In addition to acting, Boyce was also a philanthropist. He was honored at 2019 Thirst Gala for helping raise more than $77,000 to bring clean water to Swaziland. In his acceptance speech for the gala’s Pioneering Spirit Award, Boyce quoted fellow actor Denzel Washington, summarizing Washington’s words like this: "I’ve never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse…We don’t get to take what we have right now with us." Boyce said, "We all go, and I hope that all of you really think about what it is that you want to leave. We all have material things …but what you leave should be bigger than you. And I really believe that."