From Hometown Boy To Hollywood Celebrity – The Story Of Brad Renfro


Most children dream of becoming a Hollywood movie star, but only a few will see their dream come true. Of those who do succeed, many are not prepared for the challenge of transitioning from an average kid to a famous celebrity. Children of Hollywood royalty will almost always transition with ease, while those who are left alone to their own devices with no parental supervision will struggle mercilessly.

Growing up in the limelight is nothing like growing up in a small town. Some will get into trouble and some will not, but this is truly no different from children living somewhere else. But, the Hollywood demands and peer pressure are much greater and temptations are endless. When the psychological and physical pressures become too much, some child stars will turn to alcohol and illicit drugs for relief.

brad renfro actor

Brad Renfro 1988 Wee The People
Credit: Knox News

Brad Barron Renfro was born on July 25, 1982 in Knoxville, Tennessee to Angela Denise McCrory Olsen and Mark Renfro, a general manager of a Knoxville-based commercial printing company. While Brad’s story is not unique, it is one that has left an impression on many people, including his family, friends, colleagues and others who had never met him.

Brad attended Fountain City Elementary School from kindergarten to fourth grade. It was here, where he got his first brush with acting, when he starred in Wee The People in 1988. At that time, no one could imagine that Brad would become a famous celebrity. He was later transferred to Lincoln Park Elementary, where he would complete fifth grade.

At the age of five, Brad’s life would take a dramatic turn, as his mother and father divorced. He and his father moved into his paternal grandmother’s home at 616 Chickamauga Avenue in Lincoln Park. Joanne Barron Renfro, a secretary at Tekoa Baptist Church on Schaad Road, became Brad’s guardian, but his father remained in his life. His mother eventually remarried and moved to Michigan, where she gave birth to a daughter, Haley Rose Olsen.

Brad used his father’s guitar he had won in a contest hosted by a local radio station to learn how to play. He and his father took guitar lessons for about five months, but little good it did to teach him how to read music. Those who heard Brad play said he was a natural. While he enjoyed all genres of music, he loved hard rock the most and was a big fan of Led Zeppelin.

Brad caught the attention of Knoxville D.A.R.E officer, Dennis Bowman, when he playing a drug dealer in an anti-drug play. Bowman was so impressed with his acting ability that he sent casting director Mali Finn photographs of Brad. Finn was known for kick-starting the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Edward Furlong. Brad was later chosen to audition for “The Client” in 1993. His grandmother accompanied him to California for the audition. At first, the director was skeptical of Brad’s ability to remain focused, but they saw potential in Brad.

stevens mortuary brad renfro

Stevens Mortuary Knoxville TN

This is when Laura LeCoultre Lawson, a fifth-grade schoolteacher with the Knox County School System, agreed to serve as his mentor during a second audition. Her great ability to keep Brad focused earned him the role in “The Client”. Lawson would later be appointed Brad’s set teacher, guardian and disciplinarian during the total filming of the movie. Lawson lived with Brad around the clock, moving to different locations over several months until the filming was complete.

In 1994, Brad was cast in the drama film, “The Cure,” alongside Joseph Mazello. Between shooting, he returned to Knoxville, as which time he served as the grand marshal for the University of Tennessee’s homecoming parade. “The Client” was released on July 20, 1994 and “The Cure” on April 21, 1995. Brad was doing great with his new career and in 1995, he was cast in “Tom and Huck”, an adventure comedy-drama film based on Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

In 1995, Brad was cast in the legal crime drama film “Sleepers,” starring Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman and Vittorio Gassmann. Brad’s father and grandmother were on set of the “Sleepers” when they had the opportunity to meet Brad Pitt. Sleepers was released on October 18, 1996.

In 1997, Brad was still living in his grandmother’s Lincoln Park home, owned 12 guitars and was in the process of building a studio in his backyard. While he was preparing for the release of the coming-of-age-drama film, Telling Lies in America, his family was experiencing problems at home.

In 1997, Renfro stared in Apt Pupil alongside Ian McKellen. The film, which was based on the 1982 Stephen King novella, earned Renfro a Best Actor Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film was met with positive reception, but it was scrutinized on many levels. It was referred to as “exploitative”. Behind the scene, Apt Pupil had even more trouble.

A 14-year-old extra filed a lawsuit claiming that Singer forced him and other extras to strip naked for a shower scene. A 16-year-old and 17-year-old later supported the boy’s claim. Nevertheless, the civil case was eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence. The scene was ultimately filmed again using adult actors.

Regardless, it seemed that Brad Renfro’s life took a turn for the worse around this time. Some speculate that this was around the time that Brad was introduced to drugs. Brad wasn’t the only one that experienced hardship starting around 1997. On March 31, 1997, three men opened fire on a house occupied by Renfro’s maternal grandmother, mother and stepsister. While no one was killed, Renfro’s grandmother, Judy Hurt, was shot in the arm.

His 2-year-old step sister, Haley Rose, was struck in both legs. Brad’s mother, Angel Olsen, was in the home with her husband, John at the time. Thomas Faulkner Jr., Ted Ogle, and Terry Ogle were involved. Faulkner confessed to emptying a pistol at the house. Ted Ogle admitted to firing 17 shots from an assault rifle. After hearing a woman screaming from inside, Ted had a change of heart. He “couldn’t go in and finish her off”.

Nevertheless, Faulkner admitted that their “plan was to kill everyone in the house”. The plan was orchestrated by Allison Hurt, who was married to Judy Hurt’s ex-husband. She wanted the other women dead, so she could take their Cherokee Lake property. Allison agreed to pay the men $50 and anything they could steal from the home. The three men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 30 to 73 years. As for Allison Christine Lowery, former Allison Hurt, she was ordered to serve 12 months of a 10-year sentence.

The judge told Allison that she would be sent back to prison, if she failed a single drug screen. The three men were also convicted in the murder of 61-year-old J.B. Whittaker of New Market. The trio killed Whittaker at his Asheville Highway business, Whittaker’s Auto Parts. The men were in the business earlier. Whittaker found them suspicious, so he wrote down their license plate number. Despite his death, Whittaker’s quick thinking ultimately led to the arrest of his murderers.

biography brad renfo

Unfortunately, Laura LeCoultre Lawson would never get to see Renfro reach his full potential. Lawson, who was born on September 24, 1962, passed away on April 18, 1998. She left the world at the age of 35 after a battle with cancer. Lincoln Park Elementary, where Brad and Laura initiated their friendship, no longer serves the community as an elementary school. And sadly, Laura’s role in leading Renfro to success has been mostly forgotten.

In 1998, at the age of 15, Brad and his cousin, Mark Singleton, was found to have cocaine and marijuana in his possession. Brad and Singleton were charged with drug possession. To avoid trial, Brad agreed to random drug testing and former Jefferson County principal Gene Hill spoke on his behalf.

In 2001, then 18, it was clear Brad was using illicit drugs. Director Larry Clark captured images of Brad injecting cocaine into his veins, while wearing his underwear. Some of Clark’s images showed Brad shirtless, displaying his track marks. Clark drove to Knoxville to pick up Brad to take him to Florida, where his psychological crime drama film, “Bully”, would be filmed. Despite Clark’s efforts, Brad was able to escape and hook up with Harold Bond. The duo attempted to steal a yacht from a Fort Lauderdale harbor. Brad received the probation sentence of 2 years and was ordered to pay for the damaged that occurred during the incident.

Less than a year later, Brad was arrested and charged with underage drinking, violating the terms of his probation. Knoxville Police offers pulled Brad over in January 2002 and discovered he was operating a vehicle without a valid licensed. He was charged with public intoxication and driving without a valid license. Brad would spend three months in a court-ordered drug treatment program to avoid jail time. He was arrested again in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

On January 15, 2008, Renfro was discovered unresponsive by his girlfriend in his Los Angeles apartment. On February 8, 2008, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office concluded that the death was accidental. They attributed the death to acute heroin/morphine intoxication. Renfro’s body was returned to Knoxville. The autopsy showed that Renfro had gotten a new tattoo, “Fuck All Ya’ll” across his back. A service was held at Stevens Mortuary on Oglewood Avenue in Knoxville. Then, Brad’s body was transported to the Red House Cemetery in Blaine, Tennessee. He was ultimately laid to rest in the back corner of the cemetery just under a tree.

Brad’s grandmother, Joanne was too ill to attend. She would pass away just 17 days later at the age of 76. Local officials later determined that Joanne had died of natural causes. Brad’s mother would live on until March of 2012. She was born on July 19, 1961 and passed away on March 3, 2012. A memorial service for Ms. Olsen was held at the Westside Baptist Temple at 222 West Scott Avenue in Knoxville. Brad’s father, stepsister and stepbrother are still residing in Tennessee.

After Renfro’s death, Mark Foster of Foster the People wrote a song, “Downtown”, about his passing. Foster was Renfro’s roommate. In 2012, actor James Franco brought attention back to Brad Renfro when he got a tattoo on his shoulder in memory of the late actor. He also sold limited edition switchblades with the words “Renfro” and “Forever” on them. Some ridiculed Franco’s stunt suggesting that the two actors barely knew one another.

In Brad’s obituary, it was mentioned that he had a son. He was only identified as Y. Later, it was determined that Brad had a child with Reiko Kozutsumi. Yamato’s existence was hidden from the public, until Brad’s passing. He was raised solely in Japan, but spends time with Brad’s father, Mark, from time to time.

Brad Renfro’s life was full of the highest highs and the lowest lows. He reached highs that most people dream of. Yet, he soared to lows that most people would classify as nightmares. Brad’s life is certainly enough to make one ponder existence and life in general. He proved that a southern boy from nothing could achieve one of life’s biggest dreams, but his life can easily be considered a cautionary tale. No matter how high one goes, it can all come crashing down at a moment’s notice.

The tale is a sad one of someone who was exploited by everyone, including themselves. Brad Renfro has now found peace at the Red House Cemetery in Blaine, Tennessee. He has finally found a place where abuse is nonexistent.

Disclaimer: The information above was compiled after extensive research. Nevertheless, we cannot guarantee that everything is 100% accurate. We did our best though.

December 21, 2017 |

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