“Former child star dies of overdose” ranks somewhere near “Snow in Buffalo” on the spectrum of shocking news stories. It’s always sad, it always gives us a moment of pause—but it’s a narrative that has faithfully recycled itself every few years since Bobby Driscoll and Anissa Jones died too young in the 1970s. And if you’d encountered 1980s teen star Corey Haim on TV in the past decade, his death of a (presumed) overdose early Wednesday morning could not have been a total surprise. That didn’t mean it wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t heartbreaking, but if there was ever an instance where we probably should have seen it coming, this was it.
To give us all a sense of perspective, though, before we start throwing around the inevitable terms like “has-been,” “washed up,” and “former”: At one point in time, Corey Haim was a very talented actor. That talent may have vanished in, or at least been obscured by, his decades of substance abuse, but at one point in time, it was there. Roger Ebert’s review of Haim’s 1986 film Lucas becomes especially prescient, and especially poignant, in this light: “If he can continue to act this well, he will never become a half-forgotten child star, but will continue to grow into an important actor. He is that good.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t continue.
By the end of the 1980s, he was an addict. By the end of the 1990s, his addictions had so isolated him from Hollywood (and a reliable source of income) that he tried to sell his hair and teeth on eBay. Haim’s 2001 E! True Hollywood Story showed the 30-year-old heavily under the influence of something—unable to walk or speak in complete sentences—while being interviewed for the episode.
Most THS episodes (at least those of living celebrities) focus on narratives of redemption, ending with the actor/singer/model having successfully battled his or her demons, serenely playing Frisbee with a devoted golden retriever on the beach at sunset. At the end of Haim’s interview, though, we saw him at home, in an unfurnished two-room guesthouse he shared with his mother, sitting on the floor with a Casio keyboard, talking about his future in “music.” There was no illusion of redemption here; instead, the story ended with the apparently unredeemable portrait of a clearly broken man.
What’s so heartbreaking is that that portrait stuck. Even the A&E reality series The Two Coreys (2007 – 2008), which was supposed to help revive the careers of Haim and his 1980s “Corey” counterpart, Corey Feldman, concluded with Haim’s friends and therapist begging him to return to rehab. That he seemed to be an unwilling participant in his own redemption is undeniably problematic, but it underscores the saddest thing about his death this week: Corey Haim’s decline was long, drawn-out, highly visible, and apparently unstoppable.
We’ve become accustomed to watching celebrities spiral out of control. Who doesn’t enjoy a good train wreck, after all? But the problem is that we don’t really want to see the casualties. Celebrities who can come back from the brink like Drew Barrymore or—I say this tentatively—Britney Spears earn our devotion. We know how cruel the entertainment industry is, how easily it can crush you, so to see someone un-crushed becomes a testament to her strength and resolve.
But what about those who don’t have the strength or resolve? I would argue that we don’t really want those train wrecks to end up at their seemingly logical conclusions. It would be nicer to pretend the celebrity in question has moved to rural Idaho, taken up carpentry, adopted a golden retriever, and taught it to play Frisbee. Crisis averted, and everyone’s hands are clean. Instead, though, we’re left having to deal with the carnage.
The 2004 single by The Thrills, “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?,” asks a great question, albeit one without any real answer. It’s hard to say what happened to him, how he went from talented child actor to teen heartthrob to unredeemable addict. But the fact is, we watched it happen, and we were unable to stop it.