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Brad Renfro: A Personal Recollection

Editor's note: information on Brad's passing can be found by clicking here.

For a fan fiction script starring Brad Renfro, click here.

By John H. Leeper

Brad Renfro playing guitar at Reelfoot Lake in West Tennessee

My oldest daughter, Rachele, met the young actor Brad Renfro on a flight from Los Angeles to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2002. They were about the same age and hit it off immediately. She was enamored of his film career. He was taken with her striking Mediterranean looks.

As a divorced dad living on an isolated farmstead in West Tennessee, I tried to be as supportive of Rachele's exciting new relationship as I could. Whenever she called and carried on about Brad I would say typically parental things like, "Uh-huh. No kidding. Well, that sounds great. You don't say? You two be careful and stay safe," although I admit to having harbored some concerns about their relationship due to his history of run-ins with the police.

Brad lived in Knoxville at that point in his life, so he and Rachele spent a good deal of time together. When the day came that they finally decided to drive to Ridgely from Knoxville and spend a weekend with me, I confess that I had to run to a local video store in Dyersburg and rent the movie "Deuces Wild" so I would recognize the lad's face when I saw it. The only other film that I had seen him in was his first, "The Client," and filming began on that when he was only 10 years old.

My first impression of Brad was unremarkable. He might have been any one of a thousand "sons of the rural South" that I passed every day of the week. If I hadn't been able to attach film credits to this young fellow's face, I probably wouldn't have given him a second glance on the street. He was a short fellow, unshaven, with closely cropped, light, curly hair and a slightly receding hairline. His clothes were disheveled. A cigarette hung from one corner of his mouth, and there was a sluggishness to his steps that indicated the night before had been a long one. He looked for all the world like any young factory worker in the area emerging from his cocoon late on a Saturday morning. There was absolutely nothing about Brad Renfro's appearance that would have suggested the exceptional. Even the brown leather hat with its steeply cocked brim, a youthful statement of individuality, only served to make him look more ordinary.

Had I not known through my daughter, I would never have imagined this 20-year-old was a professional Hollywood actor who starred in his first feature film at age 10 and since has acted in 15 films alongside major icons of the industry like Ian McKellan, Susan Serandon and Daryl Hannah. I would never have guessed he was an accomplished guitar and banjo player with an excellent voice. But in the Mississippi River delta of the South where predictability is a defining doctrine, the unexpected often goes unnoticed. And who would expect to see a Hollywood professional walking the streets of a small town like Ridgely, Tennessee, anyway?

I quickly discovered Brad and I shared a love of music. I played Early American, Irish and Scottish traditional folk tunes on the tin whistle, concertina and melodeon. Brad loved the blues. He cherished old recordings of players like Blind Boy Fuller, Furry Lewis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly.

While Renfro's claim to fame was acting, music was his private love, and he would readily tell me that if chance hadn't given him his break in the film industry, he would likely be jamming with bands in the Knoxville area where he was born and raised.

"I've been playing guitar since I was six years old," Renfro said. "But I didn't discover the blues until I was working on a film in New York City called Sleepers. My on-set tutor knew a fellow who lived at the YMCA. She said he was a true musical genius. He just couldn't get his life together."

Refro was 14 then and he had played rock and roll, rockabilly, heavy metal and even a little jazz, but the sounds he heard echoing from the battered guitar of that nameless New York musician fascinated him, and he began buying records in the genre, immersing himself in the sound.

Whenever he wasn't filming, he tried to get together once or twice a week with other young musicians in East Tennessee who shared similar tastes.

"Music is huge in my life," Refro explained. "Right now, that seems to be the direction God wants me to go. I think I'm ready."

Sadly, he wasn't quite as ready has he imagined. Like that nameless blues musician in New York City, Brad just "couldn't get his life together."

When he was visiting the farm in 2003, he spoke of a fierce schedule of three pending films. In November he was to act opposite "Splash" star Hannah in an independent film entitled "The Job," which can be found on DVD and cassette.

"After that, I'm doing a movie called The Swedish Job with Harvey Keitel," he said to me. "I thought that was a little quirky -- The Job and then The Swedish Job. And either before or after that, I'll be doing a horror movie called Trespass."

But neither of those two Indies apparently materialized for him.

In the current hit I had viewed from the local video rental store, "Deuces Wild," a film he completed at age 17 but which was held by the studios for three years, Renfro costarred with Stephen Dorff. He played the part of the younger brother of a 1950s street gang leader caught up in New York City turf wars.

That is only one in a long list of successful films including "The Cure," "Tom and Huck," "Telling Lies in America," "Sleepers," "Apt Pupil," "Ghost World" and "Bully."

But it all began with his role as Mark Sway, the young client of Serandon in the famous motion picture based upon John Grisham's novel, "The Client."

Renfro was only 10 years old when he got his big break, and it literally came from out of the blue.

Renfro told me, "My parents divorced when I was 5. We were pretty poor so mom was forced to leave me with my grandmother for financial reasons. She raised me. She was a church secretary in Knoxville."

A hyperactive child given to severe mood swings, Brad was a handful for both his grandmother and the public school system. But he was amazingly creative. At age nine he wrote and acted in a school play for the DARE program. The performance so impressed a Knoxville police officer named Dennis Bowman who was on hand that day for a drug prevention program, that he would later recommend Brad to a casting director who was looking in the area for a youth who could play a part in "The Client."

"Mali Finn, who cast Titanic, came down to Knoxville looking for a kid who fit the type they needed for The Client."

Finn wanted an intelligent, good looking, 10-year-old boy who was somewhat street wise and had enough talent to pull off the part of Sway against such heavyweights as Serandon and Tommy Lee Jones. Renfro auditioned at the police officer's chance recommendation and the director liked him so much he was hired for the part.

"I didn't care about movies at age 10," Renfro recalled. "All I cared about was rock music and my earring. I just played myself basically in The Client. I didn't know I was an actor until I got a part in The Cure when I was 12."

"The Client" changed his life forever. He turned 11 while the movie was being filmed. Cast and crew members held a birthday party for him, and he received his first electric guitar. From that day forward, he knew acting was the route he wanted to take, and he pursued it tenaciously, literally growing up on the set.

His father and grandmother had instilled a strong work ethic in him at an early age. He always showed up on set 15 minutes early, primed and ready to work.

But the acting career shut him out of the public school system. He learned on his own at libraries or from tutors and social workers assigned by the studio executives who maintain strict controls whenever minors are on a set.

"When you get to be known as an actor, you really can't go back to public school. All the girls suddenly want to hook up with you, and all the guys want to beat you up."

Isolation made life off the set an increasing strain. It wasn't in Hollywood where he fell into drugs and alcohol, it was in those long periods between pictures when he returned home to Knoxville and all of the old frustrations and conflicts resurfaced.

He turned to alcohol and marijuana, and, eventually, cocaine, and those habits led to run-ins with the local police. It was only when he was working that he stayed clean and sober. His bout with addiction was made worse by the fact that he told me his father and grandfather both had abused drugs and/or alcohol. He also saw it "growing up on the set" and tended to accept such behavior as a "normal" part of life. That coupled with his own hyperactive, moody nature, inward-looking personality and isolation from mainstream life made him very susceptible to addiction.

One of Brad's mentors was McKellen who played the part of the Wizard Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. An actor on the London stage, McKellan adapted Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" to film. He also starred alongside Brad in the film, "Apt Pupil."

"I learned a lot just being around Ian and watching him when we did Apt Pupil. He gave me confidence in my ability to act."

At the same time Brad pointed out that his elderly mentor was a leading spokesman for the gay rights movement in England and regularly "rolled his own" around him. McKellan, while a phenomenal artist, (one actor whose on-film skills I admire greatly) could not reasonably be considered "a normal chap." The life of a motion picture artist is far removed from that of the average person in America. Thus, there was little to tie Brad to mainstream life and that made it difficult for him to adjust when he was pushed off the set and into the "real world."

He had a limited education, a background of Southern poverty, few good role models in the formative years of life, a family history that included drug abuse, a tendency to frustrate easily, a collection of friends and associates in Knoxville who qualified under the general title of "ne'r-do-wells," and he was subject to severe mood swings. To make matters worse, the big paychecks he made with films offered him long stretches of time where he didn't really have to face the daily grind of a job or learn how to interact with others in school or the workplace.

"I was between 15 and 18 when I went through the hard times. I can't blame Hollywood. I messed up when I wasn't working. I never got high when I was on the set. I got into drug trouble in Knoxville."

After several failed attempts at rehabilitation, Brad landed in jail for several months. It was an experience that jarred him back to reality.

"I've been to rehab several times and that is a joke. If you don't want to change, it us a complete waste of money. But when you are sitting in an 8x5 room with a thin piece of padding on your bunk and a blanket that makes your skin itch and you have to stare at the walls a lot of the day, you get to know yourself and you get to know God."

He counted himself fortunate that his grandmother was a devout Christian and his uncle a Baptist preacher. It provided him a spiritual context of sorts and all of my conversations with him on the farm were generally peppered with spiritual tomes of one kind or another.

"I can't complain. Everything bad that happened to me, I brought about myself. It brought me closer to God. Jesus said the healthy aren't the ones in need of a physician."

My daughter and Brad came for a weekend but ended up staying on the farm for a week. He slept in the small apartment I had built upstairs for guests. I was happy to see them come and relieved when they left. Life is complicated enough without the frenetic, hormonal dramas of adolescent love.

I will say this for Brad, he wasn't afraid to work. He helped me mow my lawn, which on our family farm is huge chore, and he assisted in the construction of an out-building that I needed for storage. He was also extremely polite, unless he had been drinking too much, and on one occasion that caused us to exchange some fairly heated words (I don't take "back talk" from young people very well), but, we ended up hashing matters out, patched things up and were fine.

Another incident stuck in my head while Brad visited "small town America." My daughter's car needed emergency tire work and at a local tire shop I found myself surrounded by some of the more rustic members of the local working class from our area. I wanted to move along, but Brad insisted on engaging them in conversation. As we walked away, Brad looked at me and said, "I fit in around here better than you do."

I had to admit that in some ways he was right. I had been raised in the Ridgely and Memphis areas but traveled extensively around the country and acquired a broader vision of life and education than most locals were afforded. It meant that I shared little in common with the aspirations of most of my fellow Lake Countians and, therefore, tended to live a rather isolated existence on the farm.

Brad, on the other hand, shared much more in common with the average blue-collar man, but his social isolation left him with the inability to step back and let another person lead or dismiss out of hand someone's rants without comment.

Rachele and Brad were like oil and water when it came to personalities and, after that visit, were in and out of their relationship more times than I could count.

Eventually, Brad moved to Los Angeles to pursue his entertainment career and to separate himself from companions who had become a drag on him both emotionally and morally. We spoke a few times on the telephone after that week, always pleasantly. He felt that he made a special connection with my elderly mother whom I cared for at the farm and never failed to ask about her.

Rachele also headed to L.A. for a short time, attending a school that licensed her for cosmetic make-overs, a field she much enjoyed. She and Brad "made the club scene" and Rachele had the opportunity to work on the set of some photo shoots for large magazines. She even had a few minor roles in commercials and television. But she could not sustain the high costs of living in Southern California and eventually returned to East Tennessee.

Brad formed alternative rock bands, sought parts in Indie films, played music in some clubs and tried to market a CD; but drugs, alcohol and bad companions abound in Los Angeles as they do in Knoxville -- or any other place in the world for that matter. According to my daughter, he "fell off the wagon" on more than one occasion, which led to at least one run-in with the law in Southern California for fighting in a club.

I lost track of him in 2004. He tended to change locations, whether moving to a new girlfriend's house, going on the road with a band, or crashing in some other rocker's apartment. Occasionally, he telephoned my daughter and talked to her, but, while they remained friends, the relationship had cooled considerably. I believe he liked her because she represented his roots to Tennessee and tended to "pull no punches" with him. In short, they had become friends.

While Brad was on the farm he told me, "I keep learning more every day. I am interested to see what kind of work I am going to be doing when I'm thirty. Right now, I'm known for serious portrayals on screen, but I don't want to limit myself to one type of film. Actually, I would like to try a good, hilariously funny comedy," he told me.

That was a genre I secretly loved for years. Following my divorce both from my ex wife and "the great American illusion" I began writing the movie scripts that were tucked away in my heart.

I told Brad my favorite story at the time, "Cursed," which under my directorship starred the great comic actress Janeane Garofalo. I remember Brad laughing until he almost fell from his chair near the back door to our home. I have always been convinced that I was born out of time. In another life I would have been a village storyteller, for I have always had the knack for spinning a good yarn.

"The Faerie King" was actually an older story I had put into screen treatment form. I thought he might like it and also pitched that tall tale one evening. He said excitedly, "I have to play that part (the lead of Danny). I'm too young now, but I'll grow into it."

I promised Brad that it would be his movie if he wanted it, and in finishing the script for this fan fiction site, I believe I have kept my word.

The current version of "The Faerie King" only vaguely resembles the original comedy I outlined for Brad in Ridgely. This incarnation is much more sweeping in scope and meaning. It is a story of the human spiritual condition and the struggle in us all between good and evil. I sincerely believe it may be the greatest story that I have ever written.

"The Faerie King" is intended to pay homage to a troubled but very talented young man that I met for one week of my life. Should he ever read it here, I hope that he accepts it in the spirit to which it has been offered -- a gift of the imagination.

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