by Stacey Osbeck
Greg and Mary Brandis, seeing potential in their blue-eyed cherub-faced son, began his modeling career at the tender age of two. Commercials followed and eventually in 1982, at six years old, little Jonathan Brandis landed a recurring role on the daytime soap One Life to Live.
At the age of nine, Jonathan and his parents packed their bags for Los Angeles where he snagged guest appearances on all the right shows: Kate & Allie, L.A. Law, Webster, Full House, Who’s the Boss?, The Wonder Years, and Blossom. Though starring or ongoing roles still remained elusive.
Come 1990, he caught a break as the stutterer in the original It with Tim Curry and as Bastian in The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter. This didn’t land him directly on the radar, however, he was on the cusp. Hovering.
As I did archival research through my own Tiger Beat, Teen Machine stash I could find no trace of Jonathan Brandis in 1991.
But then in 1992, a small black and white photo on a newsprint page with a few other up and comers: Jonathan Brandis was filming a new flick with comedian Rodney Dangerfield called Ladybugs. Within the year, small mentions in black and white turned into interviews and glossy color photos. Before the end of 1992 he’d leapt to the cover of teen magazines.
Even though Ladybugs was clearly a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, Jonathan stole the show. The movie seemed to be the traction point he needed. In it, his character charades as a girl to help a losing soccer team win. My friends and I watched it again and again. It never got old. (In fact Hollywood, too, realized the story never got old and was able to milk the theme for another gender bender soccer movie, She’s the Man, in 2006 with Amanda Bynes)
After Ladybugs, Jonathan starred in Sidekicks with Chuck Norris and drew in young audiences with underwater adventures on the TV series SeaQuest.
But the movies that followed were forgettable. As an adult, his transition to writing and directing never quite took off. He hoped his role in Hart’s War with Bruce Willis would jumpstart his career, only to watch most of his scenes wind up on the cutting room floor. He auditioned for the part of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, where unfortunately, already in his mid-twenties, he was deemed too old.
In 2003, a little over ten years since that Ladybugs magic put him on the map, Jonathan Brandis, in the stark hallway of his apartment complex, hung himself.
Why do so many child stars grow up to meet troubled adulthoods or tragic ends? Maybe their support system has no clue of the extreme nature of the highs and lows that come with a famous childhood. Or maybe their friends act too and are landing bigger, better parts giving them the feeling of being left behind. Perhaps towards the end they feel they don’t have any friends.
Often parents can give advice of ‘When I was your age I had a similar situation’. But unless a child star comes from an acting family, how can they get appropriate guidance from parents who lack the shared experience of growing up on set?
Jonathan started modeling kid’s clothes at two for Buster Brown. It must be hard to separate your career from your identity, and worth, if that work is all you have ever known. In the end we can only guess. He left no note.
This would be the typical child star Tinseltown story with its usual unhappy ending. Except his story doesn’t end there.
In the spring of 2018, fifteen years after his death, Jonathan Brandis blew up on my Instagram Explore Page. Instead of still images, most were involved compilations with editing set to music. Many of the girls worked his name right into their handles. What a blast seeing some of the same photos that hung in my locker. But why were all these teen girls suddenly flooding Instagram with Jonathan Brandis?
I reached out. ‘We just love him!’ was the reply. That didn’t help. I thought I’d ask around at work and the first person I approached had the answer. I asked ‘Do you remember Jonathan Brandis?’ He said ‘Yeah, it’s so funny that you mention it. I haven’t thought of him in years and then there on the front page of Amazon Prime is that movie, Ladybugs. You don’t even have to search for it it’s just right there with their selection every time.’
Everyone loves a comeback, especially the ones that catch us by surprise. As his Saturday Night Fever fame faded off into the distance, John Travolta had no idea there would be a man named Quentin in his future that never stopped being a fan. Jason Bateman of Little House on the Prairie, Valerie, and Teen Wolf Too fame kept acting throughout his life, but not in much that could be considered star making. Until Arrested Development brought him back into the spotlight and later Juno solidified his place there. Jonathan Brandis had no way of knowing fifteen years back that there would be such things as social media, Instagram or even Amazon Prime streaming to buoy a drowning career.
It’s funny too that Ladybugs, the flick that got him into the hearts of teen girls in 1992, worked its charm again in 2018. I wish this was his comeback story. That after long years of keeping at it a reintroduction to a new generation gave him some heat and opportunities for better parts, a new lease on his career, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Jonathan Brandis now has a rising fan base and is currently tagged in 41k posts on Instagram. This is his moment, if he were only here to enjoy it.