I recently came across this behind-the-scenes photo from the 1990 television miniseries IT. A smiling (genuinely, not as a prelude to terror) Tim Curry dressed as Pennywise reads a copy of MAD Magazine, surrounded by the child stars from the miniseries; an unexpected lighthearted image emerging from this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most dread-filled works.
And as I looked at the photo, it suddenly dawned on me: the young actor in the front, who played the story’s protagonist Bill Denbrough in the flashback scenes. Jonathan Brandis.
He had committed suicide by hanging at the age of 27.
I then began to wonder (because, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m pretty morbid and superstitious)…could there possibly be some sort of “curse” attached to this miniseries, such in the manner speculated about Poltergeist and the like?
First, let’s look at the source material, the novel IT. I read this book over the course of a month sometime in the late 1980s. A very dense, atmospheric, and at-times truly eerie book reading experience.
It’s—IT’s—all about the idea of “curses” that linger. A sort of…”idea contagion,” carried by powerful archetypal images (and this is a topic I write about all the time, it’s almost one of the key topics of this entire site). A “bad” thing happens, the memory of it sort of gets “mixed up” with the archetypes, and it just proceeds from that point on. More bad things happen, the power of the archetype (in this case, the Clown) grows, and so on and so on.
In fact, the book itself is one that I would classify as kind of one of those subtle “mind fuckery” books that you read and it gets under your skin and retroactively creeps you the fuck out.
And so let’s move forward to 1990’s miniseries, which moved back and forth between two narratives—the current day, and a flashback to when all the characters were kids.
Jonathan Brandis played basically the head of the “Scooby Gang,” Bill (portrayed as an adult by Richard Thomas). Brandis was an up-and-coming young actor with a bunch of small parts in TV and movies to his credit. IT was his big breakout hit.
His next big role was several years later in the Steven Spielberg-produced TV series seaQuest DSV, where he starred as Lucas Wolenczak (sort of like the Wesley Crusher of that show). The show was a moderate success, and his role bumped him up to teen-idol status. But he never quite found his next big hit after that.
In 2003, Brandis hung himself in the hallway of his apartment building. He didn’t leave a suicide note, though there was speculation that he was depressed over his career.
At this point I have to note that there is a major suicide in the novel/miniseries IT—though of a different character, Stanley Uris. Uris commits suicide out of this immense anxiety over the horror simply known as “It,” slashing his wrists in a bathtub.
But Brandis is not the only tragic figure attached to this miniseries. John Ritter—a beloved comedy actor from so many projects—played the grown-up version of the character Ben Hanscom. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 54, from an aortic dissection. (An aortic dissection is when a part of your heart suddenly tears open; it’s an internal thing and not the result of an outside force, at least in Ritter’s case)
So basically…Ritter died the same year as his IT co-star Jonathan Brandis.
The only other tragedy I could find connected to the movie was related to Tim Curry, who played Pennywise (and starred in so many other cool things). He suffered a major stroke in 2012 that required him to use a wheelchair. Though it is a but harder for him to get around now, he has made a number of appearances and performances since the stroke, especially with voicework.
Then you could extend things a bit and reference author Stephen King’s own catastrophic car accident in 1999. But now…we are talking about many participants and actors in a movie with two sets of ensemble casts. Given how much time has passed since the IT miniseries…it was unfortunately likely that some people would come down with illnesses, tragedies, and even pass on.
Though the Ritter death does have a “freak,” sudden quality to it—internal bleeding due to an undiagnosed genetic defect—only Brandis’ passing has those melancholy qualities that might tie it in to the general mood of IT.
IT is not just about external demons, but internal ones…not so much about what is physically terrifying and bedeviling us, but what we generate from within. Bill Denbrough learned at the end to face down those demons, but doing so in real-life is another story…