Brad Renfro was a street-smart Tennessee schoolboy plucked from obscurity in 1993 to play the title role in The Client.
The film's success brought him instant stardom, but struggles with drugs and alcohol dogged his career. On Tuesday, he was found dead in his home. He was 25.
The cause of death was not immediately determined, said Craig Harvey, chief investigator for the Los Angeles County coroner's office. An autopsy was planned.
In The Client, based on a John Grisham best-seller, he played a youngster who witnesses a suicide and gets caught up in a mob investigation. Susan Sarandon was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the lawyer the boy hires to help protect him.
Director Joel Schumacher wanted an unknown for the role.
"I didn't want to use one of those pretty kid faces the audience would be instantly familiar with," the director said when the film came out. "I want a real wise-ass, a kid who nobody would know."
A Knoxville police officer who worked to educate children about drugs told a casting director about Renfro, whom he had seen in an anti-drug skit. That led to an audition and Renfro was chosen for the part.
"I'm definitely going to film school," the boy said when The Client came out. "I want to be like Joel."
Renfro followed up with major parts in the 1995 AIDS drama The Cure, the 1997 Sleepers, and Telling Lies in America, also 1997. More recent credits included Ghost World, 2001; Deuces Wild, 2002; and The Jacket, 2005.
But he was arrested numerous times over the past decade.
The actor served 10 days in jail in 2006 after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated and guilty to attempted possession of heroin. The latter charge stemmed from his arrest in Los Angeles' Skid Row area, when he attempted to buy the drug from an undercover officer.
Other run-ins with the law included a 1998 charge of cocaine and marijuana possession, for which he avoided jail time in a plea deal. He was also placed on probation and ordered to pay $4,000 for repairs to a 45-foot yacht he and a friend tried to steal in Florida in 2000.
The following year, he was charged with underage drinking and violating the terms of his probation, and was ordered into alcohol rehabilitation.
After one court appearance, Renfro talked to reporters about rehabilitation, saying it had "definitely been an eye-opener" and he was eager to get clean.
Renfro's lawyer, Richard Kaplan, said he did not know whether the death was connected to addiction.
"He was working hard on his sobriety," Kaplan said. "He was doing well. He was a nice person."
Renfro recently completed a role in The Informers, a film adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel that stars Winona Ryder, Brandon Routh and Billy Bob Thornton.