The talented and handsome actor Lee Thompson Young was only 29 years old when his life ended last summer, by his own design, leaving the cast and crew of “Rizzoli & Isles” heartbroken, stunned and speechless. On June 24, 2014, in a script beautifully written by new show runner Jan Nash, the television family created, cast, born and shepherded from the mind of writer/producer Janet Tamaro. At last a multitude of loyal viewers of the TNT Drama had closure, with the script “Goodbye,” since the first time the sad news arrived, Aug. 19, 2013, the day Lee passed away.
Television viewers—call them fans, fanatics, enthusiasts, or simply “the audience”—often find a connection with an electronic family with an ensemble cast, tethered by pixels, anchored by scripts, delivering dialogue that conveys feeling, amidst props placed to set tone. Acting is illusion at its very best, perfect and harmless escapism from the boredom or stress of life. It’s called entertainment, and television is the medium by which it’s delivered but over time, viewers easily blend their impressions of actors into the characters they portray, like old friends you welcome to visit you once a week. That’s when it becomes hard when you learn of the death of one of your favorite actors.
By all prior accounts, Lee Thompson Young was a young man who was really going places. But he’d actually shown signs of brilliance at a much younger age. Born in Columbia, South Carolina on Feb. 1, 1984, Young’s first acting role was prescient, portraying Dr. Martin Luther King in a play called “A Night of Stars and Dreams.” He was only 10 years old at the time.
He had the exact acting presence and style that the Disney Channel was searching for when they cast Lee as the title character in “The Amazing Jett Jackson” in 1998. That’s quite a coup to be 14 and star in your own series on the Disney Channel. For some young people, it’s been a genuine launch pad for an adult acting career, e.g., actor/director Ben Savage (“Boy Meets World”), Hillary Duff (“Lizzie McGuire”), and going as far back as Disney movie staples, Kurt Russell, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Don Grady.
Others who’ve followed the Disney path, but who tripped over the bricks sprinkled with pixie dust, or something else, found more press surrounding their troubles played out regularly in the media Shia LeBouf (“Even Stevens”), singer/actress Miley Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”) and actor Zac Efron (“High School Musical”).
Not every Disney experience guarantees a future full of magic for young stars, just like any other actor who achieves fame before they’re really ready to handle the illusions of the being famous and beloved by fans even before they are old enough for a driver’s license. It's not a Disney-caused problem; it's a Hollywood lifestyle problem, when children are treated as adults too soon, losing childhood along the way, and then are asked by the adults to behave as children again when the camera is on.
By all accounts, prior to his passing, Lee Thompson Young was one of the lucky ones from the early Disney experience. It was on “Rizzoli & Isles” that Young was able to transition perfectly and naturally as an actor, shedding the title of “child star” and leaving it in the dust along the (virtual) harbor of the Massachusetts Bay.
Detective Barry Frost’s character ended before the end of Season 4 of “Rizzoli & Isles” had finished its on-air run. Program creator and outgoing show runner Janet Tamaro faced a daunting task of having viewers who loved Young have to accept AP newswire information of his passing, while still seeing a bright, handsome, young man with a character heart of gold, a winning smile and proficiency in his role as Boston Police Detective Barry Frost on the screen for several weeks.
That was a tough spot for Tamaro to be in with the show that was “her baby,” but she and the cast found ways of reaching out to the viewers with reassurance, respect, and regard for Lee and what he meant to the show, which had sprung to life off the pages of the mystery books by author Tess Gerritsen.
Today’s television industry has learned a lesson that could (or should) be attributed as being pioneered by Turner Network Television. It’s the art of engaging communication between actors and viewers, using smart social media and up-to-the-minute Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram efforts. TNT had two beautiful examples in Angie Harmon (with her own celebrity magazine, on a portal called Whosay). Just last summer, Sasha Alexander was named as social media ambassador for events leading to the Screen Actors Guild awards, and built a Twitter dynasty.
Both actresses are really going above and beyond to reach out to their public because it should just be enough for quality actresses Harmon and Alexander to study their lines (brilliantly written by the “Rizzoli & Isles” team), putting in 12-14 hour days of filming a favorite show in the TNT Drama family, and then try to squeeze in time to raise their families. But both took time to “be there” for the public and share words of empathy with the fans.
In fact, most of the entire “Rizzles” team is on Twitter. The official Twitter accounts for Angie Harmon show 256,000 followers; Sasha Alexander has 193,000; and Lorraine Bracco has 36,600. Plus you’ll find at least six different Twitter accounts that feature photos of Lee Thompson Young in their profile photos. Jordan Bridges, show creator Janet Tamaro and new show runner Jan Nash are Twitter prolific as well. Social media is a must-have if you’re going to succeed in grabbing attention and keeping the viewers engaged to assure your show's success.
It really shouldn’t have to be that way, but it’s the nature of the television industry today. Quickly adopted by teams running network programming, it still must be said that cable shows, debuting in the summer, and especially on TNT and USA have embraced the “off season” of network programming to reach out for audiences who would otherwise pop in a tape or scroll on their smart TV to a movie.
Saying goodbye to Lee Thompson Young meant saying goodbye to Detective Barry Frost. Jan Nash wrote a script that was respectful but was free from anything but the purest of emotions, with more looks than dialogue by which the individual actors could each simply allow the cameras to reveal their grief, and go through all the proverbial phases (with Maura’s help), including denial, acceptance, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Everyone on the team did their part to make the memorial service happen for Young. Frost’s mother shared how he had asked her about her preferences for burial when that time would come one day, but no mother ever anticipates preceding her children in death. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare. Frost’s father arrives just in time to not miss the funeral. Jane is seated between Frost’s mother and her best friend Maura, who’s anchored on the other side by her other best friend, Jane’s mother, Angela. Frankie and Vince had chosen the photos and the music for the occasion.
It’s hard to know how much Jan Nash wrote for Jane to say as much it was how Angie Harmon brilliantly brought simple, true words to life, with acting skill. The combination of dialogue and talent was perfect to show respect, love, regard and honor for Lee Thompson Young, with just Harmon’s countenance, delivery, and facial expression. The director of photography grabbed every perfect angle such that you can say of this episode that it was “all you could ever ask for and want,” for Det. Barry Frost and for Lee Thompson Young.
Lee’s work and talent lives on, in the most positive way you could hope to find. Headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia, the Lee Thompson Young Foundation was established recently to “change the mental community by erasing the stigma associated with mental illness. Through research, treatment stipends and youth programming we can strengthen support systems and promote well-being.”
A prestigious board of directors leads the foundation, including business executives, attorneys, faith professionals, educators, including Thompson’s mother, Dr. Velma Love, accomplished author and project director for “Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life,” a project at Howard University School of Divinity funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Fans of Lee Thompson Young can best honor him with donations to this important foundation, by participating with a gift in any amount. If you loved Lee’s work, if you loved his sense of humor, his smile and his spirit, you can join in the collective efforts to “eliminate the stigma associated with mental health conditions,” as so eloquently stated by the foundation’s PR representative, Liquid Communications.
Mental illness is something everyone would just as soon forget, not discuss, brush under the carpet, and pretend doesn’t exist. It’s fairly easy to do that as long as you don’t turn on the television, read a newspaper, or check into Twitter or Facebook. There’s no amount of words, love, donations to Lee’s Foundation, or regrets that can bring Lee Thompson Young back to life for us to see.
But in the quiet moments that you ponder the family of actors on “Rizzoli & Isles” as Season 5 rolls along, remember that they are all working through their own personal grief and they’re able to write, create, act, film, direct, edit, and produce a show that has, above all else, heart. Thanks to every member of the cast and crew for a poignant, memorable and engaging way to bid farewell and gain that sense of greatly needed closure. Lee Thompson Young could not have asked for a better sendoff.