Young deaths are always tragic, but Anton Yelchin’s passing at 27 is particularly crushing because of its sheer randomness: it appears he drove to the top of his steep driveway, accidentally put the car in “neutral” instead of “park” and stepped out, so it rolled back down the driveway and crushed him.
It’s one of those absentminded mistakes we all make from time to time, like stepping into the street without checking for traffic and a car misses you by this much. For an instant you realize how near disaster was… and then you get on with your day and forget all about it because life goes on.
It was Yelchin’s cruel fate to be one of those people the freak catastrophe actually hits.
We’ll never know what Yelchin would have done with the many other roles he would have taken on in the years and decades ahead. His passing is a reminder of just how fragile life is, how things that appear certain can vanish overnight for reasons that seem utterly unreasonable.
Yet Yelchin was always a person who broke the norm. Born in Russia to a pair of figure skaters, Yelchin and his family received political refugee status and came to the U.S. when he was six. His acting career began soon after and at just 12 he achieved a measure of stardom in the Stephen King adaptation Hearts in Atlantis with Anthony Hopkins in 2001.
Many TV roles followed, including this awesomely tense card trick scene with Larry David and a very young Yelchin on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2004.
In 2009, a still only 20-year-old Yelchin starred as Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot and his career transformed.
It didn’t bring immediate superstardom: A quick look at IMDb reveals a number of movies you’ve likely never heard of, much less saw (Odd Thomas, 5 to 7) as well as multiple voiceover gigs for The Smurfs.
But there are also films that showed a star in the making. Take the 2011 remake of Fright Night. There was no particular reason to reboot the original and it was hardly a hit, earning $41 million worldwide. But the movie features a great performance by Colin Farrell as a vampire in Las Vegas: charming, mysterious, seductive yet genuinely sinister… and somehow named “Jerry.”
Farrell’s best scenes are all with Yelchin, playing a younger neighbor wary of Jerry. Great acting doesn’t happen in a void: Actors need their costars the way receivers need a quarterback and a quarterback needs his offensive line. Yelchin’s role isn’t as flashy as Farrell’s and less memorable as a result, but he’s the reason Farrell can soar.
Actors who make other actors look good rarely want for work and Yelchin never did. He’ll appear in a wave of new projects to be released in the months to come, including another Star Trek, voicing the lead in Guillermo del Toro’s animated series Trollhunters and starring opposite Peter Dinklage in the sci-fi drama Rememory.
Yelchin was also set to star in another Stephen King adaptation, this time a 10-episode TV series based on the cat-and-mouse thriller Mr. Mercedes, due in 2018. He would be the killer matching wits with a retired cop played by Brendan Gleeson (The General, In Bruges).
It might have never actually been made.
It might have turned out to be a disappointment quickly forgotten.
Or it might have been brilliant.
We’ll never know what Yelchin would have done with the role or with the many other roles he would have taken on in the years and decades ahead. His passing is a reminder of just how fragile life is, how things that appear certain can vanish overnight for reasons that seem utterly unreasonable.
In 2011 Yelchin gave an interview discussing winning an award for a “breakthrough performance,” which was odd because he’d already been acting for a decade. Yelchin declared: “I think the best way to put it is this: The reason I say I feel lucky is because I do what I do. I think when you love something and you get the opportunity to do it, and consistently do it and be able to play different characters or great people, you feel lucky.”
In the wake of this grim news, there is solace that for 16 years Anton Yelchin had the luck to do what he loved and, for a time, we had the good fortune to witness him doing it, even as we struggle to understand why there won’t be more.