For the last fifteen years, Corey Haim had been a joke, whether he was being parodied on The Simpsons, or unintentionally making a mockery of himself on A&E’s The Two Coreys. It was easy to laugh at a bedraggled ex–teen idol who couldn’t get over his own young stardom, whose Peter Pan fantasies had outlived all his fans’ adoration. But when his death by overdose was reported this morning, many of those who used his name as a punchline felt a distressing despondence.
The fact that his tragic death wasn’t very surprising — his drug addiction was well chronicled — doesn’t mean it’s not sad, especially for those of us who grew up watching and idolizing him. That’s the thing about teen crushes: They never really go away. Even as Haim morphed into a celebrity-druggie joke, his former fans will always remember his air of playful disobedience, wearing eighties sunglasses and driving away in his grandfather’s Cadillac in License to Drive. Early on in his career (and the days before his gimmicky Corey Feldman partnership), Haim was a promising young actor. In 1986’s Lucas, Haim gave a moving performance as an oddball outsider whose heart was broken — along with the audience’s — by a sweet but uninterested girl. As Lucas, Haim conveyed a wet-lipped childish sweetness that, like everyone’s youth, was never recaptured. When Lucas dropped that ball — no! — kids around the country, impatient to grow out of their awkwardness, cringed in recognition.
Like his audience, Haim did grow, morphing from lovable moppet into a kind of teen icon. While the quality of the films he made with partner Corey Feldman is questionable, Haim’s archetype as the wide-eyed, good-looking high schooler (to Feldman’s shaggier schemer) spoke to a generation of teenage suburbanites with dreams of getting a car and landing the popular girl. He was so cute — his voice cracked! — and we fell in love with him. In Dream a Little Dream, Haim played Feldman’s quirky friend, but even while he was smoking a cigarette, there was something nonthreatening and sweet about him. He seemed like a real teenager. Which is probably why, even after he filled out and became a man (and, unfortunately, a drug addict), there remained a cultural fascination with Haim. The Two Coreys was not something to watch with giddy interest, but rather with cringing sadness. When Haim, a weary mess to all appearances, would speak unrealistically ambitious pronouncements on the reality show like, “I’d like to start a family of my own,” it spoke to our anxieties about adulthood. Because in truth, our attachment to him is really more nostalgia for our own younger selves, when we sat in front of the TV in our suburban basement, thinking about how cool it would be to get to drive, wondering if we’d ever have a boyfriend that cute, and hoping we’d never drop the ball.