This afternoon, actor Lee Thompson Young was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Los Angeles home after he failed to report to the set of the TNT show Rizzoli & Isles. For most millennials and post-millenials, Young will forever be known as “The Famous Jett Jackson,” the titular star of the late-90s/early-Aughts Disney Channel phenomenon of the same name. For me, though, Young will always represent the first and only live action incarnation of DC Comics’ iconic Teen Titan, Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, the character he portrayed in several recurring episodes of the long-running Superman series for the WB and the CW, Smallville.
See, I’ve always proudly included myself in the relatively obscure niche of fandom called “People who admit they watch (and enjoy) Smallville.” I suspect there are more of us, but most of them likely won’t admit it. Seriously, even the hardcore Superman fanboys dismiss Smallville with the same fervor they dismiss Superman Returns (and after this summer, Man of Steel. I’m starting to think most Superman fanboys just don’t appreciate any live action incarnation of Superman). But I, on the other hand, was a hardcore Smallville devotee. I know we talk about how being a “nerd of color” makes us feel marginalized in an already marginalized subculture. I took it a step further and ingratiated myself into a fandom that was even further marginalized. Go figure. I mean, I frequented the message boards, collected all the DVDs, bought the action figures, and even had a weekly column about the show for the now defunct website Popcultureshock. In fact, as someone who has basically sworn off buying comics in the post “New 52” era, DC’s Smallville: The Eleventh Season is one of the few comics I still purchase regularly.
Suffice it to say, I feel a particular bond to the characters, actors, and creators behind the Smallville universe. This is why news of Young’s passing hit me on such a visceral level.
I was too old to have paid any attention to “The Famous Jett Jackson” when it was on the air. It was only later in life did I realize how popular the show was to the legion of fans who grew up with the Disney Channel. I was first made aware of Young when he had a small role in 2004’s “Friday Night Lights” (the original film, not the critically acclaimed NBC television series). Young showed up on my radar when he was cast as Victor Stone in a Season Five episode of Smallville, called (what else?) “Cyborg.” Young would reprise the role in later seasons, most notably in the Season Six JLA-themed episode “Justice” (trust me, in those pre-Avengers days, seeing proto-versions of Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Cyborg team up for some small screen superhero action was the stuff).
Having a favorite television show is not unlike having a favorite sports team. If someone had an important role on the roster, you can’t help but root for them even if they’ve moved on to a different team. It’s why I continued to root for Scottie Pippen when he left Chicago for the Rockets, and later, the Blazers. It’s why I cheered Phil Jackson on during his Lakers days. It’s why I own Michael Jordan-era Washington Wizards memorabilia. Similarly, I rooted for anyone who left their mark on my favorite TV shows (or tried my best to at least. Sorry Kristin Kreuk, but Beauty and the Beast is impossible to sit through). I enjoy spotting Smallville alums in other shows as much as I enjoy spotting former cast members of The Wire in everything else. So when Lee Thompson Young resurfaced on the short-lived sci-fi mystery FlashForward in 2009, I couldn’t help but smile when his character was named after Smallville co-creator Al Gough.
Since then, he’s had many roles, but has been part of the main cast of TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles for the last four years. From the surface, it seemed that his career and life trajectories were progressing as well as anyone could imagine. But that’s the thing about suicide. Despite how “normal” and “successful” things may seem on the outside, no one really can know about what darkness may lie underneath. He was only 29 when he took his own life. It is mind-numbingly sad to know that an actor that brought so much light and joy to the universe was unable to find some for himself. All we can do now is remember Lee Thompson Young’s life by respecting the art he left behind.