COLUMBIA, SC — Lee Thompson Young used to spend a lot of time in the children’s room at the Richland Library on Main Street, like a lot of children did and still do.
Yet there was something special about the Columbia youngster who went on to become a television star, and who apparently took his own life Monday at age 29.
Leslie Tetreault, children’s room manager at the library, sees these rare children come along every once in awhile. They stand out without really trying to.
“I knew when I met him he was on the path to stardom,” Tetreault said of Young. “I told him we’re going to see you in the movies, or you’re going to come up with a cure for cancer. You could tell he was a dreamer and he would dream big.”
Young was born in Columbia in 1984, son of Velma and Tommy Scott Young. His father was a renowned storyteller and author who founded the Kitani Foundation in 1977 to bring national artists to Columbia. Tommy Scott Young later went on to be storyteller-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York.
Lee Thompson Young felt at home in the local library at an early age. He was helping other youngsters as a junior volunteer at the library before he moved to New York at age 12. He was a natural as an actor, not only smart but physically attractive and the type of speaker who drew people in, Tetreault said.
Darion McCloud worked at the library back then and, like most everyone who met Young, fell into his orbit. McCloud technically became Young’s mentor, but their relationship was more of a friendship. Young had that kind of personality; as a 9-year-old, adults wanted to be friends with him.
“He was an amazing person,” McCloud said Monday. “I know everybody always says that about someone when they’re gone, but it’s nothing but true.”
Sam Johnson, special assistant to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, took martial arts classes as a child with Young. “He was always happy, very athletic, very energetic,” Johnson recalled.
Though Young was about four years older, he and Johnson sparred often during workouts. To Johnson, Young always seemed like just another smart, talented kid, even toward the end of his time in Columbia when he was interviewing for big acting jobs.
At age 14 in 1998, Young rose to fame as the lead actor on Disney’s “The Famous Jett Jackson.” He built a solid acting career with dozens of roles in film and television, most recently at Detective Barry Frost in the television series “Rizzoli & Isles.” Through the years, he stayed in touch with McCloud, talking by phone several times a year.
“We had one of those adult, long-distance friendships,” McCloud said. “We were both comic book nerds. He would pitch ideas to me based on comic-book themes.”
McCloud said Young came across as balanced. He talked about public service and working to get better at the acting craft. He was trying to do work that meant something to people.
Those who knew Young as a child in Columbia were stunned that he might have taken his own life. Young’s landlord found Young in his L.A. apartment when he failed to show up to the “Rizzoli & Isles” set Monday. He seemed so grounded and sure of himself, they said.
“I was proud to know him, and not just because he was famous,” McCloud said. “When he was 9 years old, I was proud to be his friend. Please let the world know how special my friend was.”