Maybe the problem was that in a town where appearance matters so much, former teen idol Jonathan Brandis still looked great. Sure, his friends knew that the star of the mid-'90s TV series seaQuest DSV was lonely and depressed about his extended career lull. They knew he drank heavily, and he'd even "told people that he was going to kill himself," says one friend. But no one, it seems, took him seriously enough—until 11:40 p.m. Nov. 11, when friends called 911 after finding Brandis, 27, hanging from a nylon rope in the hallway of his L.A. apartment. Says Robert Katz, who produced Brandis's final film, the indie Puerto Vallarta Squeeze: "When I heard about it, I said, 'No, no, no, wrong guy.' "

During the movie's shoot last year, Brandis impressed colleagues as an unassuming professional. Even at teen heartthrob apex in '94, when he got 4,000 letters a week, Brandis's sea-Quest costar Roy Scheider told PEOPLE, "he takes his incredible popularity with a grain of salt." A former child actor who had starred in such family-oriented features as 1992's Ladybugs, Brandis seemed to take it in stride when his career cooled in the late '90s. But friends say he was upset when what he hoped would be his comeback-as a POW in 2002's Hart's War—ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Ironically, his role in the yet-unre-leased Squeeze, starring as a CIA hit man opposite Harvey Keitel, may have been his best showcase in years. "Harvey even said to me a couple of times, 'This kid is good,' " Katz recalls. "When we were in the editing room looking at him, we all said, 'This guy's going to have a big career.' "