Drugs in Hollywood are nothing new. But in the early ’90s, the town seemed to be in a state of denial. Young celebrities who were struggling with addiction publicly claimed to be clean. In the March 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, writer Charles Oakley went undercover to discover the dark truth of Hollywood’s drug problem.
“Take off your shoes,” commands Dr. “X.” That request may strike you as odd, but hey, this doc will barely squeeze you into his appointment book even after two longtime patients refer you. Besides, the doctor is way hip. This season, drug informants attach their “wires” to the soles of their feet or inside the heels of their shoes, and run them up their legs. So, off come your shoes or you’re ushered, pronto, out of his suite of offices.
If you’re a woman, he’ll say, “Hand me your bag,” then check out the contents thoroughly. From guys, he demands, “Take off your shirt,” then examines the bare flesh: Who knows, you could be wearing one of last season’s electronic bugging devices, taped to your back. “Are you a narc?” he asks. Only if you clear all these checkpoints will you hear at last the phrase that has made Dr. “X” an underground legend among Hollywood’s young, famous and well-connected: “WHAT would you like today, and how much of it?”
To the million-dollar-a-movie stars and struggling supporting players who make up the celebrity practice of Dr. “X,” the choices may be dizzying. Depressed over all the rejection that goes with the territory–the roles you lose, the reviews you get when you do work? Dr. “X” can dole out a cache of Hollywood’s current antidepressant of choice, Sinequan–the replacement for Prozac that druggies love because you can take it when you’re doing other drugs. Frantic for steroids to quickly bulk you up to Schwarzenegger size for your next audition? No problema, with your friendly doc on the case. If your shopping list includes amphetamines or quaaludes, would you care to buy just a few weeks’ supply or the giant economy size? Got a taste for “H,” as those too nodded out to pronounce “heroin” refer to it? Dr. “X” thoughtfully supplies the syringes too. Or, are you smoothing the ragged edges of withdrawal from “H”? Let Dr. “X” fix you up with methadone.
Other doctors before Dr. “X” have catered to Hollywood’s drug needs. No one before has provided one-stop shopping for you and your pals. He will, in fact, supply any drug you order, so long as you pay him directly. In cash. If you become a patient of this physician, who is becoming to young Hollywood what the infamous “Dr. Feelgood” was to Manhattan’s well-heeled addicts of the ’70s, be prepared to drop no less than a grand per visit. Why so costly? You see, you can shop not only for yourself, but also for your friends. Your drug needs met, just stash your stuff and proceed to the cheery receptionist in the outer room who collects the fee for your office visit–she’ll even bill your health insurance company.
All this may sound like a tragic, surrealistic fantasy sequence cut from Postcards from the Edge or Less Than Zero. I wish it were. Here’s the awful truth. Despite a decade of poignant, hair-raising accounts of young stars’ recoveries from drugs and alcohol–Christian Slater, Ally Sheedy, Robert Downey Jr., Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, plus such older guard types as Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Richard Pryor and Don Johnson–Hollywood isn’t a town that just says no. It just says it just says no. Check this out. On a recent story assignment, I posed the question: How do young Hollywood stars spend their cash? Dozens of film industry people refused to comment, even off the record; others did respond, but sounded unusually guarded. “The money gets spent on L.A. houses and getaway places in Montana or Colorado,” explained a woman formerly employed as a personal assistant by a well-known, turbulent heartbreaker. “What’s left over from that,” she added, “goes to agents, publicists, business managers, and on cars, bikes, clothes, music, smokes, eating out, acting classes, personal trainers, political causes.” Because her ex-boss is widely known as one of this town’s major hellraisers, I pressed her: What else? “Oh, just stuff,” she said, dismissively. Stuff like drugs? “Very passe,” she said, reproachfully. “Haven’t you heard that everybody’s into cleanup?”
As a matter of fact, I have heard. And though I wish it were so, I know better. These days, the media glut of post-rehab testimonials has slowed to a trickle. Remember Melanie Griffith’s candid confession that, while under the influence, she collided with a car manned by a drunk driver in front of Le Dome on Sunset? Or Christian Slater’s remorseful reflections on the night he plowed his car into a telephone pole during a high-speed police chase? Instead, we’re being fed uplift: “Beverly Hills, 90210″‘s Jason Priestley and Jeff the Dog entertaining hospitalized kids, a volunteer effort sponsored by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. Interviews from some young actors suggest a new Hollywood brimful of gifted, positive-minded kids living only to guzzle Evian, pump up at the gym, write checks to save the rainforest, attend A Course in Miracles lectures, and do “quality work” for directors who respect their artistic “choices.” Has Sodom been transformed into Spielbergland? I don’t think so.
I can pinpoint the instant I became fascinated with Hollywood’s denial of its drug problems. The week of the publication of a magazine piece in which I had profiled a gifted, tumultuous young star–who sounded justifiably proud of his hard-won sobriety–I spotted the same actor, all alone, snorting coke in the corner of a theater lobby at a glittering opening night performance.
I know a dentist who can tell from the color and condition of an actor’s gums onscreen whether or not he does cocaine. But you don’t need a Harvard medical degree to notice celebrity presenters on award shows betraying odd, telltale symptoms–glittery eyes, constricted (“pinned”) or dilated pupils, unusual speech rhythms and delayed reaction times–that suggest they may be flying high. And it doesn’t take a brilliant psychologist to decode why certain actors sound scrambled and erratic in interviews, or why certain stars repeatedly drop out of major movies. A producer of a recent big-budget debacle confesses privately that the cocaine-friendly shenanigans of his stars may have added as much as $5 million to the budget.
Yes, Hollywood may loudly proclaim itself on the wagon, but rumors steadily build that as many as a dozen of its more promising young players snort, smoke or shoot heroin. That is, when they’re not shooting “speedballs,” that delirious combination of coke and heroin that killed John Belushi. “The industry is in massive denial,” says a private psychotherapist who specializes in celebrity dependence and codependence. “When a coworker on a movie is addicted to coke, for instance, it’s obvious to anybody who wants to see and to hear. People in this business must stop covering up for each other when it comes to the adolescent angst and societal pressure that fuel drug abuse, because addiction can be cured.”
Movie kids are not different from other teens. If anything, their dice are twice as loaded. I’ve seen the terror in many young performers’ eyes when they allude to people in their lives who depend on their income. One has an erratic, scared-of-growing-old mom who keeps getting dumped by pretty-boy model types. Another is trying to help his brother avoid a fifth jailing. More than one have reclusive half siblings who need to ease the pain of the overwhelmingly obvious fact that they were born less pretty and less talented. Meanwhile, some are burdened with fathers whose treatment for depression they pay for. “Kids practically kill themselves to make it in this business,” observes an agent to the young and the hot. “Some who do make it attract unheard-of salaries, hordes of fans, and entourages who fawn over them, hangers-on who marvel at their every word. Say they do a movie. Then, the pressure kicks in: ‘Will I be good in it? Will I be so good the leading man will have me cut out of it? Will the studio promote it or dump it? Will critics like it but audiences avoid it like the plague–or vice versa?’ And so on. Meanwhile, they’re still kids with raging hormones, family issues, relationship problems, insecurities. At night, they often find themselves alone and questioning whether anyone wants them for themselves. The pressure and pain from all that can become intolerable.” Enter the help-me-make-it-through-the-night stuff.
In Hollywood, drugs have always been plentiful, but they began a spectacular ascent during the let-it-all-hangout ’60s and crested during the disco-till-you-drop ’70s. During all of it, few major league Hollywood bashes failed to offer an open bar and complimentary smorgasbord of pot, coke, speed, downers. The late ’70s and early ’80s added to this array such “designer” drugs as ecstasy, that amphetamine and mescaline laboratory concoction known as “the hug drug.” “This ‘Just Say No’ stuff helps people forget or disassociate themselves from just how pervasive drug use was at that time,” says Lili Fini Zanuck, who directed the ’70s-era horror story/homage, Rush. “We sang about drugs: ‘Don’t Bogart That Joint,’ ‘One Toke Over the Line,’ ‘Cocaine.’ You’d smoke a joint and have sex with strangers you’d meet at a concert. If you were in the men’s room and somebody was getting high, you didn’t go running to call a cop. Today, people try to portray it as though only other people, from dysfunctional families or something, did drugs. But when a majority of a generation was doing something, that’s not dysfunction, that’s a part of the era.” The tragic drug overdose that killed John Belushi in 1982 brought the binge to a halt. It was Hollywood’s morning after.
For awhile, anyway. I wanted to learn for myself what ’90s Hollywood is up to when it comes to drugs, so I asked a couple of young actor friends to take me undercover on a tour of the town as seen by 20-year-olds in the know. Okay, so they laughed a little. I am, after all, a guy who doesn’t even drink or smoke and who, even during the height of the drug revolution, stayed clear of the fray. Still, I’ve been around booze and drugs plenty. But what I learned about ’90s Hollywood shocked the hell out of me.
L.A. dance clubs, which go in and out of fashion in seconds, have long been major hangouts for young celebrity party animals. On my whirl through these interchangeable, you’d-better-be-somebody-or-you’11-never-get-inside places, I caught on to something quick: The ’90s–in terms of music, fashion and drug use–are the ’60s as refracted through the Ray-Bans of the ’70s. In fact, club-crawling got me wondering what year I had stumbled into, period. “I’m crazy about the ’60s,” explained a twenty something movie star, “because it seemed to be all about peace, love, happiness, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. What could be better?” At one club, a pal and I cut through billowy clouds of marijuana smoke from dancing throngs of smiley, bizarrely polite kids decked out in tie-dyes, fringe jackets, peace symbols, love beads, and jewelry made from human bones. The crowd–among whom bobbed faces recognizable to anyone who’s been to the movies in the past five years–whooped in approval as dancers onstage in Tina Turner-meets-Terminator drag mimed every conceivable form of unsafe sex.
Above the din, I heard the sweaty, pretty kids chanting “E!, E!” Clueless, I asked my friend what the deal was. I got hipped: Folks were checking out the crowd for a guy sporting a hat or T-shirt that reads “E” or “X.” Hunhhh? Well, think of the “E” or “X” he wears as the equivalent of one of those “Ask me about Mary Kaye Cosmetics” bumper stickers. The guy deals ecstasy. According to enthusiastic users, ecstasy makes one feel warm, trusting, and touchy-feely. (And all you Just Say No enthusiasts thought people took drugs to feel bad!) Sometimes, the guy with the initial is actually in possession of the stuff–which comes in a little white 100-milligram capsule that costs $20 to $30. Other times, he’ll introduce you to a deejay who might introduce you to another middleman who knows where ecstasy can be scored.
“Ecstasy has been holding on for a very long time as a major all-night and underground club drug,” says a club-friendly actor, who estimates that, at some happening clubs, easily half the clientele is soaring on it. That phenomenon hasn’t gone undetected by local police, who frequently bust clubs where drug use gets particularly flagrant.
Also in sync with the current mania for all things ’60s is the comeback of psychedelic “shrooms,” mushrooms that contain psilocybin, a substance that, like LSD or pey-ote, unleashes intense hallucinations and visions. You can eat the mushrooms au naturel or swallow the powder that contains the psilocybin. And dance the night away, literally.
But, as the thriving practice of Dr. “X” suggests, not all young Hollywood craves the same drugs and not all of them go club-crawling to score them. “Few celebrities are foolish enough to get drugs from dealers anymore,” says one of my actor guides, because they know that dealers are out trying to get money for blowing the drug covers of celebrities. People who abuse drugs tend to have drug abuser friends.”
A moviemaker associated with some of the business’s youngest and most blighted explains, “The kid who gets famous, makes a million a picture, and lives in a great house keeps in touch with the kids he came up with, who live in seedy Hollywood apartments and are struggling to land that first break. The big star calls up his old bud, who either sets him up with a guy who’s holding or who scores it himself to stay tight with his famous friend. Other star kids tell their personal assistants, ‘I’m not feeling so great, get me something to take care of it.’ And they do because their jobs depend on it.” And where, besides doctor’s offices and dance clubs, do the deals go down? “The most workaday places in the world,” explains the movie man, “like shopping center parking lots, parties, expensive health clubs and coffeehouses.”
Maybe you’d never believe (as I didn’t, at first) that you can score drugs at those funky storefront places where folks hang out for hours listening to ’50s jazz on mismatched furniture while sipping so-so cappuccino. You’d be wrong. You certainly cannot score drugs at any trendy coffeehouse; many of them are clean as a whistle, and serve as post-Alcoholics Anonymous meeting places. It’s not like the owners are dealing–a few of them are kids who have kicked habits themselves. It’s more likely that nobody knows what dope deals go down in the restrooms of such joints except the people who want to know. “Where else are people expected to look spacey while they babble about things they don’t know anything about?” observes an industry source. “You can sit for hours and wait for your dealer to drop by, and no one ever asks you to leave, nor even to buy a second cup of java. Sure, maybe the dealer’s not selling the purest, cleanest stuff, but it’ll do. It’s this casual, completely unspoken-about, totally crazed thing.”
Do you want to talk crazed? Then surely, the displacement of once all-popular cocaine by heroin strikes me–especially in the age of AIDS–as the most soul-shaking trend in young Hollywood’s drug use. Statistics say there may be as many as 700,000 heroin addicts in the United States. Nobody’s keeping statistics on heroin use in Hollywood; somebody would have to admit there’s a problem, first. It’s tough to conjure up an image of a great-looking, highly paid young star injecting or otherwise ingesting heroin. “H” users are prone to malnutrition, circulation problems, tuberculosis and overdose–none of which are even remotely photogenic. Heroin also creates a spiraling, all-consuming cycle of “craving-seeking-use” that, by comparison, makes sex, relationships and career moves pale. Yet, “H” use appears to be on the upswing among some of the young and famous. “When you’re so far gone, snorting coke or doing crack,” says a hip movie director, “the next step doesn’t seem like such a reach.”
“It’s shocking the number of major stars who have been linked to heroin,” says a member of Hollywood’s hip community. “They’re not rockers or rappers. They’re actors, they’re people who seem like they could be your next door neighbors. And they’re so young and strong that they can still look good and keep doing what they’re doing until they actually collapse. Look at Corey Haim, Corey Feldman or Drew Barrymore, who never looked like what they were doing. I mean, how bad can someone in their teens or twenties look, even at their worst?”
Most Hollywood drug abuse goes undetected until–if the user is lucky–he checks himself (or someone checks him) into a rehab clinic like the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California or the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota. The industry response to drug abuse problems has been uneven. A handful of movie studios host weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The Cocaine Anonymous group at Cedars Sinai hospital has acted as a magnet for members of the moviemaking community. “Hollywood is most concerned with the bottom line,” says a therapist with the Referral and Assistance Center, one of many local treatment facilities for celebrity addictions. “As an industry, we need to realize how problems with addictions contribute to production time. Hours spent dealing with emotional crises, the constant stress–these cost money. Once a talented person is lost to drugs or alcohol, he’s gone. That ought to be sad enough. But maybe Hollywood also needs to hear that once he’s gone, no more money can be made off him.”
Charles Oakley is a freelance writer who occasionally goes undercover for Movieline.