Entertainment Weekly NO. 198 November 26, 1993



by Dana Kennedy


RIVER PHOENIX may have been unlucky but he wasn't unusual. In clubs and in cars, at home and at work, young stars are doing drugs like there's no tomorrow. Heroin. Cocaine. Marijuana. LSD. Valium. GHB. Ecstasy. A hard look at the underside of the high life.

IT IS SHORTLY before midnight outside Babylon, one of the glossiest, most celebrity-intensive restaurants on the L.A. scene. As a young, male movie star sits dining at an outdoor table, an up-and-coming twenty-something writer-director team, egged on by a veteran woman film-maker, puff on one of Hollywood's new drug combinations of choice: marijuana-and-Ecstasy joints. "I just learned how to get Ecstasy to soak into a joint by putting it into a microwave!" she tells them. Not long after, the two young men, looking queasy, disappear into the night, and the filmmaker prances back inside. "I'm a bad girl!" she announces gleefully. "I just made the boys throw up!"

WHILE SCENES like that are common amid the glitzy clubs and night spots on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, River Phoenix had what many say was a more gradual introduction to hard drugs when he began filming Gus Van Sant's 1991 My Own Private Idaho. To get into character as a druggy gay hustler, Phoenix (along with others who worked on the movie) hung out with heroin-using street kids until the lines between the junkies and the actor slowly started to blur.

But Phoenix seemed to stay in character long after the film wrapped, his immersion in the role continuing until his fatal overdose of cocaine and heroin last month outside Johnny Depp's club, the Viper Room, in West Hollywood. His death exposed one of Hollywood's open secrets-drug abuse by the PC generation.

In scores of interviews with actors, musicians, producers, directors, screenwriters, and publicists in music, film, and television, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY explored the new drug culture in Hollywood and its close ties to the Sunset Strip club world, a phenomenon shadowed by the ominous comeback of heroin.

Many of the insiders, who agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity, paint a searing portrait of a decadent new Hollywood in which everything from freshly created designer drugs to superpremium Persian heroin is there for the taking, just beneath the town's politically correct veneer of clean living and sober self-awareness.

"I GOT TO L.A. last year-I'd been sober far several years- but I wound up with the same old thing. Before I knew it I'd been introduced to all these dealers to rock stars. I spent eight months bingeing on cocaine and crack and heroin and came close to dying again. I got a real dose of how callous it can be in L.A. I'd been shooting a lot of big bands, and my career just fell apart. I knew I had to get out of L.A. if I was ever to get my life back together. " -A 29-year-old rock photographer

RIVER PHOENIX never had that chance. Early this year, on the Tennessee set of Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love (where he met actress Samantha Mathis, his companion the night he died), Phoenix had already gained a behind-the-scenes reputation for drug and alcohol abuse. It was a problem so serious, says one member of the production, that at least one night's worth of filming featuring the 23-year-old star as a country singer was unusable.

Phoenix's drug use (marijuana, Valium, and an over-the-counter cold medication were also found in the autopsy) was also apparent to one female comedy star when she met him a few years ago. "We were doing an improv sketch in a comedy club in L.A. one night and River came in totally on drugs," she says. "He wanted to be in the sketch, but he was just staggering and swaying and muttering."

Phoenix, who publicly and zealously advocated vegetarianism, animal rights, and preserving the environment, was one of many celebrities sending a mixed message about Hollywood sobriety. "A lot of people mistakenly think that just because you eat tofu, you don't take drugs," says a music-industry exec. "My experience is that L.A. is full of people who are walking contradictions. Somebody will be worried about secondhand smoke in your cigarette, but they'll be doing coke."

Just a little more than a mile separates the Viper Room, where Phoenix died Oct. 31, from the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi's life ended 11 years ago from the same deadly cocktail of heroin and cocaine. But their worlds were light years apart. Belushi moved openly in bad-boy circles of excess and indulgence; Phoenix came of age at a time when a celebrity could assume an air of neo-Puritanism and piety while hiding the same substance abuse that has always haunted Hollywood. "Remember the Rock Against Drugs campaign? Half the people in those commercials were addicts," claims Loree Rodkin, who managed many Brat Pack actors in the late 1980s. "The emperor must think we're all blind."

Had it not been for Phoenix's death, the thriving new drug culture in Hollywood, strangely sandwiched between over-flowing 12-step meetings and ecosensitive causes, might have remained invisible to those outside the entertainment industry. "There is a sea of drugs in Hollywood among people in their 20s," says Larry Gross, who wrote 48 HRS and the up-coming Geronimo: An American Legend. "It's back on the front burner with a degree of ferocity that comes from the real chaos of not knowing what to do, how to feel about things."

Illegal drugs, which by almost all accounts are not as popular as they were in their late '70s and early '80s heyday, are still common among some older stars as well, although usage has become more discreet. For every Chevy Chase, Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Dreyfuss, Charlie Sheen, Kirstie Alley, Melanie Griffith, and Elizabeth Taylor-just some of the many stars who have overcome drug and/or alcohol problems-there are many more who haven't kicked the habit.

The stories are legion. The powerful agent fired after three stints in rehab. The soap opera actress so strung out she often had to be rescued from ditches and obscure motels. The rock star in his late 30s who collapsed from a near-fatal designer-drug overdose outside an L.A. nightclub last winter. The Sunset Strip club owner-dealer notorious for booking local bands and turning them on to heroin so he has in-house customers. <

Still, the most disturbing news about drugs comes from Phoenix's generation-young, moneyed actors, actresses, and musicians who model their behavior on the Seattle grunge band scene and cult films like Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, the dark Matt Dillon movie about some Portland, Ore., junkies who rob pharmacies for drugs.

Fueled by the sudden resurgence of heroin and the pro-pot movement led by bands like Cypress Hill, buzzed by the continuing popularity of cocaine, and spiked with designer drugs like GHB, Ecstasy (the "hug drug" that comes in powder, pill, and liquid form), and Special K (the hallucinogenic Ketamine), the new drug culture in Hollywood has become far more socially acceptable in some circles than, say, eating red meat. "You would be surprised at some of the names," says Richard Bautzer, the outpatient chemical dependency coordinator of Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. He adds that drugs, especially heroin, are "out of control" among young people in show business.

But youthful veterans of the scene insist that the reglamorization of drugs by the same celebs who might lend their names to Save Our Oceans and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals isn't just Hollywood hypocrisy. "If you look at it, it's really not that contradictory," says a drug connoisseur who travels the L.A. club circuit. "Because the whole drug culture and alternative music and eating healthy are all about one thing, which is leading a non-mainstream lifestyle."

Even the most sobering reminders that drugs can kill- like the death of John Belushi -are quickly forgotten in Hollywood. Before Phoenix's death, says one heroin user, many of his contemporaries felt invincible. He's not even sure Phoenix's demise will change that.

"It's almost like a vampire thing," says a young actor whose new TV movie is about to air. "You see these healthy, famous people who shall remain nameless at Erewhon [a health-food store] shopping for beet juice. In the light they look great, but when the sun goes down, watch out. L.A. at night is a different place. The Sunset Strip-that says it all. It's all about speed, baby, and go go go."

IN THE SO-CALLED Pillow Room at Hollywood's Dragonfly club, Bunny, 24, a blond wearing tight crushed-velvet pants and a low-cut blouse, reminisces about a recent rave at another club. "I walked in, I took acid, it was like, 'Step right up! $5 a tab! Three joints for five bucks! ' People in Saran Wrap dancing. At 3 a.m. they released balloons lull of nitrous oxide. It was wonderful. The thing I like about drugs is that people are bound by this stuff. 'Cool, let's be loaded together.' Otherwise it's just, 'I'm cool, you're not.'"

GROUND ZERO OF COOL is located in and around the Sunset Strip, where a string of restaurants and clubs-ranging from superexclusive, unlisted-phone-number spots to more well- known watering holes-cater to the young, the rich, the famous, and those who cater to them. Some of the favorites are Babylon (owned by actress Tia Carrere and her husband, Elie Samaha), Olive (owned by Rosanna Arquette's fiance, Jon Sidel), the Roxbury (Eddie Murphy is a regular, and paparazzi favorite Shannen Doherty and her 90210 cast-mate Tori Spelling used to storm in and out), Depp's Viper Room, the Gate, the Rainbow, On the Rox, Maxx, C n C's, and Dragonfly.

Some of the clubs, like the Viper Room, are little more than stark black boxes; others, like Dragonfly, feature such areas as the Pillow Room, where kids loll on top of one another under low ceilings adorned with gauzy Victorian fabric. "Bono was in here last night, and Wesley, Sly, Shannen-and Lenny Dykstra's over there," says Samaha, gesturing grandly around Babylon. "The chandeliers are from Syria. The chairs are shell-in-laid Moroccan chairs. Babylon is a city that used to be in the Middle East. It was the Studio 54 of its time."

Many of the newer clubs exploit the latest anxiety in young Hollywood: film stars who revere rock stars and want to be like them. At the Viper Room, which opened last August, Depp has his own band; he was on stage with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, and Al Jourgensen of Ministry when Phoenix collapsed in convulsions on the sidewalk outside, "The Viper Room is like a rock-and movie-star summit meeting place, a mutual-envy society," says a club owner who also has his own band. "It's full of big-time rock and rollers and stars who've never done a record in their life but kind of wish they had."

Both police and industry sources blame heroin's Hollywood resurgence on the new coziness between rock stars-some of whom, like Porno for Pyros' Perry Farrell, have openly espoused its use-and movie and TV actors who in the '80s preferred cocaine. These days heroin is usually smoked or snorted, less often injected. "It's romantic," says former heavy-drug user Roddy Bottum of Faith No More. "That's why I did drugs. Famous people do drugs."

Exaggerations aside, those who do partake have at their service a small group of club- hopping drug dealers. Detective Dave Valentine of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department says the dealers are nearly indistinguishable from the trendy patrons and are well known on the Strip. "The drug scene up there is a lot worse over the past few years," says Valentine. "It's gone from cocaine, marijuana, heroin into designer things. I'm no longer surprised at how many famous people use."

Valentine says he knows of two Strip regulars, one a celebrity, who nearly died in the last year after overdosing on gamma-hydroxy-butyrate, or GHB, a steroid like drug that until recently was available in many health-food stores as a vaulted growth-hormone stimulant (for as little as $10 per ounce) but which is also effective as a euphoriant. "The stuff starts getting re-created in home labs, and they lace it with Valium," says Valentine. "They don't realize how dangerous it can be."

On a recent night out, a 25-year-old woman recounted her dalliance with GHB, which is sold in clubs in small liquid canisters the size of a jumbo crack vial. "I actually thought it was going to be my new drug," she says. "I took some home and did a lot of it, more than one dose, taking more whenever I felt myself coming down, to see what it would do to me. I ended up feeling really nauseous at one point. I was talking on the telephone and basically passed out."

To prevent that kind of experimentation, Valentine's department began an ongoing investigation of the clubs several months before Phoenix's death, but he admits that monitoring the exclusive night spots has been an uphill struggle. Beset by budget cuts and far more urgent drug crises in the city's poorer neighborhoods, the L.A. Police Department's narcotics division long ago disbanded its Entertainment Squad- which operated from 1981 to 1984 to investigate drugs in show business-leaving only the sheriff's department to monitor upscale drug abuse.

Virtually free from the arm of the law, the Strip clubs' regulars, a floating cadre of some of the biggest names in movies, TV, and music, can indulge in a cornucopia of excess. Several well-known actors in their late 20s have been seen at lingerie parties, also known as underwear parties, where participants strip down to their undies and take Ecstasy. "They put Ecstasy in the punch sometimes," says one male lingerie-party veteran. "There's a lot of touches, a lot of feelies, a lot of silk and chiffon things. We used to ask girls to lie down on the floor to see how their breasts settled. If they settled naturally on either side, it was okay, but if they stood up like twin peaks, it was like... Next! No surgery, please."

Underwear parties, free-flowing designer drugs, and the alcohol du jour-such as Jagermeister, a potent herbal liqueur-sound like the accessories of a frivolous egalitarianism. But they conceal a strict hierarchy among the Strip's elite, best defined by the private rooms within each club reserved for the coolest of the cool. In the Viper Room, according to the owner of a rival nightspot, Johnny Depp is able to watch new arrivals via closed-circuit TV in a small room concealed behind a mirrored wall near the stage.

"Every club has its back room the inner sanctum, the VIP lounge," says a clubgoer cruising the Strip. "I fantasize about a club that will have inner sanctums that get higher and higher until there's no people in there anymore, just the myth."

"MOST PEOPLE drive downtown to get heroin. They buy it from these guys standing around on the corner who keep it in dime bags in their mouths. They're called balloons 'cause the heroin is wrapped up in a little piece of a balloon. Inside this balloon there's a black, gooey substance that's like a rock. Generally you take a piece of tinfoil, and with a lighter or match you try to get the [supposed] toxins off the tinfoil. This is amazing. No one seems concerned about smoking heroin, but they're all really worried about inhaling the toxins on the tinfoil." - Music-industry executive

DRUG ABUSE IN Hollywood often adapts to the medium. One entertainment lawyer explains that drugs are less prevalent in television. "TV people work eight months out of the year," he says. "Film people will work six weeks on a picture and then can go on a four-month bender and clean up long enough to work again. On top of that, TV is done so quickly. And videotape [used to shoot soaps and most TV sitcoms] covers no sins. If you're on drugs, you'll look like hell."

In television, according to industry insiders, drugs are tolerated far less than they were a decade ago. But there are widespread rumors about drug use on the set of one Fox series; sources also say a star of one network comedy show had to be let go because of drugs (he was rehired after he cleaned up), and still another hard-drinking and drug-abusing actor in a prime-time network series is barely hanging on to his job. "During the Reagan-Bush years, [drug use] went from being overt to being behind closed doors," says a TV publicist. "But when it comes down to an issue that affects the producers, they step in and say, 'Clean up your act or you're out."'

Despite that sense of bottom-line vigilance, some say cocaine has slowly crept back on to the sets of several TV series. "There's a big problem with drugs, especially if you include alcohol, with the twentysomething group," says a former network publicist. "They're newcomers, they're making lots of money, then they get big egos and think they can do anything they want. There were so many examples of times I knew that so-and-so couldn't make it to work. Especially in the cases of the ensemble shows that featured young people, it would be like, 'Okay, so-and-so is incoherent today-we'll just scramble and shoot around them."'

TV producer Stephen J. Cannell (Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, The A-Team) is militantly antidrug but is also known for showing compassion to actors with drug problems. Cannell can't understand why drugs-are popular again. "I'm of the belief that in the past five years drug use has become a loser's game," says Cannell, who watched Wiseguy's drugged-out Ray Sharkey die of AIDS, and helped two other stars on his old shows go straight. "But heroin has started to make a comeback. The younger actors weren't around to see the devastation."

That same naivete among young film stars helped lead to Phoenix's demise, says one executive at a major movie studio. There's an enormous amount of denial," he says. " All [Phoenix's] friends are saying 'No, he was drug free and a vegetarian, completely clean.' Clearly that was bulls---."

Other longtime Hollywood players say today's drug use still pales in comparison with the early '80s. Many can run down a list of young actors and actresses-two Brat Pack superstars in particular-whose careers crashed and burned from drug use. "On Halloween 3 there were probably five people who weren't using, and there were three different dealers," says a crew member. "Those were the old days when people had personalized tooters-brass straws."

Pressures from lawyers and insurers have imposed more constraints in the movie business, but such controls are far less visible in the music industry, where bands like Cypress Hill and the Black Crowes are in the vanguard of marijuana's renaissance, and record-company executives are tripping over themselves to sign the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam, which have both seen the effects of heroin abuse firsthand. Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, and his wife, Courtney Love, of Hole, have admitted using heroin. And two members of Pearl Jam rose to grunge renown in the band's forerunner, Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer Andy Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

Both current and former heroin users in the music business attest to the drug's allure. "This heroin that comes from Persia - you can't get it unless you're really famous or a spoiled rich kid," says one alternative-rock star and former heroin addict. "I mean, you would do it for five years if you could get ahold of it. It's like being in heaven."

But one music-industry exec says some of the bands she has signed are enamored of designer drugs. "I asked a young band what the drug of the moment was, and without hesitation they all said, hands down, GHB. They're all 23, 24. They said it was the drug of the moment and the drug of the future." The death of River Phoenix is unlikely to alter that future for young Hollywood-at least according to many of the club kids who roam the same dangerous terrain that claimed the star. Even as the results of Phoenix's autopsy became public, many clubgoers affected the same breezy attitude about his death as they do toward the drugs they take. "Yeah, you could end up like River Phoenix if you use drugs," says Amy, a 22-year-old Dragonfly regular. "But practically everyone else just has fun. They don't ruin their lives. You could end up like River Phoenix or you could end up in the White House." When the Viper Room reopened shortly after Phoenix's death, a stylish young man - fingered by a heroin-using rock star as the dealer who gave Phoenix his fatal dose - was back in action. At the club's door, he greeted a friend with a knowing look and words that carried a sinister threat: "Welcome back to the night."

(Additional reporting by Tim Appelo, with Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Alan Carter, Heidi Siegmund,
A.J.S. Rayl, Robert Seidenberg, Anne Thompson, Michael Walker, and Jeffrey Wells)

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