How does it feel?/ To be on your own/ With no direction home/ Like a complete unknown
This is Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan's cruel lament for a has-been, and "Bob," one wants to yell back, when facing hard times, "It feels terrible."
I assume Jeff Conaway would have agreed. The actor died on May 27 at the age of 60, in a Tarzana, Calif., hospital after spending several days in an induced coma. While pneumonia, not a drug overdose, was considered the cause of death, it's thought that his drug abuse hampered his ability to realize how ill he was, and kept him from seeking treatment for the pneumonia until it was too late.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, board-certified internist, addiction-medicine specialist and reality-TV star, has been in the media since Conaway's death, as the actor appeared on two seasons of Pinsky's show Celebrity Rehab.
This show, if you have missed its ceaseless luridness, features largely histrionic low-tier stars attempting to detox. Its spinoff show, Sober House, is a halfway house for the struggling, newly hatched recovery fledglings.
Conaway was a perfect Pinsky star because of his disastrous fall from grace - in 1978, his annus mirabilis, he starred in Grease (having also performed with John Travolta in the Broadway version) and he signed on as cab driver Bobby Wheeler in Taxi.
He was gone in two seasons, and while doing sad, itinerant TV work, he fought cross-addictions to cocaine, alcohol and, ultimately, painkillers for extreme back pain.
By the time he reached the refined confines of Pinsky's clinic, he looked wretched, recalling the 17th-century playwright John Ford's haunting lines regarding the "poor gentleman [who]look'd not like the ruins of his youth, but like the ruins of those ruins."
The last time most of us saw him was during his tenure on Celebrity Rehab, but according to a heroically tawdry story in the National Enquirer, Conaway was earlier this year involved in a vicious "dust-up" at a memorabilia show in Los Angeles with former Munsters star Butch Patrick over "a woman both men had dated."
Sadly, this act of poignant bravura would be his last.
On Celebrity Rehab, he was often filled with wrath, then horrible confusion. Watching him in Grease the other night, I felt so sad for what this beautiful, charismatic young man would become.
His cast mates included the studiously affable addiction doctor Pinsky and his hostile and largely indifferent staff. Also appearing were such luminaries as Tawny Kitaen, Steven Adler and Gary Busey (who, wildly disoriented, believed that he was on the show to act as a sage counsellor).
Adler returns to this deeply problematic show this year, for its fifth season.
Another of the show's participants from its third season, Mike Starr, the bassist for Alice in Chains, died in March. Police were called to a Salt Lake City house where they found the long-dead man, who had appeared in an episode of the most recent Celebrity Rehab season to provide a testimonial of his recovery.
Chris Norris, in a moving story about Starr in Vulture, recalls observing a Celebrity Rehab third-season shoot in which "the lumbering, pony-tailed Mike Starr played like a character from some John Cusack-helmed comedy about aging Gen-Xers, stuck in a grunge time warp."
Starr was obviously in acute emotional pain; Conaway was clearly a few shambles away from his waiting grave: Is Celebrity Rehab a dangerous gig? Adler thought so (but went back to the show); Charlie Sheen reviles it. But addicts understand this plain truth: If you hand over a pile of cash to an addict (the cast is paid for their very public, invasive detox) and send them into the Hollywood Hills, they will score and they will use.
Other critics of the show include Dr. John J. Mariani, director of Columbia University's Substance Treatment and Research Service. Cited in The New York Times in 2009, Mariani suggests that "The problem here is that Dr. Drew benefits from their participation, which must have some powerful effects on his way of relating to them. He also has a vested interest in the outcome of their treatment being interesting to viewers, which is also not in their best interest. Treatment with conflicts of interest isn't treatment."
Treatment issues aside (I agree that the constant surveillance ensures paranoia and a lack of authenticity among the fragile patients), there is the plain humiliation. If The Surreal Life (where stars like Gary Coleman and Vanilla Ice were merely curated in a well-appointed L.A. house) boldly underlined how D-list its stars were, Celebrity Rehab adds star stickers and neon highlights. Because these are not merely has-beens, but sick, angry and sad failures, quite literally throwing up their despair for our delectation.
Conaway and Starr likely needed the free detox and salary. What is Pinsky's excuse?
Between pompous tweets about addiction and flirting with actress Jenny McCarthy, Pinsky announced Conaway's death as follows: "I'm saddened to report he has succumbed to his addiciton [sic]"
So very sad, he misspelled it, carelessly.
Conaway will be cremated this week; as with Starr, there has been little media attention paid to his lonely death.
Mike Starr, Jeff Conaway, rest in peace, and may you stand as object lessons for Celebrity Rehab's new recruits. In Dylan's words: "You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you."
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