life and death and the movie star

Posted by on Jan 26, 2010 in change, cinema, life | 2 comments

Much Too Young To Die

Death is a paradox. It’s a primal force so powerful and frightening that we really don’t talk about it very much. It’s too painful.  It’s dark and dour, yet at the same time, it has a way of reminding us – sometimes in brutal and sometimes in amazingly subtle ways – not only of the fragility of life, but of its beauty and simplicity.  It’s a cliche of course, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Death is the mythological door to other worlds, simultaneously beautiful and ugly, fraught with fear and imbued with wonder all at the same time. And, sometimes it can precipitate a profound moment of change.

For me, this transformation occurred in the early 90s when I lost a friend to trajic circumstances and within a few months found myself working side by side with Johnny Depp, who coincidentally, had also lost someone close to him.

On October 31, 1994 at around 1AM Depp’s friend and fellow actor and musician River Pheonix died of a speedball (heroin mixed with cocaine) overdose on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room, the club that Depp owned until a few years ago. At the time of Pheonix’s death, Depp was on stage at the club, performing with his band. River Pheonix’s last moments alive were inside the club, listening to Depp’s band, and doing drugs in the bathroom. A few months later, in January, a friend and co-worker of mine named Chance Helburn died in his apartment from an overdose of drugs. Also a speedball. Both deaths were a shock to the system. One day you were talking to them on the phone, the next, they were gone.

River was only 23. Chance was only 25. Both were talented and loved with bright futures and lives ahead of them, and their deaths were the opening scene of what was to be one of the most clarifying experiences of my life. I suspect that Depp would say the same thing.

So, it’s with more than a hint of irony that I find the recent reports of Johnny Depp’s death amusing because Depp had long ago moved away from such a path.  It wasn’t his destiny. With luck and work, I’m pretty sure that Johnny Depp is a man who will more than likely die of old age surrounded by family. I can’t be entirely certain of it, but I’d bet the farm on it. Why? Well, because I was there when he was at the crossroads, when he saw his choices laid out before him, and he had begun to change as I was also changing. He’d lost something, a part of his life, a friend, and it shook him to his bones. I went through a similar expereince but fortunately for me, the eyes of the worlds press were not staring, watching and waiting.

Thus, it was in the summer of 1995 that I found myself at the New York City Bellevue Morgue standing next to Johnny Depp as we both got an up close look at the harsh, pungent, unapologetic, unflinching finality of death.

Next: Up Jump the Devil

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