Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L JacksonSamuel L. Jackson, with his sharp, near poetic delivery and commanding screen presence, has been Oscar nominated and endlessly praised for his multi-faceted performances, as diverse and intense as a doomed crack addict, a repentant gangster, a vengeful father, a gun-runner, a rare violin dealer, a Jedi-Knight and a one-eyed government agent. He has appeared in over 140 films from 1972 to the present, including Jungle Fever, Pulp Fiction, A Time to Kill, The Red Violin, Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers. Total box office gross of all his films now exceeds $8 billion – more than any other actor. He’s also been clean for over two decades.

It was in New York City in the 1970’s that he started to drink heavily and use drugs. As he explained to Britain’s The Telegraph, “Part of it is hereditary: my father died of alcoholism. I took it a step further, I drank and I used drugs. I liked the feeling of not being cognizant of what was going on around me. I didn’t rob people; I was working the whole time. I rehearsed and performed on drugs. I went on stage and watched people’s eyes roll across stage and I’d go ‘oh I have a line, OK got to focus on the play now.’” After overdosing several times on heroin, he opted for cocaine. Addiction took its toll on his relationship with wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, and daughter, Zoe. “I was not affectionate, I was not associative and I was kind of crazy – in a way that I regret and I’ve apologized to both,” he told The Telegraph.  

The final straw came when his family discovered him “…passed out on the kitchen floor. I guess I wanted to get caught. I ended up going to a party, drinking too much tequila and decided on the way home I needed to get cocaine and level myself out because I was drunk. I got home and cooked it. When I looked up, LaTanya and Zoe were standing there. The cocaine was cooked but I’d never smoked it. That was the first time LaTanya realized I was doing something that was greater than just smoking weed and drinking.”

This “ice water dip” prompted him to check into a New York drug rehab facility, and just two weeks after completing the program, he was shooting the Spike Lee film Jungle Fever (1991). In an ironic twist of art imitating life, his portrayal of crack addict “Gator” is at once mesmerizing and gut-wrenching. In Gator’s final scene, as he ransacks his parent’s home frantically looking for money, his own father guns him down. “It was the first thing I did without a substance in my body,” he said of Jungle Fever, which proved to be his breakout film, and in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, as stoically philosophic criminal Jules Winnfield, Samuel L. Jackson became a household name.

Fortunately for us, Samuel L. Jackson, former addict, didn’t die. He’s been married for 42 years, has gone on to play Martin Luther King on Broadway in The Mountaintop, and has stayed clean and sober, which he says has enabled him “to get inside a character” in a deeper way. His success has meant no cloistered existence: “I hang out with people who smoke weed on the golf course; I’ve been in rooms with big plates of cocaine. I’ve got bottles of [booze] in my house that people keep giving me. But my wife doesn’t worry about me opening those bottles.”

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash, legend of country music, early pioneer of Rock & Roll and latter-day elder-statesman to a new generation of youth, famously Johnny Cashbattled drug addiction and finally emerged victorious. For millions, he has taken on mythic stature as an imposing man of integrity. With his sharp baritone, rhythmic freight-train guitar and simple yet poetic songwriting – evoking the rich history of American music, a deep spirituality and an understanding of the underdog – the Man in Black was never one to dodge the issue of his demons and addictions.

As he himself explained, “I took pep pills to turn me on enough to do a show. Then I took depressants to calm down enough to get some sleep…I tried pep pills the first time because they happened to be available one day when I was in the mood for a new kick. The high they gave me was beautiful. I felt I owned the world, and the world was perfect during those lofty moments. I couldn’t believe that a couple of little pills could contain so much beauty and joy. I stayed on pills because they made me feel great…Then I began to realize that the highs were getting lower. The few pills I was on every day weren’t enough anymore. I had to go from a few to several, then to dozens. Still that old feeling wasn’t there. I was always nervous and tense and irritable. I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t sleep. I started losing weight. So I went on depressants, looking for lows, looking for peace. When I found peace, I couldn’t trust it because I knew it was a fleeting peace. Soon I would crave to get high, and the highs would not come to me.”

He went on to describe the living hell of an addict, “I knew I was killing myself. I had seen drugs kill others. Whatever drug an addict is hooked on, he has to keep increasing his daily dosage to feel anywhere near normal. This is the nature of addiction. The day comes when he takes the overdose that kills him. Knowing this, I accepted early death as the inescapable fate of addicts.”

It was 1967: after crossing the Georgia border and being picked up wandering the streets at night, Johnny found himself in a jail cell, looking through the bars at an elderly jailer who seemed genuinely concerned. As Johnny recounts, “He said, ‘I don’t know where you think you got your talent from, Johnny, but if you think it came from God, then you’re sure wrecking the body He put it in.’”

This conversation had a profound effect on Johnny Cash, and he decided to do whatever it took to get out of the deadly spiral: “Back in Nashville, I went to June Carter and Marshall Grant, and I told them, ‘I’m kicking pills, as of now. I don’t expect it to be easy, so I’ll need your help. See to it that I eat regular meals. See to it that I keep regular hours. If I can’t sleep, sit and talk to me. If we run out of talk, then let’s pray.’ We prayed a lot. I am a free man now…Every once in a while, I meet some youngster who knows I used to be an addict, as he is now, and he asks me what he can do to kick his habit. I tell him what I learned, ‘Give God’s temple back to Him. The alternative is death.’”

From “Folsom Prison Blues” to his stark cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” Johnny Cash has had a profound effect upon people the world over. Many cannot watch the video for “Hurt” without a strong emotional reaction, as it depicts the cycle of life and death, the inevitable creation and destruction we all experience. Lucky for all of us, Johnny Cash confronted whatever demons led to his addiction and lived to tell the tale.

Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr.Robert Downey Jr.’s battles with addiction – multiple rehab visits followed by relapse and jail terms – became famously splattered over tabloid headlines and glossy magazines covers. One couldn’t visit a grocery store in America without seeing photos of a gaunt and drug-addled Downey Jr. – often clothed in an orange prison jumpsuit.

From 1996 to 2001, he was arrested several times on drug-related charges, including possession of pot, cocaine, heroin and an unloaded .357 magnum. In 1997, he spent 4 months in the LA County Jail and in 1999 served nearly a year at a substance abuse treatment facility and California State Prison. Following his release in 2000, he was arrested twice on drug charges but managed to evade another prison term. By this time, he had been fired from several projects and was considered uninsurable amongst Hollywood filmmakers. As spoken to a judge in 1999, he seemed to summate his addiction, “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”

So how did Robert Downey Jr., film star since the 1980’s, with his endless supply of quick wit and undisputable acting talent, descend into utter dissipation and later, by 2008, emerge as a massive box-office draw in Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, Sherlock Holmes and The Avengers?

It turns out Robert Downey Jr. had been “surrounded by drugs” from childhood, having been allowed to smoke marijuana at age six by his own father, an actor and film producer who was also a drug addict. Despite early success, the young Downey Jr.’s drug problems got progressively worse, as he recounts, “That first time it was opium. The second time it looked like opium. Looked the same, smelled the same, a little dirtier, not quite as pristine a buzz and by the time three weeks later, when I woke up, thought I had the flu and took a hit on it, I looked up and said, ‘Great. So now we’re junkies. This is f**king great.’ I was always the guy who was like, ‘No heroin. No crack.’ But it doesn’t matter if you go 10 years without doing it. Because of that 3,551st day, it’s your turn.”

After the prison term, he fell to what is commonly known as rock bottom, “It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn’t give a f**k whether I ever acted again.”

Later in 2004, he spoke of this crucial period, “When someone says, ‘I really wonder if maybe I should go to rehab?’ Well, uh, you’re a wreck, you just lost your job, and your wife left you. Uh, you might want to give it a shot. I finally said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help, and I ran with it. You can reach out for help in kind of a half-assed way and you’ll get it and you won’t take advantage of it. It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems…what’s hard is to decide to actually do it.”

He has not relapsed since and it appears his days as an addict are firmly rooted in the past. Some key factors he attributes to his continued stability: His marriage since 2005 to film executive Susan Levin and his two sons, as well as his pursuit and adherence to the martial arts discipline of Wing Chun, with its philosophy and emphasis on physical, mental and spiritual balance and awareness.

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