The actor plays the author himself as Jerry Stahl?s memoir makes the big screen

By Tom Russo
Updated September 25, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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In 1995’s Permanent Midnight: A Memoir, Jerry Stahl vividly described the crash-and-burn smack habit he suffered while holding down TV jobs writing for shows like ALF, Moonlighting, and thirty-something. It was nearly impossible to imagine his story ever getting back to normal; he admits that even after recovery he drove to ”dopeville” in downtown L.A. intending to blow his book advance on a relapse.

And yet, on the eve of the release of Permanent Midnight’s screen adaptation starring Ben Stiller as Stahl, the author cuts a pretty normal figure sitting poolside at a tony West Hollywood hotel, pumping nothing stronger than a little overpriced caffeine into his system. But normalcy is only skin-deep. ”I used to have a heroin dealer who worked right here, in the kitchen,” he says. ”I’d be doing lunch, and then we’d just duck into one of those serpentine hotel tunnels. So to be back here talking about those days instead of living them, it’s just as weird as the movie.”

Equally weird is the notion that Stahl, 44, can now watch his life play out on screen, after going through the agonizing catharsis of writing Midnight in the first place. (At one point in the book, he likens the process to ”peel[ing] off the scab that’s formed mercifully over the memory of my drug years.”) In fact, Stahl was on the set for the filming of a scene in which his screen alter ego shoots up in a hospital restroom while his wife (played by Elizabeth Hurley) is giving birth down the hall. ”I think he had his reservations,” admits David Veloz, the movie’s writer and director. ”I can’t imagine doing what Jerry did, writing a book about my life and then handing it over to somebody else.”

”These things have a life of their own, and once you’re done with it, it’s just out there in the world,” Stahl reasons with a shrug. Still, he was sufficiently on board with Veloz and Stiller to make a cameo in the film, as a cynical methadone- clinic doctor who tells Stiller that he’s never going to get clean. ”The movie is an existential nightmare on some levels,” he says, laughing again. ”But the upside is, Ben got it. If somebody played me and just did the khaki version, it could’ve been grim.” Stahl is now teaming with new best bud Stiller on a pair of projects — an adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg’s 1941 evisceration of old Hollywood, and a remake of the 1942 comedy The Magnificent Dope — and Stiller’s production company, Red Hour Films, has already snatched up the rights to Stahl’s next book, a novel he’s calling Perv, A Love Story. ”It’s about a 15-year-old in 1970 who can’t make it as a hippie because he doesn’t do well with groups,” Stahl explains. ”It’s like a prequel to Permanent Midnight in a way, but much, much darker.” And no doubt a few steps removed from normal.

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