Whether they are recovering or relapsing, substance-abusing celebs have never had more support--maybe that's the problem. Just ask Robert Downey Jr, Courtney Love, or Matthew Perry.

By EW Staff
Updated May 04, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Once again, Robert Downey Jr. found himself being led away in handcuffs. This time — just past midnight last Tuesday morning — police spotted him lurking in a deserted alley on Washington Boulevard, a semi-industrial section of Los Angeles, and busted him on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance (possibly methamphetamine or cocaine). It was, of course, Downey’s second arrest since emerging from a 12-month prison stretch last August as an allegedly changed man (or, at least, changed enough to be hired for a costarring gig on Ally McBeal). Clearly, though, some things never change. And not just for Downey.

Less than three months ago, Aaron Sorkin was accepting a crystal bowl — the Phoenix Rising Award — in recognition of his hard-fought victory over substance abuse. In front of 300 guests at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where the Phoenix House drug prevention organization was holding a Hollywood fund-raiser, the Emmy-winning West Wing creator recalled how, five years earlier, he’d pulled himself from the coils of cocaine addiction.

The 39-year-old executive producer choked back tears as he described how the drug could have robbed him of his first experience of fatherhood with his new baby daughter. He railed like Josiah Bartlet against insurance companies that refuse to pay for rehabilitation treatments. ”All I could think was ‘They must be doing an awful lot of blow at Blue Cross/Blue Shield if they think my condition isn’t serious,”’ Sorkin joked about his own rejected $15,000 rehab claim. Then he got serious again. ”My point is,” he said, ”I had $15,000. Most people don’t. And those are the people who usually end up in jail.”

Usually. Earlier this month, Sorkin spent a little time inside a jail cell himself — about three hours — when he was arrested at the Burbank Airport, en route to Las Vegas, after security agents opened his carry-on to find a bag of psychedelic mushrooms, a small stash of marijuana, and a suspicious-looking pipe (currently being tested at a police lab). Given his recent high-profile remarks regarding recovery (ironically, he and the show were scheduled to win an award from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence on April 26), it is perhaps not surprising that Sorkin fainted as airport police were called in. He’s out on $10,000 bail, due to be arraigned on charges of possession of a controlled substance April 30.

As it happens, April 30 will be a big day for Downey, too. He’ll be spending it in a different California courtroom for his Nov. 25 arrest in Palm Springs for possession of cocaine, and he’ll be back in court again May 4 for this latest arrest. In the meantime, he was released to his parole officer and, according to his publicist, ”voluntarily checked himself into an undisclosed rehabilitation facility.” Matthew Perry, 31, meanwhile, recently faced another type of trial: After a second stab at rehab (he spent a month in 1997 at Hazelden in Minnesota for Vicodin addiction), he returned to the set of Friends to tape the sitcom’s season finale. (His May 2000 car accident had nothing to do with drugs, according to police.)

There is an obvious pattern in all this — but maybe a not-so-obvious one as well. The news here, after all, isn’t that celebs sometimes develop drug and alcohol problems. Andy Dick (who crashed his car two years ago, in an admitted substance-related accident), Kelsey Grammer (who, while under the influence in 1996, flipped the Viper that NBC had given him), Melanie Griffith, Tim Allen, Brett Butler, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Scott Weiland, John Belushi, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, practically the entire Barrymore gene pool at one time or another — there’s no shortage of drug- and alcohol-abuse drama in Hollywood. Nor is it any longer possible to make the case that the entertainment industry actively encourages drug use among its stars; the days when Louis B. Mayer was supposedly shaking bottles of pills down Judy Garland’s throat are a thing of the past.

What is news, or at least what’s starting to get noticed, is how some stars just can’t seem to get it together no matter how hard Hollywood tries to help. In recent years, recovery has practically become L.A.’s second-biggest industry (and maybe its biggest social scene, with celeb AA meetings turning into A-list events). On-set drug counseling is offered on some lots (like David E. Kelley’s) — probably because former substance abusers are now being hired by the bushel (The West Wing alone has two outspoken recovering alcoholics in its cast: John Spencer and Rob Lowe). And yet, despite all those efforts — the 12-step programs, the 28-day treatment centers, the endless interventions, and countless second chances — despite it all, this town is still murder on stars trying to go straight.

In retrospect, there may have been warning signs that Sorkin was slipping into old habits. According to a source close to the set of Sorkin’s erstwhile ABC series Sports Night, he had taken previous trips to Las Vegas (not in itself terribly incriminating, but it is a city where partying isn’t exactly unheard of). Sometimes these trips seemed curiously timed, like the April 15 jaunt the police ended up canceling. Why was Sorkin shuttling drugs to Vegas on such a — excuse the pun — high note, the day after The West Wing‘s celebratory annual wrap party and just prior to shooting the season finale? If you go by awards, he’s at the top of his game. And the same could be said for Downey and Perry, both of whom should be relishing the most rewarding years of their careers right now.

If there’s a common thread among the entertainment industry’s chronic backsliders, it’s that success seems to equal relapse. Such a contradiction naturally confounds many both in the industry and outside of it. Yet in that one rock-bottom respect, being a star with a drug problem is no different from being a gardener with one. “I’ve known hundreds of people who have been addicts — some famous, some not,” says one screenwriter who’s both famous and (now) sober. “They all share one thing: They feel a huge emptiness they thought could be filled with some finite substance — drugs, booze, women.”

Fame, however, is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recovery. ”People want to be your friend, they’re interested in giving you what you want,” says the screenwriter (who, like a lot of former addicts interviewed for this story, did not want his name published). ”They’re invested in flattering you, telling you you’re a genius and special and that everything you do is right. But if you want to get off drugs, the enemy of recovery is [the belief] that you are right and special.”

Buddy Arnold, a professional saxophonist and ex-junkie who created the Musicians’ Assistance Program (MAP), an organization that helps musicians get into recovery treatments, says, ”The mind-set of many musicians we see is that they really believe they’re legends — legends in their own mind.”

There’s even a catchy new psychiatric-sounding term for this sort of celebrity dysfunction circulating around the recovery movement: acquired situational narcissism (coined by Dr. Robert Millman, who as medical consultant to Major League Baseball has also encountered plenty of legends in their own minds). Such stars ”feel they are different, that they’re not like the rest of us, that they’re invulnerable,” explains Mark Greenberg of the Betty Ford Center (the mother of all celebrity treatment clinics). ”These individuals with recognizable names and faces are harder to treat. There is always somebody to pick up the pieces for them because of who they are. Even with multiple relapses, somebody will be there to pick them up.”

That cycle of relapse and recovery can form a vicious circle all its own, especially for the famous. In fact, the notoriety of failed recovery — with the intense media scrutiny and constant surveillance during work hours (often by bodyguards paid by the studios to keep stars clean) — can accelerate self-destructive tendencies. Having people watch you as you attempt recovery is ”like using a Band-Aid when you’ve been gored by a rhinoceros,” says the screenwriter. ”Who gives a f— who’s watching you when you’re in a hotel room with an eight-ball, and you’ve chosen Palm Springs, of all godforsaken places? You’re not really thinking about what so-and-so thinks of you. You’re thinking about how [you] can die.”

David E. Kelley no doubt had the best of intentions when he brought Robert Downey Jr. aboard Ally McBeal last August, just one week after the actor’s release from prison. ”Robert’s really a sweet man,” Kelley told EW at the time. ”When you meet him, you want to cheer for him.” And by all accounts, Kelley bent over backward to make Downey’s life on set as low-pressure as possible. ”Their interest seems to be Downey the person, not Downey the actor,” says a source inside Downey’s circle. ”They’ve taken an interest in him like I’ve never seen.” (Those days may be over; Kelley issued a statement after Downey’s most recent arrest saying, ”We are wrapping up the stories on the final few episodes of Ally McBeal for the season without him.”)

Others, though, have less pure intentions. “That’s the problem with being surrounded by yes-men all the time,” says the screenwriter. “They don’t understand your creative spark. They’re afraid it’ll be extinguished if you go into rehab. They’re afraid you’re going to start talking about spirituality and 12-step programs and then they’re going to lose their 10 percent. They don’t want you going to Betty Ford because what if you come out all earnest and talking about a higher power? What happens to their houses then?”

“People are like, ‘You’re screwing up my paycheck,'” says Marc Flanagan, who lived through Brett Butler’s erratic flameouts when he exec-produced Grace Under Fire in the mid-1990s. “Because of what happened to Brett, people lost their jobs. People never really think about that.”

Actually, a lot of people are paid to think about that — like the studio lawyers who try to write ironclad contractual codicils designed to keep stars sober (Charlie Sheen, for instance, has had financial incentives built into his contracts; if he relapsed he supposedly lost additional bonuses). Such legal safety nets don’t always succeed in catching a star before he falls, though — and they don’t make stalled productions any less frustrating. Paramount can’t be smiling over its potential losses on Servicing Sarah, the half-finished movie which Perry left in limbo in February and to which he now likely won’t be able to return until after the actors’ strike. (“We just hope Matthew’s okay” is what a spokesperson for the film has been telling the press.) Warner Bros. Television, which produces Friends, probably isn’t thrilled with Perry either. This latest time-out for rehab meant the show had to awkwardly shoot around the star for at least two episodes, nearly ruining Monica’s season-long wedding plans.

And that’s precisely the sort of behavior that makes so many inside the industry — and outside — unsympathetic. “The worst misconception is that stars are driven by such hard work,” says a former Home Improvement producer who survived Tim Allen’s alcohol problems in the ’90s. “A sitcom star works 25 weeks a year. The last time I counted, I think there were 52 weeks in a year….Stars want people to feel sorry for them. The big excuse of pressure is nonsense. What pressure does Matt Perry have?” (How about not nodding off between takes on the set of Servicing Sarah, as one witness says Perry periodically did?) “A star who has a substance-abuse problem is a terrorist to all of the people he or she works with,” the producer goes on. “They are held hostage because the star ultimately determines the course of every day.” Hostages who are sometimes treated to bizarrely entertaining behavior — Butler, for instance, reportedly flashed her breasts to an underage costar and once climbed a tree and wouldn’t come down — but hostages nevertheless.

Not surprisingly, the music industry hasn’t embraced the recovery movement as enthusiastically as the rest of the entertainment industry — without drugs, after all, it’s merely sex and rock & roll. “I know people in personal management who cover for addicts for years, make it completely easy for them to continue to do what they’re doing,” says a former major-label recording artist with his own drug past. “‘Why did he miss the performance?’ ‘Uh, fatigue.’ ‘Why is he canceling the rest of the tour?’ ‘Oh, he’s totally tired.’ I mean, he’s tired from getting loaded every night.”

“Last time Robert Downey Jr. got arrested, I almost cried,” says Bob Forrest, former frontman for the L.A. alternative group Thelonious Monster (and a former heroin addict). “It’s unbelievable that he has to do it in public. Everywhere these people go, they’re different to begin with. They go to a rehab center and they’re treated differently. Everybody’s making money off of them. They are the product. Robert Downey Jr. is the product. So when that person has the illness, what to do about it seems to be measured by economics.”

The consequences for Sorkin probably won’t be all that severe–assuming the pipe police are looking into doesn’t contain anything more serious than pot. Downey, on the other hand, faces stiffer possible penalties. If convicted of the Nov. 25 charges, he could be looking at almost five years in prison. His recent run-in with the law, which violated his parole, could add even more time.

At least Sorkin has the solace of his craft; he can turn his experience into West Wing episodes. President Bartlet announces he’s suffering from a Vicodin addiction and inspires the nation with his valiant fight back to sobriety. Or Sam gets arrested at the airport when police mistake the corncob pipe in his bag for a semiautomatic weapon. Something like that–Sorkin can work out the details.

With time and hard work, the day may even come when Sorkin will be presented with another crystal-bowl award to celebrate his sobriety. In fact, at this rate, he’ll probably collect enough to open a bridal registry. As for Downey, he could conceivably be accepting an Emmy from his jail cell come September. And that, of course, is precisely the problem.

(Additional reporting by Rob Brunner, Tricia Johnson, Lynette Rice, Jessica Shaw, Dan Snierson, and Allison Hope Weiner)