Eugene Fodor, a swashbuckling violin virtuoso who was a media darling of classical music in the 1970s but whose substance abuse fractured a fairytale career, has died. He was 60.

Fodor died of liver disease Feb. 26 at his home in Arlington, Va., said his wife, Susan Davis. He had struggled with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin, she said.

At 24, Fodor became the first American to win top honors on violin at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974. He shared the silver medal with two Russians; no gold was given that year.

Upon returning home, the Colorado native was greeted at the Denver airport by his parents, girlfriend — and horse.

The media dubbed him "the Cowboy violinist" and in two years' time Fodor appeared on the Johnny Carson show almost a dozen times.

He was an "irresistible combination of Western dude and musical prodigy," according to a 1989 New York magazine profile.

Such pop-culture celebrity put the dashing Fodor at odds with the classical music world, "almost crowding out his exploits as a violinist," Martin Bernheimer, then a Times music critic, wrote in 1975.

Fodor's technique dazzled. He often played showy pieces by Italian composer Niccolo Paganini, moving audiences to interrupt his performance of Paganini's First Concerto to give him a standing ovation.

Fittingly, Fodor first came to prominence after winning Italy's Paganini international violin competition in 1972.

Critics were skeptical of a serious musician who went shirtless in publicity photos and accused him of being interested only in pieces that showcased his pyrotechnics.

"We didn't take him seriously," the late Daniel Cariaga, then a music critic for The Times, told CBS News in 1996. "That can be almost fatal because if the critics don't take you seriously, then eventually the audience doesn't.... You can't come back from that."

When Fodor was arrested in 1989, the story made the front page of the New York Times, giving him the "most attention he'd had in close to a decade," New York magazine reported that same year.

At a motel on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Fodor was arrested on charges that included breaking and entering, and possession of heroin and cocaine. The judge refused to accept the musician's offer of his 300-year-old violin to guarantee bail.

A week later, Fodor entered a rehabilitation clinic and eventually was sentenced to probation.

His cocaine use "was sort of a crutch" to relieve the pain of not having the career that "would make me happy," he told CBS News in 1996.

The fallout permanently damaged his career, although he continued to tour for decades, often playing pieces that critics considered "fiendishly difficult."

Eugene Nicholas Fodor Jr. was born into a musical family on March 5, 1950, in Denver. His great-great-grandfather founded a music conservatory in Hungary.

Growing up on an 80-acre ranch near Denver, Fodor "begged for the violin" when he saw his older brother playing, his mother, Antoinette Fodor, told The Times in 1989.

At age 10, Eugene made his solo debut with the Denver Symphony and, after winning a nationwide contest sponsored by the Kiwanis clubs, he began touring at 12.

Early success came at a price, Fodor later said.

His father, also named Eugene, played violin as a hobby and worked in construction. He was ambitious for his son and overly strict at home, which caused the younger Eugene to act out in school and turn to drugs, Fodor said in the New York magazine article.

In the late 1960s, Fodor studied with two influential violin teachers — Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and Josef Gingold at Indiana University.

At USC, Fodor had the great violinist Jascha Heifetz as a teacher for a year beginning in 1970. When Heifetz insisted that students keep their hair short, Fodor tucked his long locks inside a wig. After being spotted giving a concert without the wig, Heifetz kicked Fodor out of class.

His seven-year first marriage, to Davis, ended in 1985. A second marriage also ended in divorce. He remarried Davis last fall.

In addition to his wife, Fodor is survived by their three children, Daniella Davis of Newport Beach, Lindsay Davis of Manhattan Beach, and Dylan Davis of Washington, D.C.; a brother, John of Denver; a sister, Deborah of Virginia; and two grandsons.

His Guarneri violin, made in 1736, is for sale in Europe.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com