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From Addict to Role Model : Gregory Harrison Bares Soul to Help Drug-Abuse Victims

Times Staff Writer

Gregory Harrison, like dozens of Hollywood and sports celebrities, dead and alive, considered it cool to do coke “because everybody else did.” That was before Harrison realized that he was “sitting in the back seat of my addiction and the devil was driving.” By then, he had snorted about three-quarters of a million dollars up his nose.

Although it took several years before cocaine use began to affect his work, his home life and his health, Harrison says that when he was introduced to the drug, he believed as others did in the early ‘80s that cocaine wasn’t addictive and that it made its users more creative.

Enhancing his creativity was important, he felt, because he was on a roll in Hollywood. He had a major role as Dr. Gonzo Gates in the hit television series “Trapper John, M.D.” going for him, and the phone was ringing with other TV and film offers and plays.

And, once he tried cocaine, Harrison believed its rave notices in the industry and elsewhere.

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‘Convincing Illusion’

“I felt more intelligent, more handsome, more creative, witty and charming,” the 39-year-old actor said during a recent interview at his home. “My acting didn’t suffer for a long time. It’s that convincing an illusion. For four or five years it didn’t harm me. But it’s very insidious. It lets you get away with it just enough time to be convinced you will always get away with it.”

But by early August of 1987, he had hit bottom on all counts. Somehow, just before the drugs nearly killed him--or, Harrison says matter-of-factly, before he killed himself--he found the will to get into the car and drive from his Los Angeles home to the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs for treatment.

Today, Harrison has been free of cocaine and alcohol for almost two years, and is working in television--he has a role on “Falcon Crest” this coming season--film and stage plays. His production company, Catalina Production Group, has several projects in the works.

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He is particularly interested in speaking out now about his struggle, Harrison said, because of his role as celebrity spokesman for the Entertainment Industry Referral & Assistance Center--the program that, according to program director Dae Sullender Medman, has referred and advised almost 3,000 industry employees seeking help for substance abuse and other problems.

The referral and assistance center celebrates its fifth anniversary on Friday with a fund-raiser featuring the Pointer Sisters at the Universal Amphitheatre, added Harrison, who said he had never heard of the center when he was having his drug abuse problems.

“In the past five years we’ve seen a greater awareness of substance abuse,” said Medman. “I think Betty Ford was a tremendous help. She has helped to destigmatize substance abuse, particularly for women. And Greg will help, too, because he has the courage to come out and teach people.”

Harrison also is hailed for his efforts for the center by Susan Kendall Newman, a former studio executive and until two years ago director of the Scott Newman Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes anti-drug films for children and teen-agers. It was started in late 1979 by actor Paul Newman after his son, Scott (Susan Newman’s brother), died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium.

Celebrity Role Model

“Adults may look toward the celebrity as a role model and use that to get treatment (for substance abuse),” said Susan Newman, “and I applaud what Greg’s doing within this context. (The center) is a fabulous program and it plays an important role in this community as a non-punitive place to seek help.”

She added, however, that “it can be underlyingly dangerous when celebrities come out to talk about that process to young children and teen-agers. On the surface, they see this person and say, ‘They have everything I want, a big movie career, money and glamour, and they have it back.’ They don’t understand what went into that recovery.”

Harrison, who attends and speaks at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous, wants to make sure people understand what goes into addiction and recovery.

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Sitting in his sun-filled living room late one afternoon, he recounted the depths to which addition took him, from the first time somebody offered him cocaine 11 years ago.

“The first three years, I was a very occasional user,” he recalled, describing the high he first felt and the feeling of being more creative than he’d ever been before. “But there were six years where it sort of took me. I’m not aware when the transition occurred.”

Hiding His Addiction

By then, Harrison was working at his craft only occasionally, and spending most of his days and nights holed up alone in his office/weight room at home. He didn’t work out anymore because he didn’t have the strength.

“The isolation becomes more and more severe. For days, weeks, months on end it was just me and my connection. Randi (his wife, former model/actress Randi Oakes) didn’t know then. She knew I was a sick person. But she didn’t know it was cocaine. I became an incessant and incredibly determined liar. I had to protect my habit.”

His parents, who still live on Santa Catalina Island where Harrison was born, were worried that he would commit suicide. Soon, his friends and business partner had disappeared. His wife was leaving him.

“Nobody was comfortable around me,” Harrison said. “My little girl (Emma) was 1 1/2 years old and didn’t trust me. She wouldn’t want to climb up in my arms.”

Fading Health

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Along with his loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, Harrison’s health began to go. He became anemic and had sores on his body that wouldn’t heal. He couldn’t eat, and he took 150 vitamins a day to “try to counteract the drugs. But it wipes out the nutrients in the system. And you’re constantly nervous. You knick yourself shaving and bleed three hours.”

By now, Harrison had become an alcoholic as well as a cocaine addict. “The stuff gives you energy and keeps you awake, so you start drinking so you can get a little sleep at 4 a.m. You drink to come down from the cocaine.”

“I’m very comfortable talking about it (addiction),” he said. “I’m proud of my sobriety and my recovery as I live it every day. There’s a saying in AA: principles before personality. I don’t want to pat myself on the back. I am disgustingly typical. . . . But I prefer to talk about the solution. . . . To live in the solution and to forgive myself for the past wreckage I left. To forgive myself for succumbing to this insanity.”


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