Advertisement
Share

Love and Loss : An ailing Jill Ireland mourns her drug-tormented son Jason, imploring others to steer clear of substance abuse and cherish life.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since February, Jill Ireland, her husband, Charles Bronson, and their seven children had lived with the specter of death. That was when Ireland’s doctor had delivered the chilling news: Her cancer, which had come back after three years, had metastasized. Now there were tumors in her lungs.

The prognosis: Two years to live, possibly three. Ireland had sworn, she had cried, then she had done what she had to do if she wanted those precious years. She had begun a drastic, debilitating course of chemotherapy and radiation.

And she went on with her life, starting her third book, “Life Times,” and hoping to be well enough to star in the television adaptation of “Life Lines,” the book in which she chronicled the devastating struggle of her adopted son, Jason McCallum, with alcohol, cocaine and heroin addiction.

Publicly, as she did when she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer in 1984, Ireland continued to profess optimism.

Advertisement

Still, she knows the odds, and, in an essay written for the June issue of Life magazine, she even described the funeral she wants: “A real wake, with balloons, Champagne, everyone in bright, happy colors, lots of food and music. A fiesta. A celebration of my life. . . .”

On Saturday, Ireland was at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills to bury her son. Jason had been found dead Tuesday in his apartment in Laurel Canyon. He was 27.

Both David McCallum, Jason’s legal father, and Bronson, the man who has been his father figure during a 21-year marriage to Ireland, helped carry the casket up the hillside to the burial plot.

It was the close of a short, tortured life.

In the chapel, Paul McCallum, 31, had given the eulogy for the little brother who used to stroke his head when he had a migraine--and once ate his pet caterpillar. Then he and Valentine McCallum, the brother born nine months after Jason was adopted, sat on folding chairs before Jason’s rose-blanketed casket, and, on guitars accompanied by a violin, played a song written by Valentine, a rock musician. “This is for you, Jay-Jay,” Valentine said.

It was Paul who had telephoned Ireland and Bronson at their home in Vermont to tell them that Jason was dead. In early 1985, another call to the Vermont farm--a bucolic retreat that Ireland calls “my favorite place in the whole world"--had shattered their lives. A doctor treating Jason for hepatitis B had told them: “The kid’s on the needle. He’s an addict.” Morphine and cocaine.

Now, he was dead. Family and friends worried that Ireland was not strong enough to make the trip West, but, she said in a telephone interview two days after Jason’s death, “Of course, I had to come.”

She and Bronson had returned by chartered plane.

Advertisement

“I’m in the middle of treatment,” she said. “Every three weeks, I have a massive chemotherapy program. But I’m stronger than I’ve been for a long time. I’m not bad.”

At the services, she appeared pale but dry-eyed, reed-thin in a black suit, with a wide-brimmed black straw hat anchoring her blond wig. She and Bronson invited mourners to their Malibu house after the services.

Ireland said she had spoken with Jason by telephone the day before he died and “he was very optimistic. He said, ‘I’m clean, I’m happy, I’m looking forward to the future.’ “I think he was clean,” she added. “He’d been through another detoxification program. We do know that they didn’t find any needle marks, any traces, on him.”

She had worried that he was becoming addicted to painkillers prescribed to relieve the leg cramps that were a result of years of drug abuse. And, she said, “We may find out that he had broken down and taken drugs again. I’m prepared for anything. When someone’s had a dialogue with drugs for so many years. . . .”

Advertisement

(The coroner’s autopsy was inconclusive, pending results of toxicology tests.)

The tragedy of Jason David McCallum stands apart from the too-familiar story of the world-weary children of Hollywood celebrities whose search for excitement ends with a fatal overdose.

“I think I may have adopted an addicted baby,” Ireland said, “but I was only 25. I didn’t know.”

The private adoption, after she suffered a miscarriage during her 10-year marriage to McCallum (of TV’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”), had been arranged through a lawyer, and, Ireland and McCallum learned later, he had not told them the truth about the days-old infant.

Advertisement

“We didn’t know his father was a drug addict,” she said. “We were told his father was an architect. It was in Jason’s system, just floating around in there waiting for something to trigger it.”

She thinks the trigger might have been Ritalin, prescribed when he was a small boy to control hyperkinesia.

Two years ago, Ireland and Jason found his birth mother, “Vicky,” a dramatic encounter she describes in “Life Lines.” She told them: that their son’s father was a drug dealer and heroin addict who died of an overdose; that Jason’s grandfather was an alcoholic.

“Vicky” was an outsider looking in as they buried Jason. A figure in black, she stood at graveside with other mourners behind the chairs set out for the family.

Advertisement

“I came to honor my son,” she said softly.

When the others had left, she placed a rose and a rosary on his casket and bent to kiss it.

From the start, Jason was the odd child out among the seven reared by Ireland and Bronson--his two by his first marriage, her three with McCallum, a daughter they had together and the daughter of a friend adopted unofficially when her mother died.

Jason was a willful child, always testing the limits, but, Ireland wrote, he “had a straight-through connection to my heart.”

Advertisement

In an interview, she talked now of Jason’s first encounter with drugs, when he was only 7: “He was waiting for a school bus and some older boys came by and gave him some stuff.” When he was 12, he told her, he was given cocaine by a Rolling Stones bodyguard at a concert to which he was taken by his tutor.

“Jason was very impressionable,” Ireland said.

As he tried to kick his addictions, she said, he told her that he wished rock groups would stop singing about drugs “because the adults don’t understand what they’re saying, but young people do. Jason hated drugs, he loathed them.”

Ireland said, “I think we did everything we could. I would have kept on helping and helping throughout the rest of his life, and mine. There was nothing I could have done right now, there was nothing anyone could have done.”

Advertisement

Jason, she said, hoped “Life Lines” would make people see “how evil the drugs were, what damage they did not only to the person that took them but to the entire family.” She said she hoped his death might tell others: “Don’t get started on drugs. Don’t even think you can flirt with it.”

He had been helping with the “Life Lines” TV script and there was talk of casting him as himself.

In September, pinch-hitting for Ireland, he had taped “Inside Edition.” On that segment, which aired Wednesday, he said: “A drug addict doesn’t really mean to hurt other people. . . . I, as a drug addict, never meant to hurt anybody.” And he appealed to others, “Don’t do (drugs). Stop if you are. . . . I’ve really gone through a nightmare many times over. . . .”

In Jason’s case, Ireland is convinced, “It was his DNA,” it was genetic. “Drugs will kill you,” she said. “They may not kill you while you’re taking them, but the body can only take so much. It’s a runaway thing. Who knows when the last pill you took will put you over the top?”

Advertisement

Former First Lady Betty Ford, Ireland’s role model for her courage in dealing with her own addiction and breast cancer, was among the first to call Ireland after Jason’s death.

Ireland, like Ford, has talked frankly both about Jason’s addictions and the cancer that has now spread through her body. She has discussed frankly recent treatments, which have included red-hot skewers embedded under the skin of her chest (a procedure called hyperthermia) and draining of massive amounts of fluid from her lungs.

Jason’s death came less than three weeks after Ireland, with Bronson at her side, took part in a tulip-planting ceremony dedicating a “Garden of Hope” in New York’s Central Park in tribute to cancer victims.

Ireland, 53, said that day: “I love life. . . . I’ve had a very good life so far. . . . I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Advertisement

Then she added, “None of us know how long we have. . . . Every day is special and very important.”


Advertisement