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Actor’s Death Raises a Disturbing Clamor

Before this week, you probably never gave much thought to David Strickland, assuming you were aware of him at all. Small wonder, since the same can largely be said of the media.

Strickland was one of the ensemble on “Suddenly Susan,” a modestly rated comedy series drifting with little fanfare through its third season on NBC. He also played a supporting role in “Forces of Nature,” the new movie starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock, and dated Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, one of the lovely lasses who have resided on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Not bad for a 29-year-old actor, but hardly the stuff that inspires a Barbara Walters interview or two-page spread in Newsweek.

All that changed on March 22, however, when Strickland’s body was found in a Las Vegas motel room hanging from a bedsheet, with every indication pointing toward suicide. Suddenly, Strickland’s publicists found themselves inundated by media requests, with all things related to Strickland in heavy demand.

“Entertainment Tonight” clamored for access to anyone who knew Strickland, airing pieces on the story every day last week. Sources say “Larry King Live” inquired about booking the entire “Suddenly Susan” cast as guests--a coup any publicist would welcome under different circumstances.

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Apparently needing to justify the attention being showered on Strickland, his credits seemed to grow with each new report, elevating his career to somewhere between that of Matt Damon and Sean Connery. Ditsy Dorothy Lucey, in a rare straight-faced moment for KTTV’s morning news, said he was “on his way to becoming a star.” “One of Hollywood’s most promising actors,” chimed in KTLA’s Barbara Beck.

Like some of the syndicated TV magazine shows, KCBS-TV and KNBC-TV led their newscasts with the story. “On the surface, Strickland’s life looked good,” said KABC-TV “entertainment guru” George Pennacchio, his ebullience for once leashed. “But to him, for some reason, death may have looked better.”

Suffering from that unique TV anchor disease that necessitates commenting on every story, KABC’s Harold Greene urged Pennacchio to stick with the story, saying, “We want to find out if there were maybe any outward signs, if we missed something in all of this"--as if Greene had given the actor a moment’s thought before.

Others strained to add gravity to the story by finding bigger meaning. “It’s becoming a disturbing trend in Hollywood,” said “Inside Edition’s” Deborah Norville, reaching to link Strickland’s death, as an actor in an NBC sitcom, to that of Phil Hartman, the former “NewsRadio” star killed last May.

Clearly frustrated by the coverage, “Suddenly Susan” star Brooke Shields issued a statement that included the following plea: “David was my family, and if the press have even a modicum of integrity, I beg them to spare us their insensitive prying.” Notably, nearly all news accounts omitted that portion of her comments.

Granted, a certain level of interest was to be expected. Nothing bestows fame on a person like being on television, a point made minus any hint of subtlety in the just-released film “EDtv,” in which a rather dim regular Joe is transformed into a media darling simply by virtue of having a camera crew track his every move.

Moreover, nothing attracts a media swarm faster than scandal and tragedy. With Monica Lewinsky and her notorious stained dress fading from the headlines, there was an obvious hunger for a fresh celebrity morsel. No wonder local television greeted Dennis Rodman and his traveling basketball circus with the sort of fanfare seldom seen for visiting heads of state, as several TV stations covered his news conference live.

Death Creates a Media Firestorm

Even in the face of all this, however, there’s something unsettling about reaction to the Strickland story. Hartman, at least, was famous before the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus was murdered. It’s astonishing, by contrast, to see someone of such borderline celebrity generate a media firestorm of this magnitude in response to his death.

None of this, of course, is entirely new. There has already been much hand-wringing about prurient peeking through keyholes, once reserved for the tabloid press, oozing into the mainstream media and what that has done in terms of soiling journalistic standards.

In addition, television views the world through its own unique prism, where the availability of video often overwhelms the process. A memorable example of this occurred in 1995, when TV stations saturated the airwaves with reports stemming from the disappearance and murder of model Linda Sobek, a blond beauty seen in video wearing a Raiders cheerleader outfit. The lesson was clear: Amid all the lives tragically lost, a victim’s importance directly related to how telegenic she was.

Yet even a cynical media critic had to sit upright and consider the ocean of TV coverage regarding Strickland--a young, fresh-faced talent shown in video squiring Shields to award shows and clowning on the set with Affleck--not so much as a signpost of the disturbing direction in which we are headed but rather how far, sadly, we already have gone.

If there’s an unintended message here, it’s the perverse notion a futile, desperate act can be made so oddly glamorous--making Strickland more famous than he may have otherwise become. In that sense the story isn’t quite done, with a final flurry likely to greet the release of a toxicology report next week, after which TV crews will forget David Strickland and begin their wait for some new Hollywood casualty.

In one of his comedy routines, George Carlin observed that people receive more flowers after they die than at any time in their lives. “They all arrive at once--too late!” he quipped.

Thanks to our electronic age, the bouquets arrived for Strickland, by and large, via television. One can easily rail at that delivery mechanism, lamenting the tawdry and unbridled coverage, but a share of shame belongs to anyone who abets its purveyors by pausing, if only for a few moments, to wallow in what they have wrought.

“I hate this story,” KTTV’s Lucey groaned in a follow-up last week, her usually chipper co-hosts nodding in agreement. “It made all of us sick to our stomachs.”

Had Lucey and her TV brethren been looking in a mirror, instead of preparing to yuk it up about the weather, she couldn’t have put it better.


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