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The 13th Step to the Stars

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As partygoers circled around, Tim Tankosic watched a beautiful woman expertly smuggle a pack of drugs to the movie star. It was exactly the kind of temptation that Tankosic, a highly paid “sober companion,” was hired to ward off.

Soft-spoken and cerebral, with a homey, unaffected air, Tankosic prefers to see himself as a motivational helper rather than a drug cop, so he was relieved when the actor handed him the unused drugs as they left the party--no hassle, no fuss.

“I said, ‘Thanks for doing the right thing,’ ” said Tankosic, 45, who declined to identify the actor or any of his other clients. “I said, ‘It’s everywhere, isn’t it? It’s going to be like this for the rest of your life.’ ”

Only in Hollywood, where the rich employ a platoon of helpers to insulate them from the vagaries of daily life, would there be a full-time, paid position as a “sober companion"--also known as a “minder” or “clean-living assistant.”

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It’s difficult to imagine a Fortune 500 company hiring a baby-sitter to make sure the chief executive officer didn’t snort cocaine before a shareholder meeting. But film and rock stars are distinct creative talents, one-of-a-kind performers who can make or break $100-million movies or drive the profits of huge record companies. For some of them, addiction has followed fame.

In the days of Judy Garland or even John Belushi, studio flunkies and concerned friends kept stars working by pouring coffee down their throats or hiring bouncers to keep the drug pushers away. Today’s corporate Hollywood insists on more reliable methods. Minders are the front-line workers, paid as much as $5,000 a week to keep fragile performers sober and functional.

Some recovery specialists see the practice as a quick fix that shields the corporate bottom line while doing nothing about the underlying causes of addiction. The minders, they say, are hired to protect the film rather than the star.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. and comedian Chris Farley employed baby-sitters on movie sets and are said to have stayed clean for the duration of the filming. But Downey later relapsed, and the 300-pound Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997.

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Despite these discouraging outcomes, celebrity baby-sitting is a growth industry. Among the reasons: Addiction is not stigmatized the way it once was. Entertainers are encouraged to confront their problems and enter recovery programs. And the insurance industry is insisting on preemptive steps to minimize the risk that a star’s relapse will delay or scuttle a multimillion-dollar film.

A representative of the San Francisco-based Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., which underwrites more than half of all movies produced in this country, said that as many as 20% of the films he has insured since last summer included a high-risk artist with drug problems.

Brian Kingman, a broker at AON/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Brokers, who secures cast insurance for such studios as DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros., has a matter-of-fact attitude toward the issue.

“When there’s a known substance abuse problem, you normally talk to all of the artist’s handlers, the personal doctors of the artist, the managers and lawyers, and you basically roll up your sleeves and say, ‘How can we put together a system or a product where we can package this particular actor to the insurance marketplace so we can get cast insurance?’ ” Kingman said. “We might have a substance abuse counselor with this particular actor that is on the set and with the person 24/7.”

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Tankosic, a freelance writer and former addict who has a medical degree and extensive counseling experience, is usually hired by the artists and paid by them or their production companies. He is an independent baby-sitter, not associated with any treatment center.

“The point is to be a rock,” he said, “a friendly face, a reminder of recovery, a safe person.”

The emotional support Tankosic lends his clients is not significantly different than what members of Alcoholics Anonymous provide for one another for free. However, many of the tasks he performs are unique to the baby-sitter industry.

On a typical movie location, Tankosic lives with the celebrity in a home far from the hotel that houses the rest of the cast and crew. In the morning, he rises with the star and they meditate together. After breakfast, he accompanies the star to the set, and then to a support group meeting typically held in a trailer. They might go to another such meeting that night.

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During off-hours, Tankosic said, he tries to make sure the star has fun, although he steers him or her clear of “slippery places"--any locale where drugs or alcohol are available.

Many minders are former addicts, well-practiced in identifying the lying that usually accompanies addiction. Some bar their charges from speaking to anyone on a movie set other than the director and key production personnel. Others refuse to let the client out of their sight. These minders sleep in the same room with the artist and thoroughly search every bathroom, even looking inside the toilet tank, before the celebrity is allowed to enter.

Deanna MacDonald, senior entertainment underwriter for the New Jersey-based Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., said the practice of hiring sober companions is on the upswing. “That will become more common because the insurance industry is tightening up,” she said.

One of the top minders in the business said he had been employed by every major manager in the music business. This minder, interviewed before jetting off to an undisclosed movie set to work with an actor, declined to be identified in print. Discretion is a critical part of the job, he said.

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“I’m like a wisp of smoke.”

Charges Up to $40,000 a Month for Services

Baby-sitting stars in recovery is a business of referrals, with most originating from organizations such as MusiCares, the health and human services arm of the Grammy organization, or high-end drug rehabilitation facilities. In the last five years, three rehab centers have popped up in Malibu, charging as much as $40,000 a month for their complete services, which can include a sober companion.

One of the Malibu centers, called Promises, treated actor Ben Affleck for alcoholism and Charlie Sheen for a cocaine and alcohol addiction. The center helps match sober companions with stars or anyone else willing to pay.

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“A lot of what we do is individualized treatment. We get people who require those kind of sober buddies,” said Richard Rogg, executive director of Promises. “They’ll take them to meetings, make sure they’re not drinking. They’ll drug test them. The goal is to connect them with 12-step programs wherever they are.”

Passages, a new treatment center operating from a $10-million estate in Malibu, recently began offering a two-week program for celebrities who crash in the middle of filming movies.

At a cost of $42,000, it includes rapid detoxification to break the chemical addiction, and psychological therapy, as well as massage, acupuncture and gourmet food. At the end of the two-week treatment, the actor is accompanied back to the set by a recovering addict with five years of sobriety training, no criminal record and a price tag of $2,500 a week.

“We send the client back to the set with someone--a companion. If they go into the bathroom, he goes in first to check for drugs,” said Passages founder Chris Prentiss. “He sleeps in the same room with them until the shoot is over.” Passages has been marketing the service directly to insurance companies.

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Essentially, baby-sitters are the movie industry’s version of catastrophic coverage. Kingman said the two-week package is worthwhile, if you do the math. “Rather than abandoning a $20-million film, why not spend $50,000 for this program?” he said.

The baby-sitting itself? “It’s a very boring job,” said Dallas Taylor, a recovering addict who played drums with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from 1969 to 1971.

About 15 years ago, Taylor and friend Bob Timmins began helping the families and friends of music and film stars confront their loved ones about their addictions. They also pulled together a handful of minders to go on the road with recovering artists and accompany them to at least one support group meeting each day. Taylor, based in Santa Monica, oversees this loose network of well-compensated acquaintances.

Taylor said that heroin addicts need at least six months of inpatient treatment to recover, but that some high-profile artists have 50 people depending on them financially. They can’t afford to stop performing.

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The climate on a rock tour or movie set can be particularly hard on an artist who is trying to navigate the world soberly, possibly for the first time in years.

“A lot of the times the guys who aren’t sober are ripping you for having to get sober yourself,” said Taylor. “It’s not a supportive environment at all. But you’ve got a movie that has to be brought in on time and on budget. It’s not reality that someone can postpone a movie.”

That’s why sober companions are so valuable.

Some minders try to insulate their clients from the temptations and social pressures of the set. Warren Boyd, a compact, muscular drug counselor, runs Wavelinks, a new treatment facility in Malibu, and has accompanied recovering addicts on about 10 film shoots.

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Using military language to describe his task, he said he always secures the perimeter around the star and discourages any contact that is not strictly work-related. The point is to reduce the psychological stress on the recovering addict and protect him or her from prying eyes.

Boyd refused to identify any of his clients, but several sources said Robert Downey Jr. enlisted him in his recent battles with addiction.

The media’s harsh glare has given insurance companies leverage in their crackdown on drug-addicted celebrities. Not only have insurers mandated the hiring of sober companions, they demand drug-testing through the course of filming for high-risk actors. Those who balk are usually shown press clippings reporting their drug problems.

Sometimes, lawyers hire minders to keep celebrity clients clean while they await sentencing for drug offenses. Richard Cole, a drug counselor and former manager of the rock band Led Zeppelin, said he was hired in 1996 by Downey after a Malibu judge insisted on a minder as a condition of Downey’s probation.

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“I made it quite plain to Robert that if he screwed up, that I was going to tell the judge,” Cole said. He accompanied the actor on the sets of “In Dreams,” and “Wonder Boys,” even sleeping in his hotel suite. Downey’s business managers paid Cole up to $1,500 a week.

Michael Grillo, head of physical production for DreamWorks SKG, which produced the 1999 thriller “In Dreams,” had never seen a sober companion before that film. “It worked really well for us,” he said. “We didn’t have any problems with Robert. He was totally clean when he was working for us.”

Centers Criticized as an Expensive Gimmick

“In Hollywood, you’re as good as your gross,” said addiction specialist Joe Takamine, former chairman of an American Medical Assn. task force on alcoholism. “The studios squeeze what they can out of them like a lemon and then say, ‘Now, go do your thing and fall down.’ What happens after the picture?”

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Takamine is skeptical not only of the minders, but of the plush rehab centers that promote their use. He believes they are expensive gimmicks that cater to celebrities’ narcissism.

“I wouldn’t send a sick puppy there,” he said. “Their definition of detox is massage or riding a horse. They are catering to the rich and famous.”

He noted that Affleck, while in treatment at Promises, left to accept a Teen Choice award at Universal City in August. “You create a feeling in some of these places that you’re unique,” Takamine said. “That’s what many of them die from--terminal uniqueness.”

Rogg, the director of Promises, called Takamine archaic and said Affleck went to the awards ceremony with a qualified staff member. Friends, family and business associates are often reluctant to confront celebrities about their lifestyle.

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“People have a vested interest in keeping someone rich happy,” said Dan Beardshear, a former counselor at the Betty Ford Clinic. He cited Chris Farley as an example.

“I urged [his associates] to put an intervention together. They said, ‘We don’t want to ruin his career.’ But, hell, he had already fallen off the stage a couple of times.”

Farley eventually did try to get sober. Harold Owens, an addiction recovery specialist for MusiCares, worked as his minder on at least one unidentified film.

“The producers on the film said he had to have somebody with him. That was the condition for him working,” Owens said.

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After the film was over, Farley relapsed, and in December 1997 he was found dead in his Chicago apartment of an overdose of cocaine and morphine. He was 33.

But in the right circumstances, a sober companion can help an artist beat addiction, said Jim Stillwell, executive director of Impact, one of Los Angeles’ oldest rehab facilities, whose clients range from ex-convicts to celebrities.

“If you have somebody who’s demonstrated a commitment to recovery, and using this sober buddy to enhance that person’s participation in the recovery activity while they’re on the road, then you’re getting bang for the buck,” Stillwell said. Baby-sitting a recovering star is not easy work.

Prentiss, founder of the Passages treatment center, tells of celebrities who tried to bribe their minders, offering as much as $50,000 to look the other way while they sneaked a drink or a snort of cocaine.

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Minders can succumb. Cole, who kept Downey clean for a few months, suffered a relapse after 15 years of sobriety. He recently got hooked on Vicodin while taking it to ease the pain from bone spurs in his shoulder and back.

In January, Cole checked himself into a sober-living house in West Los Angeles.


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