For Rodney King, it's AA to VH1

Times Staff Writer

On PROMINENT display in Rodney King's suburban Rialto home is a framed photograph -- a reminder of his role in one of the most incendiary chapters in Los Angeles history.

The close-up of a bulky, nervous King was taken during a 1992 press conference days after rage and violence swept across the city following the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers who were charged with violating King's civil rights. The picture was snapped just as he made his memorable plea for calm amid rioting that ultimately led to 54 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries and 12,000 arrests: “People, I just want to say — Can we all get along? Can we get along?”

In the more than 16 years since, King continues to ask himself that very same, very simple and profound question. His own path since becoming an unwitting symbol of police brutality to some and a habitual petty criminal to others has been filled with tumult.

Now, although he had tried to maintain a low profile, King is again willingly putting himself -- and his demons -- front and center in VH1's "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," which launches its second season Oct. 23. The series is billed as television's first examination of the rehabilitation process and features Drew Pinsky, the low-key celebrity physician who is well known for his nationally syndicated radio call-in show, "Loveline." Pinsky is head of the Department of Chemical Dependency Services at Pasadena's Las Encinas Hospital.

King said he appeared on the show to demonstrate that he has reformed and that he is not the cowering victim in the grainy videotape. Most of all, he did it to reclaim his name. "Over the years, a lot of rappers -- Lil’ Wayne, Ice Cube -- have used my name in their songs," said the 43-year-old King, who had his first drink when he was 8. "I'm a real touchstone of history.

"But they don't know me as a person. I understand the hurt, and now I'm seeking help for myself. Putting myself out there is a good way for me to overcome the addiction. I want my kids to understand me, and it was easier to show them by being on TV."

Sitting in his immaculate living room, he gazed at the large photo from 1992, which shares wall space with a blown-up baby picture. In contrast to the image above him, his head is now cleanshaven. He is fit with a muscular build underneath his loose-fitting plaid shirt and jeans.

"When I look at that picture, I look at change," said King, who notes with a smile that he's been sober for three months. "No matter how many steps it takes, I'm trying to make my life better."

Unlike the image much of the public holds about him, King, the divorced father of three, is not sullen or par- ticularly shy. He is friendly, polite and talkative. And he is relentlessly upbeat.

"Waking up sober is a good day," said King as he relaxed in the home he shares with his fiancee, Dawn Jean, whom he has been with for six years. "I love being able to wake up and do positive things, to go to the gym."

He also works with teens, coaching baseball for the city's recreation and parks department. "It just feels so good to be alive and not sick. I'm blessed."

He blames his alcoholism for much of his legal problems, which have included at least six arrests, including two for drunk driving and two for domestic abuse involving his former wife, his mother and one of his daughters.

He has served more than 300 days in jail. His addictions were also behind his July 1995 conviction for trying to run down his former wife with his car. And in 2001, he was arrested at a park in Pomona for indecent exposure and for being under the influence of PCP -- a crime for which he was later ordered to enter a yearlong drug treatment program (not his first stint in rehab).

Since the infamous LAPD beating, King has returned twice to the site in Lake View Terrace where he was pulled over after a high-speed chase. It provided no answers for him and left him feeling "numb." "It's a real uneasy subject to talk about," he said slowly. "There's so many sides to what happened."

Vulnerable around the clock

KING voluteered to have his more negative side exposed for "Celebrity Rehab," in which the worst nature of addicted personalities is displayed. The series is one of the most popular entries in VH1's "celebreality" cycle that includes "I Want to Work for Diddy," "Hogan Knows Best" and "Flavor of Love." Last season's slate of patients included Jeff Conaway ("Taxi," "Grease"), Brigitte Nielsen ("Rocky IV"), Daniel Baldwin ("The Sopranos"), porn actress Mary Carey and former pro wrestler Chyna.

The show, which has been completed, also sparked controversy about the ethics of violating the privacy that traditionally surrounds rehab patients. Still, producers say they were approached by representatives of several celebrities impressed by the first season who wanted to come on the series.

The participants are filmed by hidden cameras throughout the facility and camera crews 24 hours a day as they go through a 21-day program at a Pasadena residential treatment facility combining group and one-on-one therapy with less traditional therapies such as art and music. Much of the material is raw and coarse.

This session includes a return visit by Conaway, as well as Tawny Kitaen ("Bachelor Party"), Nikki McKibbin (a finalist from the first season of "American Idol") and former Guns N' Roses drummer Steven Adler, who was fired from the group known for excessive behavior for his drunkenness and dependence on drugs.

When King is first seen, he is obviously a man on the edge -- fidgety, sweaty, inarticulate. "I love alcohol, that's what I do," he says as he tilts his head back and pours a beer down his throat. At another point, he's shown at a part-time job working for a tow truck company, staggering and drunk. Later, he leans out of the passenger side window of a moving truck and throws up.

It was an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor who referred him to the show. King, long concerned that his alcoholism would kill him, said the timing was right. "My father died of the disease, and I don't want to be like him," he said. "He always had a drink in his hand. He could've gotten the help he needed, but back then, they just laughed at stuff like rehab. I'm more than halfway through my life. Whenever I went in rehab before, it was being forced to do something."

His first hours at the Pasadena center were awkward. "I took my last drink on the drive over there," he recalled. In the early episodes of "Celebrity Rehab," he is often separated from the group, seeming to have little in common with the other celebrities. Indeed, some of his fellow participants aren't sure who he is -- one thinks he's an athlete, others believe he was in "Boyz N the Hood."

John Irwin, an executive producer of the series, said King's sponsor approached them about him joining the series. "The first time I met Rodney, he was high as a kite," he said. "He came to us because he had lost everything, and he was really ready to get clean and start over. He is a different person now. He has a heart of gold." King credits Pinsky with making him feel more comfortable: "Dr. Drew is on it. He was right 95% of the time."

He hopes he has finally gained the emotional tools to just get along with himself. He's working on a book about his life, and a movie deal is also in the works. "It's easy, but it's hard," he said with a smile. "And it's hard, but it's easy."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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