The red-haired man who stepped onto the Olvera Street bandstand looked vaguely familiar, but it was his words that got my attention. John Whitaker, a 52-year-old Santa Clarita resident, was addressing a rally to raise awareness of cartel violence in Mexico, and he started off by apologizing to the Mexican mothers he'd just heard speak about losing children in the drug wars.
Whitaker, a recovering addict, said he now realized that his drug use had no doubt had consequences south of the border, where cartel violence has cost thousands of lives. Speaking in English and then translating his own words into Spanish, Whitaker told the Mexican visitors he was there to ask forgiveness "if any of the drugs I used had anything to do" with any of their family members or anyone else being killed or kidnapped.
Mexican supply and U.S. demand are two chapters of the same story, but I'd never heard anyone make the connection more dramatically than Whitaker, who heads the L.A. chapter of Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing. When I introduced myself after his speech, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen him somewhere, and I found out why when I called later to set up an interview.
Many years ago, Whitaker was a child actor. One of his more memorable roles was on the TV series "Family Affair," in which actor Brian Keith was raising twins named Buffy and Jody with the help of a male nanny played by Sebastian Cabot.
"I was Jody," said Whitaker, 52, who started playing that role at age 6.
Several days after hearing him speak in the plaza, I drove to San Fernando to meet with Whitaker in his childhood home, where his mother still lives. His dad was a middle school teacher in Pacoima, he said, and his mother took care of John and seven siblings who were raised Mormon and sang in the same church attended by members of the Osmond family. In one performance, Whitaker, said, "I forgot the words to the second verse of" a song called "A Child of God." But he soldiered on, making up the words as he went.
Another congregant was impressed and introduced the Whitakers to a talent agency. Whitaker was soon doing TV commercials and helped avert world war in the movie "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" when he was rescued by a Russian sailor after dangling from a roof. Then came "Family Affair," followed by more work in TV and in Disney movies. But when he became a teenager, the job offers tailed off.
"Hollywood loves puppies," Whitaker said, "but it doesn't love puppies who become dogs."
In fact, Anissa Jones, who played Buffy in "Family Affair," never duplicated that success in later roles and died of a drug overdose in 1976. Whitaker hadn't been close to her after the show, but was still jolted by her death. He went on to serve in Portugal on a Mormon mission, then returned home to a marriage that didn't last, and the breakup crushed him.
"I started on a downward spiral into alcohol and drug addiction" and rejected "God, the church, everything. Nothing had worked out the way I wanted it to," and after all that childhood fame — when much of his earnings helped pay his family's bills — he found himself working as a word processor and struggling to pay bills.
He did meth, cocaine and crack, venturing to drug corners on Alvarado Street after work or on weekends. He was a "full-on addict" the last several of his 12 years doing drugs. Then his family called him to an intervention, in the very room where he and I spoke, and threatened to "excommunicate me from the family."
Whitaker rebelled at first, denying he had a problem he couldn't handle. Then he went to rehab, and countless 12-step meetings, and not only did he end up clean, on Sept. 25, 1997, but he became a drug counselor, a job he's still doing.
One of the steps of his recovery, Whitaker said, "was to make reparations for the harms I caused." Although the worst of the drug violence in Mexico has happened since he's been sober, he won't give himself a break on that count.
"I believe I am an accomplice in the murder of some people. Absolutely," Whitaker said. "Sometime during that period of my using, especially when it was cocaine, I'm sure there are a few murdered people I am responsible for."
That's what brought him to the rally on Olvera Street, he said.
"One way I can make reparation is to meet with these families, and every time I heard a name — when a mother said this is my son Rudolfo, this is my son Enrique, this is my daughter Margarita — I felt a pain.... We people in recovery, and in the consumer world, are to blame for some of it, and we've got to take responsibility."
Whitaker thinks marijuana, at least, should be legalized and regulated — though he says that he doesn't use it himself. He wants to see nonviolent drug use decriminalized, with the scads currently spent on interdiction and incarceration redirected into education and treatment that can save lives on both sides of the border. As a drug counselor, he said, it's become clear to him that it's primarily the wealthy who have access to immediate, credible treatment programs, and everyone else waits in line.
When the mothers from Mexico first crossed the border early in August, Whitaker drove down to offer his apology and support.
"They hugged me, and I cried, hugged them back and said, 'I will do what I can to help.' "