Sept. 4, 1985
By Stacy Jenel Smith
HOLLYWOOD – It’s a wonderful life for “Night Court’s” John Larroquette. His Dan Fielding character – dubbed “the best insufferable twerp since Eddie Haskell” by TV Guide – is always met with gratifying boos by the audience that flock to “Night Court” tapings.
Larroquette has been honored with an Emmy nomination.
He and his family recently moved into the house that “Night Court” bought, a Malibu hideaway overlooking the Pacific, where he views the rings of Saturn through his telescope at night. The series is guaranteed for a run of at least two more years; Larroquette will never have to worry about money again.
Four years ago, says John Larroquette, he was drinking himself to death.
“It’s something I don’t talk about that much, something I don’t particularly wear on my sleeve,” he says. “Applauding me for quitting is sort of like giving a trophy to a cowboy with hemorrhoids for not riding his horse.”
Larroquette, a former counterculture disc jockey in his native New Orleans, may look like his grating “Court” prosecutor, but there the resemblance ends. His conversation travels easily from erudite observations to assorted witty cracks, which the actor dishes out with a deadpan look.
His dry humor continues even as he describes his journey into and out of alcoholism.
“If I hadn’t stopped, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I would be playing handball with John Belushi right now. I don’t see any other option for the route I was taking besides death.
“When I was drinking, I once hit a wall so hard I knocked an engine out of an automobile. But I walked away without a scratch. I woke up one morning and a pillow had fallen across the kerosene lantern I used to read by, and it was ablaze three inches form my face.
“There is something worth mentioning in it. That is: There is a way out. The day before I stopped drinking, I thought I couldn’t live without my bottle. I was the kind of drinker who would put a bottle of cognac into my coat before going into a bar – so I could go into the bathroom and have some if the bartender was too slow in fixing my drink. It was a quart and a half of cognac a day along with whatever else I drank.”
Larroquette, whose father was an alcoholic who deserted the family when Larroquette was two years old, believes his heavy drinking was due to “a combination of things. In my background, alcohol was mother’s milk, part of the fabric of life. I was also on a television show, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep,’ that promoted that hard-drinking image. We lived that image off-screen. At the same time, I was doing a play called ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ playing the older brother, and I did a lot of research on that role,” he adds with a wisp of a smile.
“Basically, I was endeavoring to become a full-fledged drunk, because so many of my actor and author heroes were: Barrymore, Hemingway, Fitzgerald… So I pursued that for five years, beginning in 1977. True alcoholic drinking in the tradition of alcoholic drinking.”
Larroquette continued to get acting jobs through his alcoholic siege. “As a matter of fact, ‘Stripes,’ the last big film I did, was during that time.
“I was called ‘The Beast,’ a nickname a fellow actor gave me, and it fit – 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and I’d walk in with this black granite cloud over my head. I was this death figure. People were scared of that. It was kind of hard to think of me as a funny guy.” Larrroquette grins. “So I didn’t work a lot. But I worked.”
For awhile, however, his family life didn’t work.
There was a seven-month period prior to his recovery during which Larroquette was separated form his wife, Elizabeth – away from their daughter and son, who are now 15 years and 8 years old.
He lived in an apartment in L.A.’s Highland Park, “with my books, my writing, my bitterness and my fear. The absence of love is fear, and I didn’t have much love. But I guess I never completely lost hope.
“I sat with a gun on a table one night, trying to write a suicide note. After 45 minutes, I knew I couldn’t think f anything funny enough to say, and it was at that point I realized that suicide is the ultimate temper tantrum. I don’t think it was that I didn’t have the guts to shoot myself. But I think somewhere I knew things could change.
“The day I decided to change was also the day I decided I didn’t need any of this – that my career was not my identity, that I am not what I drive or wear, or who I go to bed with.”
He notes, “My wife never gave up her faith in me. She’s English, and she had that attitude, ‘You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’
“I remember when my son was about three, when I was drinking, and we were talking about God. I asked him if he believed in God and he said, ‘not the personality of God, but the spirit of God’ – which is an amazing statement for a three-year-old to make. I asked him where he thought God lived, and he said – in this little baby voice – ‘I don’t know where He lives, but I know He doesn’t live in a prison called cognac.’
“I thought I’d hallucinated it. But years later, my wife remembered it. She’d overheard the conversation.
“My daughter is gorgeous. She’s an artist whose drawings show a wonderful perception of the world.
“Of course, they were all very glad when I stopped drinking. Though alcoholism isn’t contagious it’s certainly infectious.”
What made him quit?
Larroquette answers by referring to pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung. “In the late 1800’s, he talked about working with very sick alcoholics, and it was his opinion that the only thing that seems to relieve them of their disease is a fundamental shift in their perception of reality. That is, no longer do the effects of drugs and alcohol serve as an answer to the problems of life. He would call it a mental transformation. I call what happened to me a spiritual transformation. I had an out-of-body experience where I saw myself sitting at a table. My first thought was, ‘Who is that pig’ I had what we call in the South a severe case of the bourbon puff. My face looked like I was trying to smuggle potatoes under my skin.
“I saw myself, and I knew that I had lost. You finally reach the point where you have a choice: the next drink, or life.”
After that, “I couldn’t conceive of having a drink again. The option no longer made sense to me. So, one day at a time, I haven’t had the need to take a drink or go on drugs of any kind for almost four years. And it is my spiritual path now: surviving. Every day I have an opportunity to recognize my right to be here, and in whatever slight way I can, to assist people in their quests.”
He adds, “Experience cannot be transferred by osmosis. All the wisdom and all the stories in the world can’t help someone who doesn’t have the experience in himself; everyone has to find his own bottom.”
But words can sometimes serve as a catalyst.
“Maybe,” says Larroquette. “Hopefully.”