Tom Sizemore has been called many things. Brilliant. Brutal. Fiercely talented. Angry. Drug-addicted. In reality, he’s all of them. He’s a survivor of the Detroit ghetto, the father of twin boys, and a veteran of dozens of movies. He’s also now sober, after his addiction took his life as far down, arguably, as any human being could go.
Through screen-stealing performances in the 1990s movies True Romance, Heat, and Natural Born Killers, Sizemore was so in demand that even when his drug problem was widely known, directors such as Steven Spielberg offered him roles and begged him to stay sober for them. Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Robert Downey, Jr., and Johnny Depp each went out of their way to befriend him. But the same man who once romanced Elizabeth Hurley and Juliette Lewis was accused of domestic violence by the world’s most famous madam and moved from Beverly Hills to solitary confinement in state prison.
For years, Sizemore’s days were filled with overdoses, suicide attempts, and homelessness. By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There is a harrowing journey into the heart of his addiction, told in riveting and often shocking detail. By turns gritty and heartbreaking, it is also one man’s look at a particular moment in entertainment history—a window into the drug-fueled spotlight that sent Robert Downey, Jr., to jail and killed River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley, and many others far before their time.
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About the Author
Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought, the anthology Reality Matters, and the memoir Falling for Me. She is the executive editor of the addiction and recovery website The Fix, is doing graduate work in drug and alcohol counseling at UCLA, and speaks at colleges across the country on addiction.
Read an Excerpt
By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There
THE PART OF Detroit I was born in—Corktown—wasn’t exactly Beverly Hills. It was a small enclave of poor, working-class white people located near Tiger Stadium, a stadium that’s since been torn down but used to be where the Detroit Tigers would play. Although my family’s financial situation changed later, when my dad became a lawyer, we didn’t have a lot in the beginning. It was a very blue-collar, lower-middle-class upbringing.
My dad—Thomas Edward Sizemore Sr.—was one of the more handsome men you might ever see, and he’s always been very intelligent. Though he came from southern migrant farmers, previous generations of Sizemores were more prominent citizens. If you go to Clay County, Kentucky, where most of them are from, you’ll see in the halls of the county buildings pictures, plaques of Sizemore men who were sheriffs, teachers, tax assessors, and collectors. Public minutes and records also show that Sizemore men were involved in the planning, construction, and maintenance of the roads there. Essentially, if you show up just about anywhere in Clay County and mention the family name Sizemore, you’ll probably discover that the person you’re talking to is related, married to, or knows a Sizemore. There’s even an old Kentucky saying: “Where there’s dirt, you’ll find a Sizemore.”
A long-standing Sizemore tradition—and one that I carried out myself—was to pull up stakes and move to a distant place in order to improve the lot you’ve been given in life and change the direction and future of the family. And my father’s father, Blevins Sizemore, did just that when he moved from Clay County to Detroit, Michigan, in the early 1940s with my grandmother Vina and their children—my father and his siblings Carl, Sally, Ernie, Keith, and Patsy. The children were born in that order except that my father was born after Carl. They also had another brother, Donald Edward, my grandparents’ firstborn, but he died when he was a year old. My grandmother always carried a picture of him in her wallet, and I used to look at it sometimes when visiting with her. I don’t think my grandparents ever fully got over his death, and it probably influenced to a large degree the permissiveness of the way they parented. For sure, the boys could almost do no wrong, however shocking their behavior might be to others. Carl and Keith both became full-blown heroin addicts, and Carl was dealing heroin out of the house to support his and Keith’s habit. They were also both thieves and fences. Ernie was smoking pot and dropping LSD, and Grandpa Sizemore always made sure they all had cigarettes.
Even though it was wartime my grandfather Blevins couldn’t serve because he was blind in one eye. He’d actually been kicked out of school in fourth grade because the teachers back then thought his eye problem might have been contagious. Apparently, though, he simply had really bad cataracts in both eyes, though one eye was worse than the other.
Despite his vision problems, Blevins started working for Micro-matic Hone Corporation, a machinist shop, where he honed and shaped steel. The family was dirt poor. They had just two chairs at the table for the two adults to sit in (the children stood to eat) and no phone. And Blevins was a really bad alcoholic. If Vina didn’t get ahold of Blevins’s paycheck before he did, he would be down at the bar, having spent the whole thing on booze and pissed himself. Vina was always sending Sally down to the bar to bring her drunken dad home.
I remember as a kid seeing Uncle Carl get up from where we were all playing cards and go out to the entry vestibule, where he would make his drug deals. It was my first exposure to drugs and the way they had to be kept secret. Every half hour or so there’d be someone knocking at the door. Carl would let that person into the vestibule, which was closed off from the living room, find out what they wanted, then go into the basement where he kept the heroin, get the requested amount, return to the vestibule, and make the deal. When I asked my aunt Sally what was going on, she said, “Your uncle’s selling drugs.” I remember saying to her, “That’s what I thought! Is it dangerous?” She said, “Oh no. Not at all, Tommy. He’s a good drug dealer.” I think I was nine when that conversation took place.
But the truth is that I really liked Uncle Carl and Uncle Keith. Carl was a kind of bebop jazz aficionado and Keith was something of a hippie who loved the Rolling Stones. I remember one year when Keith returned home for Christmas. I was about twelve and asked him what he’d been reading. He said, “Tom, this drug problem has gotten out of control and I just decided to read the dictionary—I figured all the books were in it.” They were both characters.
Somehow, even though he was in that environment, my father never did drugs, and he was the only one out of all his siblings to graduate from high school. I know that he once took a hit off a joint that his brother Ernie suggested he try and he later told me that it felt like the floor opened up and every monster and insecurity in his life came out and laughed at him. He never did a mind-altering drug again. He used to say that his addiction was reading. In retrospect, he really picked an addiction that fit his very private, almost shut-away, personality. You could talk to this fool for a half hour while he read, and if you asked him what was for dinner, he’d say, “Food.” You’d ask what kind and he’d say, “Ask your mother.” You’d ask where she was and he’d say, “Thomas, can’t you tell that I’m reading?” That was actually kind of a funny routine we had.
My mom’s family came to Detroit under circumstances not unlike the Sizemores’, and there was a bit of mystery around my grandfather Sam Schannault’s racial heritage. He always thought of himself as a white man, but he was the product of a union between an American Indian sharecropper named Nina and a Georgia plantation owner of French ancestry named Mr. Chennault; I believe my grandfather later changed the spelling to Schannault. Mr. Chennault was married and had a bunch of children who lived in the plantation’s main estate—a very large, luxurious home that I think is now an historical site in Georgia. When Mr. Chennault died, Nina and her kids, including my grandfather, who was maybe four years old, were expelled from the plantation.
When he grew up, my grandfather Schannault worked three jobs to keep his family off welfare. He’d do the morning shift in one factory and the evening shift at another, and also worked at a gas station. He also made their house into an after-hours joint in order to make extra money. You couldn’t buy liquor after 2 A.M., so Sam would open up his doors and sell it, running what is called a blind pig. Everyone in town who liked to drink—including, on occasion, Blevins Sizemore—would show up there. Sam wasn’t an alcoholic but he and my grandma Schannault both drank. They really only had the club to make extra money. As a little girl, my mom hated all the people traipsing through the house late at night, talking loudly and laughing as drunks do, making the place stink of beer and cigarettes.
Sam didn’t age all that well: welding in the factory eventually gave him multiple hernias and made one of his arms significantly longer than the other. I also believe he slept about three hours a night because he worked roughly twenty-one hours a day. Still, he was the toughest man I ever met in my life. As a teenager he was about five foot nine but all brawny steel, and he and his brother Frank would go to bars in Tipton, Georgia, where they’d bet everyone there that Sam could beat anyone in a fight. And that’s exactly what he’d do—beat everyone. I hear his record was 119-0. My great-uncle Frank would supposedly say, “Sam, I’m afraid you’re going to end up killing one of these men one day.”
My mom was the fifth of Sam and Mildred Schannault’s kids. The order went Barbara, Shirley, Ronnie, Jerome, my mom, Larry, and Barry. Ronnie was friends with my dad, whom he very affectionately called “Big Ed,” and the two family houses were just a few streets away from each other. Later, Ronnie realized he was gay and ran away to New York. It was a different time, and I think he was sort of hiding out in shame. My mom was really the only one in the family who stayed in touch with him and he didn’t come home again until years later—the early 1980s—when he had AIDS and was dying.
Jerome ended up becoming a big pimp in Detroit. He had these two massage parlors that were really whorehouses called Foxy Ladies and Gentleman’s Retreat and everyone in Detroit (including the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press) called Jerome the Fat Man or the Slob because, honestly, he was kind of overweight and generally didn’t dress well. He was a total character. He’d say things like “Here I am providing a social service—do you think most of the slobs walking through my door could get that kind of pussy on their own?—and those corrupt, no-good rats want to incarcerate me. For sellin’ honey? Doesn’t it make you sick? Disgusting. It’s disgusting.” He’d go off on these rants about how “the most twisted” whorehouses in the world were in Washington, D.C. (and he knew firsthand, since he’d been to them all!) and here the authorities were bothering him.
My mom, Judith Kay Schannault, met my dad when she was thirteen and he was fourteen. Apparently they even had some sort of “faux marriage” back when they were kids. My mom was incredibly beautiful and had a lot of boys wooing her.
Like I said, my dad was incredibly smart: it literally said “Boy Genius” beneath his high school senior yearbook picture. And one day when he was nine years old, his teacher brought him home from school so he could talk to his parents. The teacher said to Blevins, “Your son’s too smart to be in this school—he needs to go to a smart kids’ school.” Blevins was drunk at the time and couldn’t really hear what the teacher was saying, so he pulled out a shotgun and told the teacher to get off his porch. And then, because Blevins was so much to deal with, my grandmother didn’t want to confront him and upset him further, so my dad never did end up switching schools.
And yet even though he came from those circumstances, he ended up getting a full scholarship to Harvard. He went there for his freshman year and cleaned dorms to make pocket money. But he felt entirely out of place in his Salvation Army clothes. He came from a family of hillbillies who lived on a dirt floor, and all the Harvard kids were from another world. And even though he was getting straight As, he could never adjust to the Harvard environment. So one Friday he left his last class, walked to the bus station, and took the bus to New York’s Pennsylvania Station. He was thinking about becoming a writer—he was artistic and well-read—or joining the Foreign Legion, but after about a day walking around more or less aimlessly, he realized he had just enough money to take a bus home to Detroit.
My guess is that my dad really missed my mom when he was at Harvard, and she was one of the reasons he wanted to come home. So he did. Harvard called Detroit—they had to call a neighbor because my dad’s family didn’t have a phone—and they told him he could come back, that everything was fine. They knew that he was gifted, and they understood his circumstances, but I think he was just too ashamed to go back. So he never returned to Harvard, and that’s something he has always regretted. Still, the life my dad was able to build with my mom was definitely an improvement over his childhood; my dad really got his family out of the Dark Ages.
My parents got married in a simple ceremony in Belle Isle Park in Detroit when my mom was nineteen. I was born in 1961, and I guess the place my parents were living in at that point was pretty bad. It didn’t even have any heat. My dad called the landlord to try to get the heat turned on there and was told, “What are you talking about? There’s no heat there to turn on.” Then one day the toilet fell through the floor because the floors were about as thin as sandpaper. My mom said, “I’m not staying here with my baby—I’m freezing to death, the toilet just fell through the floor, and I’ve had enough.” So when I was just a few weeks old we moved into a two-family flat on the predominantly white, working-class east side of Detroit with my maternal grandparents. We lived upstairs and they took the downstairs flat.
My brother Aaron was born two years later and we lived in the two-family flat for about eleven years. Our family actually still owns it, and my mom’s younger brother Barry lives there now. Because my parents both worked when Aaron and I were little—my mom for the ombudsman’s office and my dad teaching mentally challenged kids—my grandmother looked after us a lot. She was really nurturing and, in a lot of ways, I felt like I had two moms. I got a lot of attention early on: I was a good boy, quite curious, and I was also the first grandchild of both my parents’ parents. And I was smart. I talked and learned to read early—I was supposedly saying complete sentences by the time Aaron was born and was reading by the age of four.
We didn’t really have a car because we kept thinking we were getting deals, only to learn we’d actually been screwed over. I remember my dad at one point got a Jaguar for two hundred bucks when at the time they cost $75,000. Mom said to him, “If you bought the car for two hundred dollars, it stands to reason that it’s not any good. There’s got to be something wrong with it.” My uncle Jerome opened the hood—my dad had never even opened it to look—and there was no engine. Jerome said, “Ain’t got no engine, first thing, that’s not good.” My dad just wasn’t good with stuff like that.
When I was in second grade and Aaron was in kindergarten, we moved to Ames, Iowa, for a year because my dad got a job teaching philosophy at Iowa State University. We were just a few weeks into living there when my parents decided one day, in the dead of an Iowa winter, to drop me and Aaron off to see the play Rumpelstiltskin. We’d never been to a play before, and it really wasn’t our kind of thing, but my parents must have had something they wanted to do that day because they didn’t tend to ever leave us anywhere on our own. But that day they took us to this theater, dropped us off, and told us to watch the play and then wait for them to come pick us up when it was over.
Aaron and I started watching the play and it was the most boring thing I’d ever seen in my life. It’s ironic that my first experience with theater was so terrible, given that I later came to love it so much, but what can I say? I still don’t like bad theater and this was bad. When the actors came out and started yelling, “Hark!” I turned to Aaron and said, “They’ve got to be kidding.”
After about five minutes, I told Aaron we should leave and he said that we couldn’t—that we’d promised Mom and Dad we’d stay until the end and wait for them to come pick us up. I was frustrated but agreed to stay, and then counted the minutes until the curtain went down an hour and ten minutes later. We went out into the lobby, and that’s when we found out that it wasn’t over—that it was only the intermission and we had two more acts to go. Now it was a brisk winter day, maybe twenty degrees, with tons of snow piled on the sides of the streets, some of it higher than our shoulders. We’d just moved to the area and I didn’t know the first thing about the neighborhood or town we were in but I didn’t care; I’d had it. I turned to Aaron and said, “I’m going home, you want to come with me?” Honestly, I hated that play so much that I wouldn’t have cared if I had to walk to the center of the earth.
Aaron looked at me like I was crazy. “We’re miles from home!” he said with these big, wide eyes. I told him I knew that but that I could figure out the way back. He was torn. I could tell he was terrified to go with me but he knew I was serious, and he was also scared to stay at the play by himself. And the thing is, he had every reason to be scared. I didn’t know my way home at all and was completely bluffing.
Still, I had this vague idea that if we made a right, then a left, then another quick right, it would put us in the direction of where we lived. The snow was up to our hips, but I ignored that. “Come on!” I said to Aaron and just started walking the way I thought was right. He followed me but he was still panicked—he was saying things like “We’re gonna die, we should go back. We’re little.” And I told him, “I don’t care—I’d rather die than watch any more of that play.” At the time, I felt like I meant it. He kept asking me if I was sure I knew where I was going, and the truth was, the more we walked, the less certain I was. But I saw how worried he looked and I remember saying to myself, “He can’t handle the truth.” So I told him yes, of course I was sure.
It turned out that I did. Or I got lucky. All I know is that we walked a long time in the freezing snow and eventually wound up at home. Even though we were both frozen solid, I kept telling Aaron that I wasn’t cold at all. That was probably my first acting job: convincing my little brother that I was almost warm in temperatures so cold. By the last two blocks I actually had to hold him to keep him from freezing, but I was still telling him it wasn’t cold out. Then, when we got to our front door and saw our dad coming down the steps, I told Aaron to act normal and not say a word. I said, “Hey, Dad, John’s mother drove us home, the play just ended.”
At first he believed us but then he felt our faces, which were frozen. He asked, “What’s wrong with your faces? Why are they so red and so cold?” I said, “Nothing, something must be wrong with your hands.” I thought that was pretty clever. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with my hands.” I said, “How do you know, are you a doctor?” Then he said, “Thomas, sit down.” I could tell he knew what had happened, and I thought I was going to get in trouble for putting my brother at risk. But instead he said he was really proud of me. He said to Aaron, “You’re lucky you’ve got Tom.” And that’s why that day sticks out so much in my head. My dad wasn’t easy to impress, but me being able to find our way home from miles away when we’d just moved in really impressed him.
But even though I was a tough little kid who could usually act strong in front of my brother, when I went to bed at night I always thought that someone was going to break into our house. I shared a bedroom with Aaron, and I’d always ask him if he heard certain noises I was sure I heard. Sometimes I’d even be crying when I asked. Then I’d beg Aaron not to fall asleep until I had. He’d try his best. When I was really scared, I’d go in and sleep with my parents.
I really wanted to be strong and smart like my father, who, after teaching for a long time, decided he wanted to be a lawyer, so he enrolled in law school at the University of Michigan. He never went to a class—he just read the books and took the tests because we were living in Detroit and he didn’t want to have to drive to Ann Arbor—but he was getting straight A’s. One day in the middle of his second year there, when he went in to get his test score, his instructor said, “You live!” My dad said, “Sorry I haven’t been here. I have children to take care of.” The instructor asked him if he could stay after class to talk and my dad said, “I really can’t. It’s just the law; what do you want to talk about?”
When he graduated, he practiced corporate law at one of the most respected firms in the nation, where the thinking was basically, if you have a problem and you can’t solve it, take it to Sizemore.
But because my dad had never gotten anything but A’s, satisfying him was next to impossible. I was in honors algebra as an eighth grader and I should have been in regular algebra, but the thinking was that because my father would have been in honors algebra, so should I. But I knew I was screwed in that class. It was like joining the track team and having to run at five in the morning. I just knew I wasn’t going to be able do it right. I was not as high an achiever as he was, so I fell behind, and once you fall behind in math, you’re screwed. And he wouldn’t let me move to regular algebra. If you had put me in that class and spun me around with my eyes closed, I wouldn’t know where I sat; that’s how confused I was.
I’d get really scared—probably irrationally scared—whenever my father tutored me. He was a tough guy, and when I was slow to understand some of the algebra problems, he’d get frustrated with me. He was just trying to push me to do better, and his manner was a little gruff. At one point my mom saw the way he was talking to me during one of these tutoring sessions and she said, “Edward, that’s enough!” He ignored her and she said again, “I said that’s enough! That is my son, too, and that is enough!” he finally looked up. She said, “How do you expect anybody to even be able to read the word the when you’re in his ear like that? The pressure you’re applying right now is just wrong. I want you to leave this room.” I’d never seen my mom really get that hard with him. And because of that, he knew he was wrong. He started to say something, but she went, “Stop it. Leave him alone and get away from him. You’re scaring him.”
Another bad incident with my dad happened when I was in fifth grade and the music teacher picked me to sing “Silent Night” at the Christmas concert. It was a big deal because that role had always gone to a sixth grader and a girl, so I was really excited. But the night of the performance, I didn’t want my hair the way my dad wanted it, and I didn’t want to wear what he wanted me to wear. We had an argument about it—which he won and made me dissolve into tears. The fight escalated, and I ended up weeping: pictures from that day show how distraught I was.
When we got to school for the concert, my friends could tell I’d been crying. One of them, Michael, took me into a classroom and said, “Hey, Tom, are you okay?” He was so sweet. I told him what had happened and he said, “Forget about your dad; he can’t even do birthday parties.” I guess my dad had screwed up the game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey at Aaron’s recent birthday party. Then Michael went and got this girl Agnes, who was sort of my girlfriend. She came back to talk to me, and I remember her looking like a concerned Meryl Streep. She said, “Tom, your father’s a mean person sometimes, but he loves you.”
I said, “What about my hair?” She said, “It looks great,” though she told me later it actually looked like shit: all the curls had been combed out of it, and I looked like I had a Bobby Sherman haircut. And I had on this dumb electric-blue shirt—I’d never worn electric blue in my fucking life—and I was so uncomfortable. I said, “What about this shirt?” and she said, “It’s beautiful.” She told me later she thought it was a terrible shirt, but she went into the hall and told this other little girl, “Go in there and tell him his hair and shirt look nice, because they’re awful.” Those were my core friends, and we took care of each other: we knew each other’s parents, and we were helping each other become little people.
Thanks to Michael and Agnes, I started to feel much better and when I went up to sing the song, the singing teacher, Miss Stohl, looked at me and said, “You can do this, honey.” I remember her playing the chord on the piano and then saying, “It’s Christmas.” Thinking about that moment makes me want to cry because she was so goddamn sweet. She looked at me through the whole song and mouthed the words to me until she knew I could handle it on my own.
When I hit the high notes, I saw a few people out there with tears in their eyes, including my mom and Miss Stohl, and when I finished, I felt like I was a star. There were about two hundred people there, and I literally had a receiving line afterward. It was such a precursor of what was to come: on the one hand, I loved the adulation, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable.
To discover that I could be as upset as I was and still come through made me feel like I could survive anything. And I think that’s probably when I realized I was a performer.
THINGS ARE DIFFERENT now, but when I was a kid your parents could whip your ass in the front yard and no one would look twice. My mom would say, “Be home by seven thirty,” and if you weren’t home at seven thirty, you got your ass kicked. And it worked: I was usually home at seven thirty. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that: it gets your point across.
At the same time that our parents were tough with us, Aaron and I both truly idolized our father. To us, he was like a Kennedy. I remember when Bobby Kennedy came to Detroit while he was running for president in 1968. I was seven years old. In the predawn hours my dad put me on his shoulders and we went out to Hart Plaza, where RFK was going to appear at noon, and started waiting for him. It was about five in the morning. When hours later Kennedy came out—with this beautiful tan, wearing a white shirt with his sleeves rolled up and with the sun hitting his hair in a way that made it look like pure spun gold—I just loved him. And the way he smiled and the way he talked only made me love him more. I remember thinking, “My dad’s like him.”
On his best days, my dad was the greatest father who ever lived: he learned everything he could about baseball so he could talk to us about it and take us to ball games. He hugged us and told us he loved us and how happy he was that we were his children. He’d play Beatles songs for us and write down the lyrics so we could learn them. He taught us to play pinochle and hearts; he even tried to teach us bridge. When we were little, he read to us every night, and then, when we got older, he made us summer reading lists that included books like The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. But probably the most important thing he did was explain to us that everyone was created equal. Because of where we were living and the way people thought back then, we had plenty of people around us who were racist and homophobic and sexist. And he’d explain to us that being that way wasn’t right. And I just thought he was so smart. Mom wanted us to go to church, and he would say things like “Judy, how can you believe in this shit? Supposedly God’s got these Ten Commandments and if you fuck those up, you get eternal damnation, but at the same time He always loves you? How does that work? And how come He doesn’t pay income taxes? I’m telling you, this whole thing’s a racket!” He’d say things like “There’s a whole world out there, Tommy.” He’s the one who turned me on to Chet Baker and Marlon Brando and really pushed me to succeed.
Still, it was very much a mixed bag: the good parenting was very good and the bad parenting was often abysmal, and very hurtful. And that was ultimately more important than the good parenting because it left some very bad psychic scars.
My brother Aaron and my dad had a complicated relationship. Aaron, like my dad, is brilliant: he can play the guitar very well, even though he’s never had a lesson; he was the best track runner and football player and also a straight-A student. My brother was my best friend when we were little. I remember when I was seven and Aaron was five and an older boy threw a baseball at him very hard. I said to the kid who did it, “What are you doing? He’s a kid.” The boy said something like “It’ll teach ’em.” And then I hit this fucker in the face. I didn’t want anyone messing with my brother. For a long time Aaron was that typical younger brother, and I felt like I couldn’t shake him, but after a while, I didn’t want to shake him anymore. He was a sweet kid. And later he not only caught up to me physically, but started doing push-ups and became much tougher.
I don’t think all of the other ways we were living were healthy. It was really important to my parents that we excelled in school—it was always “We want you to go to Harvard like your father did. You can’t get B’s, you have to get A’s.” But I don’t think it’s right to think that you have to get an A and you have to win the football game or else you’re a fucking asshole. Yet that’s how I was brought up and, when you’re twelve years old, that’s not a way to be talked to. I didn’t want to be called those names, so I became obsessively ambitious. I decided I was going to do everything I could to be the best student and athlete I could, and I missed out on a lot of things in my youth as a result. I saw life in really black-and-white terms: either you win or you’re a piece of shit. When I became an actor, I had the exact same mentality.
When I was in eighth grade, we moved north to Shelby Township, near Utica, Michigan; it was a beautiful time in our lives in many ways. I was on the honor roll and was quarterback on the football team. Playing football meant a lot to me, and I took a lot of pride in my athletic accomplishments in general. I’d played in a summer basketball program in Detroit, where I’d been the only white kid to make the squad, but being quarterback was even better.
However, things took a dramatic shift when I was in tenth grade and my dad met another woman. Suzanne had come to him for legal help after her husband was killed in a motorcycle accident; one thing led to another, and my dad and Suzanne ended up falling for each other.
All I knew at the time was that the man the town considered like Abe Lincoln—the bearded, brilliant attorney—suddenly fell off his pedestal. The realization about what was going on was slow. It all started when my best friend in Utica, a kid named Brian Hagel, who was nearly ubiquitous in my home at the time, said something one night when he was visiting. Brian’s parents had gotten divorced after his dad had an affair, and one night when my dad was “working late” again for the umpteenth time in recent weeks, Brian asked where my dad was. I said, “He’s working late.” And he just immediately busted out with “Your dad’s got a girlfriend.” Aaron and I were both sure that Brian was wrong. Something like that just didn’t seem possible.
I don’t know how long it was afterward that my mom found out. I think she started getting suspicious, too, or maybe she heard Brian say that. So one night when my dad was supposedly working late, she called his firm and asked where he was. The security guard there wasn’t supposed to tell you if someone had signed in or out, but she was able to get the guard to go up and check Dad’s office. The guard reported back that he wasn’t there.
When my dad got home that night, we were already asleep—Aaron and I had fallen asleep in the living room on the pullout couch and our little brother Paul, who was a newborn, was asleep in his bedroom. My mom accused my dad of having an affair, I guess, and I just remember waking up to screaming. It turned into this really big, disturbing evening where a lot of ugly things were said and Paulie was crying. The family was never the same after that. I was never the same.
I was, quite honestly, traumatized. It was like all the denial suddenly ripped away and I saw that my dad wasn’t perfect—he wasn’t the greatest man who had ever lived. It was an ugly divorce, too: it lasted from when I was fifteen until I was eighteen. We had been a very close family who did everything together, and this new state of affairs was a real shock. Neither of my parents handled the situation particularly well. Dad was going back and forth between our home and Suzanne’s for a long time; he’d swear things were over with her and then suddenly he just wouldn’t come home. And it would break our hearts.
One time he drove up in Suzanne’s Ford Pinto, and I was so pissed-off that I took a brick and tossed it right at the window, shattering the glass. But I wasn’t the only one who was angry: my mom was livid. One time she drove over to Suzanne’s and pulled a tablecloth off the table, sending all the plants and everything else on it flying. Suzanne was hiding upstairs in a linen closet the whole time. My mom found her up there and told her off. It was ugly, although I understood my mother’s rage.
Another day, my dad was carrying the TV out of the house while he and my mom were fighting, and they got so angry at each other he chucked the TV right through the kitchen window. The next day, my mom went down to the TV store and said, “My husband likes to throw TVs through the window.” The guy at the store said, “He should get another hobby.” But I guess he felt bad for her because he gave her a free TV.
Our neighbor, a very sweet lady named Fern, was always counseling my mom about the situation—telling her that she had to save her marriage and saying that my dad was just going through a midlife crisis and would never stay with Suzanne. Fern would tell my mom to never leave her marital home and never let another woman get her husband. My mom tried so hard to make it work, but at a certain point, she just got fed up. The summer between my tenth- and eleventh-grade years, she packed us up and we returned to Detroit, where we moved back in with Grandma and Grandpa. We didn’t see my dad that entire summer, but my mom and dad decided to reunite that fall, so we went back to the house in Utica. It wasn’t long before the same pattern began to emerge: Dad would start staying at Suzanne’s and not coming home.
After a little while my mom couldn’t deal with my dad’s back-and-forth anymore, so we moved out of the house again after the school year. This was a real separation—not like the one that we’d just had for the summer. We rented a U-Haul, which Aaron, two of my friends from Shelby Township, and I loaded up with all of our furniture and clothes. I don’t remember this, but my mom has told me that my dad was lying on the couch, quietly crying the whole time we were packing and leaving. She and Aaron drove the U-Haul back to Detroit while I took a separate car there with my friends. Aaron told me afterward that my mom was really worried the whole drive; he kept telling her everything would be okay and she just continued smoking cigarettes and looking concerned, asking him if he really thought so.
As I said, things really changed for me while all of this drama was going on with my parents. I was just so angry with my father, and I couldn’t seem to let go of it. I had been such a good student at a very demanding school and excelling at both basketball and football, but so much of that was to please my dad that I felt conflicted about continuing to try so hard.
Eventually my parents got divorced and Dad ended up marrying Suzanne. My mom eventually remarried, too—a Greek Orthodox doctor. I was able to forgive Suzanne in the end because she loved my father, although the divorce brought me far closer to my mother. She was the one, during those years, who really kept our dreams alive—she’d keep saying things like “You’re going to go to college, honey.” In many ways, she was the better parent.
And here’s the way I ultimately feel: my father made an irretrievably bad decision in terms of what he did with our family. I’ve always loved him and have always felt like one day he’d come to regret what he’d done—he’s just too sensitive a man not to one day look back and feel that way.
Back in Detroit, I fell in again with my old friends. There was this one guy in particular, Joe Klug, and he and I became the de facto leaders of our little group; we were always up to something.
We also always needed money. Joe knew this older guy—he was around twenty-one—who ran this sort of party house a mile or so from our neighborhood; everyone called it “the foosball house” because he had a foosball table in the living room.
The guy was a real thug; he could have had us killed. And he was the kind of a loser who always had younger kids around because he was hoping he could sleep with the girls. So one day when we were all over there, he showed me that he had a ton of mescaline, hundreds of hits, which he was selling. He showed it to me because girls liked me, and he hoped I could facilitate things for him—like if he said he liked a girl, I could go get her and say, “Hey, come with me” and bring her back to his bedroom.
I told Joe about the mescaline, and we decided we were going to steal it. I was sort of a street kid and had a reputation for being very smart and daring and tough. I knew that the act of stealing it would be simple—you just put the shit in a bag and throw it out the window—but that doing it right and not getting caught would be the hard part. I knew we needed a plan.
The deal at this guy’s house was that no one could use his bathroom, because it connected to the bedroom where he kept the mes-caline. So if you had to use the bathroom, you had to go to a nearby gas station. So one day I told him, “You’re not going to get laid if people can’t use your bathroom. No girl would think much of a guy who makes you do that.” He said, “Really?” He wasn’t all that bright.
The brilliance of this plan was that everyone in the neighborhood knew that my friend Joe had to be home at five thirty every night for dinner with his parents. Joe could basically do whatever the hell else he wanted, but dinner at five thirty was written in stone at the Klug house. So one day Joe and I were hanging around the foosball house, playing foosball, listening to music. At a quarter after five, Joe made sure everyone saw him leave. But instead of going home, he just went and waited below the guy’s bedroom window, as I’d instructed. A little while later, I acted like I was going to the bathroom but actually slipped down the hall into the bedroom, where I grabbed the mescaline and dropped it out the window to where Joe was waiting. I’d told him, “Don’t try to catch it, just let it hit the ground, then pick it up and run like hell back home.”
After that, I went to the bathroom and then went back and started playing foosball again. Eventually the guy who lived there went back to his bedroom and realized that his mescaline was gone. I acted like I was just as stunned as he was and actually helped him search everyone who was there. Of course, he couldn’t find drugs on anyone. Later I went over to Joe’s, where we split the haul. I was pretty proud of myself: I remember telling Joe, “I can out-hood the hoods.”
The craziest part of it all is that when that guy needed to buy more mescaline because he had all these people wanting it, I told him, “I know someone who might be able to sell you some.” But I wanted to get him desperate so that I could jack up the price, so I made him wait awhile. Then I had a friend sell the mescaline right back to him. I never got caught, and the guy was killed in a car accident twenty years later, so it’s safe to say I’m off the hook on that one.
But at the same time all that was going on, I secretly wanted to be an actor, and a plan started taking shape in my mind. I had seen movies like Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Deer Hunter. I had read a book about James Dean and a biography of Montgomery Clift that made me even more fascinated by the prospect of pursuing an acting career. It was really Taxi Driver that did it, though: my dad and Uncle Barry took me to see it when I was thirteen, and halfway through, my dad whispered to my uncle, “We shouldn’t have brought Tommy to this.” But I didn’t agree. The movie blew me away. I’ve now seen it more than thirty times. And there was something about the alienation and beauty of actors like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean that captivated me. Still, it was more than reverence that I had for them: I somehow already identified with them and saw myself as being at their level. It’s hard to explain how this was true, but basically, my life had always felt heightened to a degree—even as a kid my life felt very dramatic, and because I was sort of simultaneously wild but very together, I knew people gossiped about me. And I had a sort of anger that I didn’t know what to do with, and acting felt like it could be a way I could creatively channel it.
My high school girlfriend actually coerced me into trying out for a play, and I thought I’d be teased to death for it. But I wasn’t, and from there I started singing tenor in musicals staged by local theater groups: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, HMS Pinafore, and The Music Man. I didn’t get the lead in The Music Man and was just in the chorus—I played a salesman in the opening train scene and also a townsperson—but the director, halfway through the rehearsal process, said, “I should have given you the lead.” I said, “Yeah, you should have; the lead isn’t any good.” I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s like a light had gone on in me by that point: I’d found my calling. The summer after that, I played Conrad Birdie in a Grosse Pointe Players production of Bye Bye Birdie, which was a big deal in Detroit and gave me a great deal of confidence. Of course, my decision to be an actor was not a popular one with my parents. But at the same time, I was still kind of wild, and they were happy I’d found something I wanted to do. Also, eventually my dad appreciated the amount of reading that a serious theater student had to do, and he always maintained that if I didn’t succeed as an actor, I would nonetheless receive a great education.
I didn’t exactly spread it around that I had acting ambitions, though. This was Detroit, and acting wasn’t a “man’s job.” Besides, I had connections at General Motors, so to speak, not at Paramount, so I knew that it wouldn’t, on a certain level, sound remotely realistic to anyone else. And back then I was interested in being the wonder boy—the straight-A student and athlete—and I really was for a long time. I made everybody feel better. I came from a background where I had a lot of environmental and societal pressures, but I handled it all well. Until, of course, I didn’t.
But that was much, much later.