Hollywood, Addiction and Recovery - An Insider's View
Norman Stephens produced such recovery-focused movies as My Name is Bill W and My Name is Sarah. He tells The Fix about his interest in portraying recovery, and how Hollywood's attitudes about addiction have changed over the last few decades.
Norman Stephens has been a film and TV producer for more than 25 years. He shepherded the TV movie My Name Is Bill W. about the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he has witnessed the evolution of the entertainment industry’s perspective towards addiction. Although he has never had a problem with substance abuse himself, he has maintained a career-long interest in addiction and recovery-related stories. In this interview with The Fix, Stephens shares his observations of the inner workings of Hollywood through the 1970s and 1980s and his involvement in encouraging a more positive social role for entertainment.
What was the genesis of My Name is Bill W and what difficulties did you face in the development process?
Norman Stephens: Pete Duchow, the producer, had been a friend of both Bill Wilson and James Garner. Together, they had a production company at Warner Bros., and we had them exclusively for the development and production of television movies and miniseries. My Name is Bill W. was their pet project. We were working with the Hallmark Hall of Fame people and the movie that preceded My Name Is Bill W. was Promise about schizophrenia that also starred Jimmy Woods and James Garner. We commissioned several scripts but none of them worked out. This is a time when we were making anywhere from 12 to 15 television movies a year, and the big three networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, had weekly movie nights for new programming. Still, despite the quality of the writers, we couldn’t get a quality script.
It’s important for people to know how good life can be once you free yourself from the cage of being an addict.
And then one day, Pete Duchow walked into my office at Warner Bros. and dropped an envelope on my desk and said, “Norman, I want you to read this tonight.” It was a spec script and the writer was an advertising executive in New York named William Borchert. The script was registered with the Writers Guild, and Pete tracked Borchert down and met him in New York City the next day. I went with Pete.
The script was great, but it was 145 pages long. To make room for the commercials, a TV movie script can’t be longer than 85 to 90 pages. The script included a lot about Lois Wilson and the early days of Al-Anon for families of alcoholics. William Borchert was the designated biographer of Lois Wilson and later wrote her biography that was turned into another television movie in 2010 for the Hallmark Hall of Fame called When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story. I was not part of [that production].
In New York, Pete and I met with Bill Borchert in a room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. We sat down with him and went through the necessary cuts that mostly had to do with Lois Wilson and the birth of the Al-Anon movement. I will never forget as we went through the script the powerful reaction of Bill Borchert. With tears in his eyes, he asked, “But why can’t we make the whole movie?” And I had to tell him that it just wasn’t possible and we just didn’t have a market for it. I told him he wasn’t a known writer or a known commodity, but would he please help us edit the script down to size. Let’s turn this script he had in a drawer for years into a movie that people could see and experience. I convinced him that as a TV movie, the story would be guaranteed to reach a wide audience without running the risk of failure as a feature film. Bill agreed, and we finally got it down to the wonderful script that was ultimately shot and took it from there.
How did the production go?
We already had James Garner. We went right back to our friend Jimmy Woods and he had just won the Emmy award for Promise so he came on board. I had a relationship with Jobeth Williams, and she agreed to play Lois Wilson. The last piece of the puzzle was getting the director Dan Petrie who had done the original four-hour version of Sybil with Sally Fields and Joanne Woodward. Then we got Gary Sinise as well to play Bill Wilson’s friend Ebby Thacher.
We shot the movie in and around Richmond, Virginia with little or no interference. We were all accepted pros in the business so they let us do our thing. There was universal support from all the parties involved, and the stars couldn’t have been more into the project.
It was a wonderful movie that did very well for Hallmark, and they still have the poster up in their corporate headquarters in Kansas City. It became one of the most-watched TV movies of all time because so many people have been impacted by alcoholism. It was a truly rewarding experience to be a part of it, and I still have the poster for the movie up in my office as well.
Did you get any resistance from AA members in regards to this film?
None whatsoever. When I made that same query to Pete Duchow and Bill Borchert, I was told the policy of AA was simply not to interfere one way or the other. AA would not give any advice on a film project, but they wouldn’t criticize it either.
You would go to a Hollywood party and there would be a bowl of cocaine on the coffee table right next to the bowl of peanuts.
Whenever I run into someone who is a friend of Bill W.’s, they always seem to say, “Oh my God, you were involved with that movie. I have seen it ten times and I have a worn-out pirated DVD of the film that has been passed around meetings for years.” Mind you, pirating hurts the industry, and you don’t have to pirate the movie because I understand from the Hallmark people that they still sell a lot of DVDs of the film online and it is available to buy on websites like Amazon. In terms of resistance to the movie before, during or after production, we never had any problems with members of Alcoholics Anonymous or conflicts about the issue of anonymity. Plus this is not the only film I have made where AA meetings were represented.
You mention that this was not the only film you have done where AA meetings were represented. You were the Executive Producer of a Lifetime movie called My Name Is Sarah.
My Name Is Sarah began when the writer Julie Brazier, driving her daughter back and forth to ballet classes, passed a church that always at that hour had people pouring into it. She wondered what was going on, maybe a bible study, [so] she asked a friend who attended the church what was going on. Her friend then confessed to her that she was a recovering alcoholic and the gatherings were AA meetings. [Julie] was surprised; she knew nothing about AA because all of her family [members] were non-drinkers. [The friend] invited Julie to attend several meetings, and the idea for the movie was born.
Inspired, she sat down and wrote a story about a middle-aged woman who returns to her tiny apartment after her best friend’s funeral. All alone, she fixes herself a meager meal and pours herself a glass of wine. As she eats, she looks out the window at the church across the street. She sees people entering the church, and a handsome man catches her interest. By coincidence, she bumps into the same man in a grocery store, and he’s kind to her. When she sees him at the church again, she decides to take a chance. She goes in and sits next to him. Discovering it’s an AA meeting, she pretends to be a recovering alcoholic. Naturally, they develop a romantic relationship.
Later, she’s forced to admit to him that she’s not an alcoholic and she went to the meetings because she liked him. He drops her like a hot potato, and they are miserable. Then she shows up at the meeting and when the group is asked if anyone had anything to share says, “My name is Sarah and I’m not an alcoholic.” She apologizes for violating their trust. She says, “I am so sorry for betraying this man because I love him and I hope he can find it in his heart to give me a second chance.” Of course, our movie ends with their wedding.
But you can see how this film could be controversial with AA members. Did anybody ever approach you and discuss the potential problems of making films about recovery-related issues?
Not at all. We never had anything like that. It was made as a low-budget Lifetime movie that did quite well and ended up winning a Prism Award for movies that deal with important social issues. There was never any backlash whatsoever. Neither I nor the studios involved ever received a letter in regards to either My Name Is Bill W. or My Name Is Sarah that made an issue of portraying Alcoholics Anonymous or scenes with meetings in them. I have no recollection of anything controversial or even slightly critical in that regards.
You have never been directly involved with recovery because you have never had a problem with drugs and alcohol?
I personally have never had an issue with alcohol or drugs, but I have experienced first-hand alcoholism in my family. My father certainly by any definition would have been considered an alcoholic. I grew up the classic only boy with an alcoholic father and became the functioning male adult in my family at a very early age. Through his church, people encouraged him to go to AA, but he never did. He never gave any acknowledgement that he had a problem. And so I have always been interested in alcoholism in families and people who dealt with such abuse in their lives.
I am a very happy casual drinker. I enjoy a Martini a couple of times a week with dinner, but I certainly have never had any issues with either drugs or alcohol. My experimentation with drugs as a child of the sixties is almost embarrassingly limited.
Being in Hollywood since the late 70s, you have experienced first-hand the changes in the industry’s perspective on addiction and recovery. What was it like when you first got out to Hollywood?
When I graduated Princeton in 1964, I had never personally witnessed anyone smoking pot. I never experienced a wide use of drugs until I was drafted into the army. I spent most of 1968 in Vietnam and that’s where a lot of drugs were being used. I didn’t use drugs in Vietnam because I had a top secret security clearance. The number one way to lose your top secret security clearance and wind up on the front lines with a life expectancy of about 48 hours was to be caught with drugs. Before coming to Los Angeles, I never had that much experience with drugs.
When I arrived in Hollywood in about 1977, I had just gone through a divorce so I was back on the dating scene. I was available to go to parties. Before moving to Hollywood, I was living in New York, the home of the two or three Martini lunch. When I got out to Hollywood, I found out that because of all the time that people spend in cars, there wasn’t a lot of drinking going on at lunchtime. But there was a lot of drinking at night and the open use of drugs.
You would go to a Hollywood party and there would be a bowl of cocaine on the coffee table right next to the bowl of peanuts. This was also the age of the Quaalude, which in those days were known as disco biscuits. I would take a date to a disco and people would literally have pockets full of Quaaludes and pass them out like breath mints. In that regard, it was a truly new experience for me.
As the entertainment industry became more corporate in the 1980s, did tolerance of drug and alcohol abuse shift?
There seemed to be a real shift first when it came to drinking. You just didn’t see anyone in the business have a drink either at lunch or even in the evenings. You might have a glass of wine with dinner, but that was about it. I don’t ever remember seeing executives or agents getting even mildly intoxicated. Nobody in the business was ever hammered in public. You just didn’t see it because there was a real stigma at that time. The last thing you wanted to do was have a couple of Martinis at Le Dome restaurant, even at dinner, because the next day everyone would be saying things like, “Wow! That Norm Stephens was really downing those drinks the other night.”
There was a major backlash to the craziness of the late 70s. I can honestly say that during my Warner days from 1985 to 1995, I didn’t see a whole lot of drinking going on. Maybe you would pop down to Ensenada on the weekend and have a few margaritas with your girlfriend, but that was about it. It wasn’t a regular part of your social life if you wanted to keep your reputation intact.
When you ask if the change was due to the entertainment industry becoming more corporate, I think that’s exactly what happened. It was not cool to do drugs. What became the new drug of Hollywood in the late 1980s to the early 1990s was money. Everybody wanted to get rich. They were much more interested in getting a big fat bonus than they were in getting high or getting stoned.
Anything that could be perceived as a career blocker that would keep you from moving up the corporate ladder was avoided like the plague. We all know the classic stories about famous successes in Hollywood who were big drug users and alcoholics. But they were the exception to the rule and many of them paid for their addictions by sacrificing their careers and too often their lives. What is sad is how many we don’t know about because they slipped between the cracks, and I have a feeling there were quite a lot of them and still are.
In 1994, I actually was working for you at Village Roadshow Pictures. Did you suspect that I had a drug problem?
I had no concept about that at all. If I had discovered it or if you had confided in me, I think my instinct would have been to give you kind of big brother advice about it. I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was a reason to punish you. I wouldn’t have seen that as my role. How sad it is to be having this conversation after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It feels like it’s as easy as it has ever been for someone to fall through the cracks if addiction takes hold and you just can’t reach out for help. Back then, without you asking for help, I had no idea that you needed it.
Last summer you co-created and produced a play with the Nevada Shakespeare Company called Voices In The Life that presented a series of real-life monologues, shedding light on the history of prostitution in Nevada. How much of a role did drugs and alcohol play in those stories?
Since Nevada is known for legal prostitution, I had done research for a movie project for Lifetime about trafficked girls in Las Vegas. The subject was too tough for Lifetime but the writer, Richard Friedenberg (who received an Emmy for Promise), and I had done tons of interviews with legal working prostitutes in brothels, with upscale madams and pimps running girls on the streets, with street walkers and cab drivers and Johns. We had all of these monologues recorded with permission to use the material as long as it was used anonymously.
Almost every one of the girls and all of the trafficked girls—many who were as young as 12 or 13 at the start—got involved in prostitution by being controlled with alcohol and drugs. The common story was the girl at the mall with her friends approached by a couple of guys who offered to take them to a party. They took them to a party and gave them what often were their first drinks while telling them how pretty and wonderful they were and how much they liked them.
The next day they bought them clothes and took them out for what seemed like a fancy meal. You realize most of these girls come from broken homes and dicey living conditions. They would tell the girls they were going to Vegas and asked if they wanted to come along. Once they got the girls feeling safe, once the girls felt comfortable, that’s when they started hitting them up with the hard stuff. Cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and boom, they were addicted. The way they got the girls to prostitute themselves was the threat of cutting off the drug supply. These girls had no way to buy it themselves, and they were completely isolated. You want your hit of meth tonight, you want your shot of heroin, you better go out there and turn as many tricks as you can.
Most of these young girls were addicted very early and the side effect was they had a very short life of attractiveness. The combination of drugs and selling their bodies burned them out very quickly. By the time they were 21, they were already physically broken down. They went from making a lot of money to being girls on the street, subject to all types of abuse. Whether the girls we interviewed were 30 or 40 years old or whether they were 15 or 16, drugs and alcohol were the dominating part of their lives as prostitutes.
Is that why you decided to do a second installment of Voices In The Life that focuses exclusively on addiction and recovery next year?
Yes, it was a huge success the first time around, and this format gives access to a lot of people in the community and a voice to issues that need to be heard. Next year, we are going to do Voices In The Life of Addiction and Recovery. We have just started, and people are coming out of the woodwork to offer their stories. What is important is we want to hear the recovery side as well as the dark stories about addiction. It’s important for people to know how good life can be once you free yourself from the cage of being an addict.
Back in my Warner Brothers days, I would tell the networks, “You can never go wrong if you do a movie that strikes terror in the hearts of parents.” The goal is to create a dialogue about addiction and recovery. If you get people talking in a positive way, I have found that it leads to progress. I have always believed that using creative stories in film, theater and particularly television has been my way of bringing these issues into the public consciousness. By creating dialogue, I know I have helped to save some people along the way, and that has made it worth all the effort involved.
John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about treatment for Hepatitis C.