Rehab's Tough Guy
For the sixth season, Will Smith is keeping Dr. Drew's patients in line. But his own life story is far wilder than anything you've seen on TV.
Most people know Will Smith as the imposing resident technician on Celebrity Rehab—a subdued, if firm, presence to balance out the relative hysteria of the women on staff. But for all his seeming serenity, Smith’s former life could put a lot of the former Rehab residents’ better-publicized exploits to shame. A former stuntman who worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, Smith’s career suffered a head-on collision when he began using cocaine at the age of 17. He ended up working for a drug cartel for the better part of 20 years, running the South America leg of the business.
Thirty convictions later, Smith found himself in front of a judge facing a 15-year prison stint. When he was sentenced to county jail and mandatory rehab instead, Smith made good on his final chance and has now been sober for well over eight years. Now roughly halfway through the first non-celebrity season of Rehab, Smith spoke to The Fix about growing up a Hollywood kid, nearly killing a woman by accident and his first days of looking for work after prison.
Was it easier to work with a group of people who aren’t celebrities or do the same issues come up?
They all have the same issues. Some of the celebrities on the previous shows were narcissistic or self-entitled because of the level of fame they once had. But more than half of them were completely humbled and knocked to their knees by the disease. And they realized the show was a chance to prove to producers and directors around town that they were doing something to correct their past.
This cast is a very young and diverse group. You don't find two people with similar backgrounds: there’s everyone from a rapper who grew up around gangs and prostitution to a detective’s son who grew up middle class. We have a guy who was going to go to the Olympics for martial arts and lost everything because of his opiate use in just a couple of years. But these kids hit the lottery when they got the call to appear on the show because they were financially strapped and couldn’t have afforded treatment without this.
I don’t know of any other rehab that puts in more effort than we do. VH1 truly cares about the people who are on this show.
Who are some of your favorite cast members from previous seasons?
Most of the people that came through were a pleasure to work with. Mackenzie Phillips has a heart of gold and it was an honor to meet her. Jennie Ketcham had an incredible amount of self-belief. Brigitte Nielsen was a very classy lady. Jeff Conaway reminded me of my dad [cult 60’s-70’s actor William Smith Sr.]’s friends and had that same show business sense of humor I grew up with. And I would be in awe of some of the big athletes, like Dennis Rodman, that came through.
Especially with the recent deaths of Joey Kovar and Rodney King, many people feel that Celebrity Rehab was exploitative and manipulative towards its cast members. What are your thoughts on that backlash?
It’s not exploitative or manipulative. Obviously the editors picked the best hours of all the footage and of course there are going to be fights or someone pacing in a circle and smoking cigarettes. But there’s nothing that the producers did to instigate controversy.
The other thing people need to realize is that while the treatment the cast members get is a very condensed rehab, I don’t know of any other rehab that puts in more effort than we do. VH1 truly cares about the people who are on this show. It’s not just 21 days of getting their faces out there and then they’re on a plane home. We make sure the cast members don’t have tendencies to harm themselves or others before going on the show and if they do, the network pays for them to get treatment to address that off-camera. Dr. Drew and Dr. Sharp implemented an incredible treatment plan and six-month aftercare plan that VH1 pays for. Sober Living, therapists, whatever they need, VH1 foots the bill. But we can’t control what people choose to do with that opportunity.
Speaking of opportunities, you had a number of them growing up in the entertainment world.
Yes. My father started working in London with Nigel Patrick on Zero One and Asphalt Jungle, and then did a bunch of other shows. He was even offered the role of Tarzan in 1967: they offered him $1 million to do the show for one year in Africa but he turned it down because his agent didn’t want him characterized as Tarzan since it might mean not getting any serious roles. And I’ve done a lot of TV as well and worked as a stuntman for a bunch of movies. When I was 11, I played a young Evil Knievel alongside George Hamilton.
When did you first get into drugs?
I got into a motorcycle accident when I was 17 and while my leg was trying to heal, I did my first line of cocaine. All of my stunt idols and people in the industry were offering it to me. I started drinking heavily shortly after that and was immediately getting into fights at bars. But I’m not blaming the people who gave me drugs for my addiction. If it weren’t for them, I would have found some other way to get a hold of it.
It seems like being a stuntman is the last profession that you could do while you’re high.
You’d be surprised. I remember when one of the guys who was the best in the business—he did stunts for Starsky and Hutch—did a tuck and roll over the hood of a car. He had his cocaine dealer four blocks away so he purposely made it a one-taker. He could barely walk—he fractured his shin—but he made it over there to score. Were you a functioning addict?
For a little while yes but I was a bad addict in that there was no stop button and no common sense. When you do cocaine, you feel wonderful. You think, “Why should I feel wonderful on Saturday and horrible the other six days of the week?” Then you do it to justify the feelings in your head. You do it when you’re upset, you do it when you’re bored. It blows the ego out.
Eventually, it got in the way of my work. Charles Bronson reached out to me one day to help him do a big fight scene in a movie theater. He told me to call the office and we’d start the next day. I got so loaded that night and was in such a bad state that I never called him. A year later, I ran into him again and he made me an offer to work on another movie and the same thing happened: I went out until 5:00am drinking, doing coke and benzos, and never made it to the shoot.
When did your drug use start to truly get out of control?
There are a lot of examples. There was one day I was in my apartment, smoking heroin and spinning a gun around. I fired off a bullet by accident and this huge hole went through the floor, shredding wood and smoke everywhere. I raced downstairs [to my neighbor’s apartment] and saw that the bullet was sitting where she usually rested her head so I flipped the pillow and moved it over to the other side of the couch.
But the biggest example was when I started working for a drug cartel through a limousine service. I went to a party, met some of the guys and started doing small little runs on the American side of the border. Then I went down to South America and was laundering money, learning how the business was run. I worked for them for 18 years.
I was able to live really well. Ninety percent of the money wasn’t mine but they would get me anything I needed: I had all the drugs I wanted, girls, and a four-story penthouse with an acre of land. I’d go out on my terrace and look at the traffic with everyone going to work and think, “These poor suckers.” But when I got sober, I realized that I was actually terrified of having to show up and do what those “suckers” did—to work hard. I was jealous and scared because I knew I couldn’t do it.
What ended up convincing you to get sober?
When I was arrested on my fourth conviction—on November 4th, 2003—I was being charged with two counts of transportation and two counts of sales. I’d already been convicted of a felony with a firearm and sales and multiple possessions when I was younger. The DA offered me a bargain sentence of 15 years. Everyone I knew was going to be dead by that point and I couldn’t imagine the kind of addict I would be coming out in 15 years considering where I was then. The judge decided that recovery was the best option for me, though, and gave me a two-year sentence in a county jail, with about 18 months in a recovery program after. It truly was a miracle.
What was starting over like once you got out of jail?
The DA had seized my house and five vehicles. I had no income and went from 225 pounds when I got arrested to 290 after leaving prison. I had to look for a job with 30 days of sobriety and 30 convictions to my name. That first day of looking for work, it was 115 degrees out and I literally had nothing on me. I said to God, “If you think I’m gonna quit because I can’t afford my Sober Living, you’re wrong. I’ll die, but I’ll die sober.”
Eventually, a tow truck company hired me for $6.75 an hour, all under the table, working 90 hours a week. Within nine months, I was a dispatcher and running almost every truck they had, and staying at a Sober Living house for $450 a month. Eventually, I came to Pasadena Recovery Center, asked for a job and have been here ever since.
How did your time on the Celebrity Rehab franchise come about?
Dr. Drew asked me personally but I had to think twice about it. I was trying to get away from studios and the industry in general but was also worried about the guys I worked for in the drug cartel finding me. I was afraid they were going to hunt me down—not to kill me but to ask me to work for them again. And I was weak so I didn’t want that to even be an option. That was a real fear for the first three seasons of the show but eventually that worry went away.
What advice would you give to people in recovery or looking to get sober?
The biggest thing to do first is to get out of yourself for 30 seconds. Think about the fact that you found a solution to your problems. Then it’s simply a matter of doing the steps and getting a sponsor. I’ve also found that helping others by going to meetings is the elixir. When you’re sober early on, you’re doing things for no reason other than that you’re scared to revert back to old ways if you don’t. The process of sobriety takes time and keeps getting better. Life does not necessarily change when you get sober. You’ll find yourself in situations but what changes is how you view them.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.