Daniel Baldwin and The Wisdom to Know the Difference

By John Lavitt 05/20/16

The Fix Q&A with actor Daniel Baldwin—on the importance of being of service, drugs, and why his 10th rehab stay finally worked.

Daniel Baldwin drugs
via Wisdom Feature Film/Facebook

An American actor, director and writer, Daniel Baldwin is the second eldest of the four Baldwin brothers. Baldwin is best known for his role as Detective Beau Felton in the popular NBC TV series Homicide: Life on the Street. Beyond his extensive television work, Daniel has starred in numerous movies, including Mulholland Falls (1996), Vampires (1998), Paparazzi (2004), and Grey Gardens (2009) for HBO. Baldwin also has participated in numerous reality shows, including Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Celebrity Big Brother, and Celebrity Wife Swap.

Daniel began battling an addiction to smoking crack in 1989. In 1998, he was found running naked through the halls of New York's Plaza Hotel and was subsequently arrested for possession. For years, he vacillated back and forth between sobriety and relapse, with nine stints at different rehabs. In 2006, Daniel found a path of sustainable recovery at the SOBA Recovery Center. With the support of SOBA Recovery CEO Greg Hannley, Daniel wrote, directed and co-starred in The Wisdom to Know the Difference, a film that was acclaimed as the "Best Recovery Film of All Time” by The New York Times. The Fix is honored to have the opportunity to speak with Daniel about his journey. 

According to your sister Beth, you were the troublemaker of the family and often received attention from your strict disciplinarian father, a high school history teacher and the head football coach at Massapequa High School. Were you really the troublemaker? 

She’s always been a liar, that woman (laughing). In truth, yes, for sure. My brother Billy summarized it best when he threw me under the bus on the Oprah Winfrey show. Oprah asked, “My goodness, what was it like to have Thanksgiving at that house with all those kids and all those big personalities?” Billy proceeded to say, and I quote, “Well, Oprah, there were two tables at our house on Thanksgiving. There was the table that I ate at with almost everybody else.” Oprah said, “Really? Why was that?” Billy smiled, “That table was for accused felons.” Oprah started to laugh and the audience started to laugh, then Billy said, “And then there was Daniel’s table that he ate at all alone.” And Oprah said, “What table was that?” And he said, “Convicted felons!” (Laughing) There you have it.

As the second eldest, after Alec, of the four brothers in the Baldwin family, did you help lead the way early on when it came to acting? Do you think that acting led to or contributed to your addiction? When and how did your addiction start?

First of all, let me straighten something out. I’m number three of the siblings because Beth is the oldest. I’m number two of the boys because Alec is older than I, but I’m definitely number one in your hearts. And if you think I’ve never used that line before, you’re crazy. 

You know, I never drank very much, and I think this was a gift. At 13 years old, the first time I ever drank alcohol was with the much older kids. They would send me and this other kid to the deli to go buy them beer. We were 13 and they were like 20, on the golf course near my house drinking. They would throw us money to go get them beer. Now this was 1973. When someone throws you ten bucks when you’re 13, that was more money than my father made in an hour. I would gladly run the half mile to the deli and buy them the case of beer and lug it all the way back to the golf course. One day, they asked us to drink with them. I remember shotgunning two beers—shaking them up, then opening them and ingesting the beer really rapidly. I remember that night I laid in my bunk bed, and I was so sick. I was vomiting and the room was spinning, and it was terrible. I remember saying to myself, “Why would anyone want to feel like this? I feel so bad right now, and I never want to ever feel this way again.” At that point, I hated the idea of drinking, and I took that as a blessing. I was never a drinker.

Like any other kid, I smoked pot in my teens a few times. Later on, I tried cocaine, sniffing it, but I can specifically remember the day I threw myself into the addiction arena. I was at a party at a very famous singer’s house. When I went in the front door, everyone in there had these little glass pipes. This girl took me by the hand and delivered one of the greatest opening lines I have ever heard in my life. She said, “How are you doing, baby? Tell me what magazine cover you just jumped off of to come visit Miss Penny?” And I thought, man, there’s a killer line right there. 

I proceeded to walk into the bathroom with this girl, and she opened up one of those plastic film containers and dumped the contents onto the countertop of the sink. She took this white rock out and put it in the pipe. She proceeded to light it, and I watched closely as she smoked it. When I saw that it was white, and the white smoke, I thought, “That must be cocaine. This must be freebasing cocaine.” I took the pipe and put a piece into it that apparently was way too big. She said, “No, no, no! Don’t put that much in!” I smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it.” I fired it up and I remember exhaling it and I had to hold the counter with my hands. It so overwhelmed me, the sensation of the cocaine going through my system via my lungs. I remember how high I got, and I thought to myself, “Wow! Does it get any better than this?” It was such a rush. Addiction experts say that you’ll find your medicine if you’re an addict. I had truly found my medicine, so much so that six months after I first used it that night, I was in rehab. 

From 1993 to 1995, you played Detective Beau Felton on the critically-acclaimed television series, Homicide: Life on the Street. That part arguably was your greatest success as an actor, and you even said,Homicide is the best material I've had the chance to do.” The show went on for six seasons, but you left after season three despite the popularity of your character. Why is that? Did your ongoing battle with addiction contribute to this decision?

No, that’s not what happened. The show was great. There were a couple of factors involved. My addiction was not the issue for me. I had a meeting with Tom Fontana (the creator of the show). Traditionally in television, you have a five-year deal. Today, they usually do a seven-year TV deal. When you go into season four, the show traditionally qualifies for syndication. When the show goes into syndication, they usually in good faith come back to you and renegotiate. Tom specifically called me and sat me down in a meeting to tell me, “We’re not renegotiating with anybody.” I said, “That’s really not fair, particularly to Ned Beatty and myself.” For Andre Braugher and a lot of the other guys on the show, this was the biggest thing that they’d ever done at that point in their careers. Don’t get me wrong! I was very grateful to have gotten the part on Homicide, but I already had done multiple TV series, I had already done a lot of movies, and my last name didn’t hurt me either. When it came time to do The Tonight Show, it was Ned Beatty or I. When it came time to do the press campaigns and to come to New York to do the upfronts, it was me and Ned Beatty—and mostly me, actually. I said to him, "That’s really not fair." 

I took a dramatic pay cut to do this show because I believed in it. But now you’re telling me that you and Barry Levinson and all the other powers-that-be that own the show are going to collect great amounts of money to put it into syndication, and you’re not going to share traditionally what you promised everyone you would do. You told us all in the beginning to take less money so the show can get going. Now we never did huge numbers, but we certainly were the most critically-acclaimed show on television at the time. I didn’t feel like being in Baltimore for another eight months on a show where I had to be there all the time. Even though I was in every episode, I would only have a story line every third or fourth episode, and that was fine with me. And that was the first thing that troubled me because I had to be there, but I wasn’t going to be paid what I should have been paid.

The second thing that troubled me was about my character, Detective Beau Felton. He was an alcoholic on the show, and this was more than implied. His wife left him and he needed help. He was in the bar all the time, but then he cleaned himself up some and things were getting better at the end of the third season. At the beginning of season four, the opening scene showed Beau back drinking in the bar. Two of the other detectives come up to him to talk about his drinking. My response to the producer was, why are we going back? Make Beau Felton a sexual deviant or give him some other problem, but don’t go backwards. I want the character to grow. Let him go and have an affair with Kate Howard—Melissa Leo’s character—or anything new. But to go back and have him drinking again when I was getting sober at the time, I found to be counterproductive for me. The whole experience of going on an arc and having an adventure with this character was lost, and I thought it was a lack of imagination on their part. They said, “No, this is what we’re going to do with your storyline.” I said, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to portray someone who’s an alcoholic, who’s had my problems already in his personal life, that’s trying to move forward, but just doing the same thing over again.” Sadly, Tom didn’t see the value in that. He said, “Well, would you prefer that we write you out of the show?” I said, “Go ahead and write me out.” 

After your first stint in recovery, you relapsed in 2005 when an old back injury got you hooked on prescription meds while filming Celebrity Fit Club. Do doctors prescribe prescription painkillers too readily to actors and celebrities? Is that a real problem in terms of easy access?

Yes, particularly when the pharmaceutical companies are the one making the biggest contributions to campaigns and have the biggest lobbyists on Capitol Hill. We’ve got a game going on here. I think that there’s been a number of celebrities that have had their problems with pharmaceutical drugs front and center. Since they are celebrities and because of what they do, it’s become known to the public. 

For many years now, I’ve been involved with the SOBA Recovery Center that’s owned by Greg Hannley, who’s a very dear friend of mine. He was instrumental in saving my life and helping to get me sober. As a service to them and as a service to my sobriety, I try to give back on a regular basis. I show up there and help people with similar problems. As you know, this is not exclusive to celebrities. This prescription painkiller problem we have now is the direct link to the terrible heroin epidemic that is going on with our children in this country. 

Heroin has made a huge comeback, and the stereotypical scenario, nine and a half times out of ten, the mother or father had some kind of injury that brought the pills into the house. They took some kind of opiate-based prescription. The kids end up getting their hands on it and getting hooked. When the kids can no longer afford to buy pills on the black market or there’s nothing left to steal from their parents, they jump to heroin despite saying that, "I’ll never ever use heroin." In truth, they’re all on heroin. Heroin is in every high school in America right now. Believe it or not, and this statistic is mind-boggling, it’s easier for a teenager to buy heroin than it is for them to get alcohol. Yes, easier. 

When you were arrested in July 2006 for running a red light in Los Angeles, then crashing into two parked cars while going 80 mph, did you feel that you finally hit rock bottom? Can you describe that night for us and what led up to that moment of realization that it was time to stop? 

Well, I was detained, but I was never arrested at that time, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Fear is a core emotion. When you hear a weird crackling on the side of your house and maybe an unexpected voice, you’re supposed to be afraid. No one’s supposed to be lurking on the side of your house, and that’s a healthy fear. Fear is a necessity in our lives. I had never had a fear of my addiction or a fear of the drug, but in the last go-arounds when I was using, I was using at such extreme levels that I started experiencing pain in my left arm and other signs that tell us from a medical perspective that you’re pre-cardiac arrest. 

I never had thought that I was going to die before. I had thought that I could die as a result of the other things that happen when you’re using, like driving, or whatever else might happen. But I never really had a fear of the drug. At that point, I developed a very healthy fear of what was going to happen if I continued to use at the level I was at. It was at that point that I said to myself that I really have to dedicate and take the time to try to beat this now, or I’m not going to make it. I had a fear of the drug and a fear of death. That was the most prevalent reason why things changed. No arrests or detainments or negative career ramifications really bothered me. I was too much of an addict to really see those things clearly. When it came to the point of not wanting to die in a hotel room from a cocaine-induced heart attack, that’s when I decided that I wanted to get sober.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.