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.

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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.

It wasn’t until your tenth rehab and meeting Greg Hannley and SOBA, that you finally got sober. Unlike the previous nine, this attempt worked, and you’ve been sober ever since. What changed and what was different about that experience?

The direct correlation for the SOBA Recovery Center is strictly a mathematical equation, and I’ll tell you what I mean by that. There is a direct link between long-term sobriety and length of stay. The numbers support the reality that 28 days is not enough for the vast majority of people to get sober. Only 3 out of 100 people that go into the stereotypical insurance-covered 28-day recovery program stay sober for one year or more. Only 3 out of 100. That includes the luxury rehabs you pay $100,000 a month for, and all the beautiful things that come with that price tag, like the yoga package and the equine therapy and blah, blah, blah, blah. Now, if you go to 90 days, that number goes up to like 15 or 18 percent. If you go for six months, the number catapults to 65 percent. Now, granted, that’s to stay sober for a year or more—so, if you’re in a recovery place for six months, six months is already covered. If you relapse, they’re going to know because they’re urine testing you and they’re going to kick you out. 

For the people who go into Greg’s program at the SOBA Recovery Center and stay for six months to a year, it’s like 78 percent. Many of these are people who are maintaining their sobriety for the rest of their lives. I always give this football analogy. When you watch a guy catch a ball in the Super Bowl with two toes barely in bounds, his arms stretched out over the out-of-bounds marker and the defender’s hand is six inches from the ball, imagine how perfect the throw is by the quarterback. Do you know how many times a quarterback has to throw the ball in practice in order to have that kind of timing and accuracy with that receiver, to throw a ball downfield within two inches of an incompletion? He had to throw it at least ten thousand times. If you really want to stay sober for the rest of your life, then you dedicate yourself exclusively to your sobriety, and you stay in a program of action and recovery for a great length of time. Those people who do that are the people who win by staying sober for a long time. That’s not to stay that you can’t stay sober by staying at a rehab for 28 days. Three out of 100 do. 

There’s one last thing I want to say. Unlike the other nine rehabs that I went to—and I went to some of the biggest ones—the SOBA Recovery Center allowed their treatment to continue to evolve. In most cases, the using of the alcohol or the drugs is a byproduct of an underlying problem. There’s a trauma or a past abuse behind the addiction. You need to get to the bottom of that issue as well. You’re not going to be able to do that in a 28-day program, when it takes a week to 10 days to just detox or normalize. After 20 days, you might be able to sit down and tell some therapist you’ve never met before in your life, the deep, dark secrets that are causing you to abuse narcotics or alcohol or other drugs to the point of addiction, where you need to go to rehab. But you won’t have time to even get through the initial layers. 

That said, that’s what happened for me at Greg’s place—time for the unpeeling of the onion. It changed because there was time for more things to become apparent. As I started sharing them with a therapist, my therapy then changed. It wasn’t one-size-fits-all, where everyone goes to one group and everyone sees one counselor and all of your assignments are the same. It is a tailored program that varies for each individual and it continued to vary as more layers of that onion were unpeeled. Along with the long-term care, there lies the reason why the SOBA Recovery Center has one of the highest averages of long-term sobriety achieved for the people that go there of any place in the country. 

In terms of your “little love affair with drugs,” you told ABC News, "I was, you know, more articulate and more wonderful and more handsome and more this and more that. And, oh my God, I was a mess.” Today, that mess is years behind you. How were you “better” while you were on drugs and what was the price? What does the freedom of recovery feel like for you? 

I’m older, so like anyone who gets older, my vision gets a little bit eschew. When I made that comment, however, I was blind. Today, I look in the mirror and I realize I’m really not that handsome, and I wasn’t back then, either. That’s become quite apparent to me. All joking aside, I believe I can best describe it by giving you a better analogy. 

I played golf the other day for the first time in about a year. I played with a guy that I’ve known in recovery for quite a while. There were two groups playing, and we were all guys in recovery. My friend asked me how my golf game was before I got there, and I said, “Well, I don’t know how it’s gonna be today, but, at one time, I was pretty good at this game.” I proceeded to take a 7 on the first hole and a 6 on the second hole and an 8 on the third hole. In three holes, I was already 8 over par. 

But then I got it together and I proceeded to par seven holes in a row. I thought to myself, “This is kind of like my life now. I don’t have that many birdies or eagles anymore, but I don’t hit too many 7’s and I don’t hit too many 6’s. I hit a lot of pars.” Think about it. If I could make par on every hole, I would be a professional golfer. That’s not bad hitting pars. It’s a nice, fulfilling life to live a par life. My life now with my children and with my spouse Robin and with the people around me, I’m accountable, I show up on time, I do the things I say I’m going to do, and my life is very, very rich as a result of that. There are pars. I may not birdy a lot of holes anymore, but if I make a par, it means I was putting for birdy, so at least I’m in the game.

Since kicking your cocaine habit, you have embraced the spirituality of the 12-Step program. The first feature film you wrote and directed was called The Wisdom to Know the Difference, a direct quote from the Serenity Prayer. Can you give us a picture of your own Higher Power? Can you describe for us how your spirituality helps you maintain your sobriety?

Sure. For me, I’m a born-again Christian, so Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I do deal with a lot of people who subscribe to what the 12-Step program asks, which is a power greater than ourselves. I don’t preach and I don’t denounce anybody. Whatever you believe in and whatever works for you—whether it’s Buddha, Allah, or anything else that is a power greater than yourself. If you don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that doesn’t matter to me. I can separate the program from my own belief system and respect the freedom of other people to choose their own Higher Power. It does talk about God nine times in 12 Steps, so clearly spirituality is an important part of the program. You obviously need a higher power of some kind. 

For me, it has been so great to learn how to turn people, places and things over to my Higher Power because I have no control over any of that. A common character defect for people in the program when they were out there, is that they were very controlling. You have to be controlling to be a drug addict or an alcoholic because it takes a lot of effort and work to keep the insanity going. I definitely was one of them. I have no control over so many things and I realize that today. 

At the beginning of this interview, John, I was having trouble getting through to the service that you use to record interviews. We both ended up waiting for a while to get it in gear, but I don’t get mad about stuff like that anymore. I just called up my publicist Rachel Madison Hill and trusted that she would take care of it, and she did, like she always does. If it hadn’t had worked out, it would have been okay. Whatever happens, I keep moving forward because my God takes care of me and provides for me everyday. I am so grateful for the gift of knowing that and being able to trust in it. 

Early in your sobriety, you told ABC News, “I believe as a born-again Christian that once you've had a chance to drink from the well, it becomes your responsibility to replenish the well.” It has become a very popular quotation on the Internet. What do you mean by “replenishing the well?” Is that idea related to the 12th Step?

It’s actually more of a personal religious belief, but I believe at varying levels, we all drink from the well in life—the well of opportunity and the well of receiving God’s graces. Let’s face it, however, some people have a lot more than others. If you’ve had a disproportionate opportunity to drink vastly from that well, which I know I have, I believe it becomes my responsibility to replenish the well and make sure that for the others that come after me, the well doesn’t run dry. 

Replenishing does come in part from service and giving, and that part is key to staying sober and is part of the 12th Step. In the 12th Step, it talks about how having had a spiritual awakening, we then reach out to the addict or alcoholic who still suffers. That reaching out and being of service is not just to be giving and to be good to them—it’s also to help me stay sober. By my taking those actions and being of service, it keeps my disease right in front of me and allows me to give away what was so freely given to me when I was in need. It’s the cycle of life. 

As the director, writer and star of the independent feature film, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, you decided to share your experience, strength and hope on an artistic level. Can you describe the process of making the film while telling us what that project meant and continues to mean to you? 

I’ve been in films that have won Academy Awards and shows that have won many, many Emmys. I also have received many awards myself for different reasons involving acting, directing and writing—but to my knowledge, this is the only body of work that I’ve ever done that has been directly responsible for saving the lives of other human beings. There have been people that have seen the movie and gone into recovery. There has been an entire recovery center that has been opened in Texas as a result of my making this film. No matter what accolades I could win as an individual performer, they pale or will pale in comparison to being able to say, “I’ve made a film that’s saved the lives of human beings.” It will always be the highest honor that I could ever imagine. 

Since getting sober, you have become a semi-regular on the celebrity poker circuit, playing a lot of no limit Texas hold ’em. When you witness gambling addicts and problem gamblers at the tables, what do you see? Do you see the correlation between gambling and drug addiction?

No, I don’t really see the correlation, at least not for myself, because I very rarely ever play cards or gamble in any way whatsoever. There’s a low-key celebrity game with a 20 dollar buy-in at a friend’s house—he’s a former television and music manager—and I play there maybe once or twice a month, but that’s about it. As for the games on the celebrity poker tour, I do those functions as a service to my mother’s breast cancer research fund—The Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund. Every dime I ever make at those events goes to support that charity. I never play in Vegas, so I don’t see too many problem gamblers up close. Even when I’m in Vegas, I get bored with gambling very fast. I’m not a big gambler, except maybe on the golf course every once in a while.  

In 2015, you were given the “Audience Favorite Award” by Writers in Treatment for your film, The Wisdom to Know the Difference. You said, “I’m more proud of this movie than the 125 films I’ve done.” Why do you feel this way about this accomplishment? Is winning this award a kind of redemption?

No, I don’t think it has anything to do with redemption, because I don’t think there’s anything I need to redeem myself for. I have no regrets over where my life has gone. I wouldn’t be the man, the father, the husband, the actor, the director, and the human being that I am now, had I not gone along the path that I went on. My motivation for saying that relates back to what I said earlier: This film has saved other human beings’ lives. I might never know those people, but I do know that this film helped them. My purpose in making this film—a film that I wrote and directed and brought in a lot of people to do favors in helping it to be made—was that I hoped it would have that sort of impact on young addicts. I wanted the film to give them a ray of hope, a light that would lead them to recovery, and it has done so. It makes me both very proud and very happy. 

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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.