Pat O'Brien Talks to The Fix About Rehab, Tabloid TV, and the Wizard of Oz

By John Lavitt 09/27/16

The former CBS sportscaster and host of Access Hollywood partied hard—until a scandal forced him into rehab. Now he helps celebrities going through the same thing he did.

Pat O'Brien
Helping others on the way. Photo via Twitter

Pat O'Brien is best known for his work as a sportscaster with CBS Sports from 1981 to 1997, as well as his work as the anchor and host of Access Hollywood from 1997 to 2004, and The Insider from 2004 to 2008. He partied with the stars, did acid with Timothy Leary, and drank with Mickey Mantle and Madonna. In 2005, O'Brien entered rehab for alcoholism after a string of sexually graphic voicemail messages surfaced on the Internet, radio programs, and eventually television shows. In 2014, O’Brien released a memoir, I'll Be Back Right After This, that detailed his impressive career and fall from the heights of pop cultural fame. 

Embracing a path of sobriety since the scandal, O’Brien helps many celebrities today that are facing the same difficulties he encountered. He spoke about his journey and his work with The Fix.

While working as a sportscaster at CBS, you covered the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and the Final Four. Although this saying comes from ABC’s Wide World Of Sports, you were around during the time when “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” were being emphasized. Did such elevated romanticism of athletic competition and the stakes involved contribute to your substance abuse? 

No, it really didn’t, not at all. My drama was based on grandiosity. Look, I had a great career. Although I’ve been sober for eight years now, I didn’t get sober until I was 60. I thought I was just one of those guys who had a good time and picked up the check. It wasn’t the sports stuff that contributed to my substance abuse problems and my drinking—it was fame. Fame is the worst drug. I work in a business where we need to be loved by strangers. If you think about it, that can be incredibly stressful. 

Fame fills a hole in your life, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way. When you see your picture in Times Square and on billboards and on buses, it makes you think that you are bigger than you are. You start to believe that and you think you are invincible. That’s a problem because we are all human in the end.

You were able to stop doing coke on your own, but not alcohol. Why was alcohol so much more difficult to quit than those other substances?

I remember going to South America in 1985 during the big coke years. When I landed there, I bought a kilo. I did so much blow there that it was just crazy. But I never did any drugs when I was on the air. I always waited for them to tell me that the work was over. Once I knew I was clear, then I was off and running. I did so much coke at that time that I got sick of it. I came home and said, “Forget it. That’s it. I’m done.”

As for alcohol, I fell in love with red wine and the way it made me feel. I don’t have a big drunkalogue either, except for the voicemail. I didn’t rape and pillage and destroy. I didn’t even really piss people off or burn bridges. I just drank too much. I would get home and I drank until it clicked. I also isolated, and that’s a very familiar story for a lot of drinkers. 

In a Fox interview about your memoir, I’ll Be Right Back After This, you described it as “a story more than anything of redemption, second chances and my honest goal is to let people know that if they have a problem with alcohol, there’s a way out; there’s a choice you can make; there’s a solution.” Can you tell us about your choices, and how the solution ultimately worked for you?

At first, I didn’t have much of a choice because of the scandal. I had to be dumped right into a rehab. That was more of a corporate decision than a me decision. That’s why it didn’t work at first. Three years later, I went to Hazelden, where I had the realization that I was about to die. I came from Nantucket Island where I literally had almost drunk myself to death. I blew like a 4.6 when I got to Hazelden after I was medevac’d there. My counselor was the great Chuck Rice, and he said to me, “You know what: You’re going to die if you don’t stop.” He was not the first person that had said that to me, but he was the first person I could actually hear. 

It was awful. I was like 100 pounds, and I had been in a kind of hiding for a while, drinking day after day. I would fall and end up in hospitals. When I got to Hazelden, I went from being drunk to being sober, and I haven’t had a drink since. The realization that I was going to die didn’t hurt. When people tell that to you early on, you react with anger and lash out and just keep on drinking. But this time I saw it for myself: I was dying, inside and outside.

As anchor and host of both Access Hollywood and The Insider, you often covered the tabloid falls of celebrities struggling with alcoholism and suffering from the disease of addiction. When your problems with substance abuse received the same tabloid treatment, did it change your perspective on such reporting? 

First of all, it helped me because all of these people said, “Oh, you too, huh?” I was able to talk to people about their problems. After I went out and before I got sober, most of them called me anyway, asking for help. They asked, “What do I do? I can’t stop doing this or that.” I had politicians calling me. I had celebrities calling me. I had a lot of sports people calling me. 

In terms of the job, it just became easier if somebody had a scandal. I could start the questioning by saying, “You know, I’ve been through this.” I tried not to do that, but management pushed me to use it to their advantage. One of the reasons I wrote my book about tabloid journalism is because I hated doing that to people. It turns out that later they did it to me, and it was not good. After it happened to me, I felt like it wasn’t any of my business. When I stopped asking those questions, I got in trouble with management. Management also would try to use me, trying to find out about which celebrities were in rehab and who was having problems. I got tired of that as well. 

There is, however, a good in everything. It has helped me help a lot of people.  Every celebrity I know is sober. We meet together and talk about sobriety and helping others. There’s a huge sober community in Hollywood. I also have helped a lot of sports guys as well. The reason why is because I conducted my career in a way that they trust me. I truly value that trust—to have it is really a good thing.

Spirituality is a central part of 12-step programs. Can you tell us a little about your Higher Power and the role of spirituality in your life?

I will tell you exactly the day it hit me. I was at Hazelden, and I was walking in the forest. They have a 500-acre compound in Minnesota. My counselor had asked me to go for a walk and look deeper into my life. He told me that I was crying every day about my job or my son or something about me, but it was always about me. I’m walking through the forest, and I kept thinking about that forest at the end of the yellow brick road. I know it sounds dramatic, but I felt like the trees were watching me, they were going to get me. Scared, I suddenly realized, "Fuck, I’m Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I may not have any ruby slippers to click together, but just like her I can still go home." 

I realized that story was a metaphor for sobriety and second chances. In this crazy adventure, she spends all this time just wanting to get back home to Kansas. She meets this wild crew of companions and fights off flying monkeys and gets overwhelmed by the poppy fields. It’s all about being lost in the disease. She wants more than anything to get to the Wizard of Oz. When she finally meets him, he’s a bit of a charlatan, but he does have this balloon that will take them home. There are a great couple of lines in the play and the book, and I don’t know why they never made it into the movie. Dorothy asks, “Will that balloon really take us all the way back to Kansas?” The Wizard shakes his head and replies, “You know, Dorothy, we never know if anything really works until afterwards.”

For me, that’s really the story of my recovery. I had to trust in something other than myself and I had to have faith that it would work. For me, it did, and I am so grateful for that opportunity. Like Dorothy, I was able to go home again. I didn’t click my heels together, but it felt like it was almost that quick, once I made that realization. I no longer had to live this life of what people wanted me to be. I could do something else.

You mentioned that grandiosity is one of your primary character defects. I know grandiosity was a problem for me as well as for many other addicts and alcoholics. It’s kind of like a defense mechanism that keeps a grim internal reality at bay. How do you deal with that character defect today?

Both the good and bad news is that I was paid to be grandiose in the past. I got paid to have a big ego. If you have that ego-based grandiosity in the context of competition, you usually win. For me, it wasn’t really a cover because I actually believed it. I thought nothing bad could happen to me. I really did. When it did happen, I looked at myself and said, “Oh, I guess I was wrong about that.” 

Today, the grandiosity often works in a positive way because I use it to help other people. I believe that I can help almost anybody. It’s true that ego always lies to you and you shouldn’t listen to it, but it paid well. It ultimately brought me down, but in a way it also brought me back. I wanted to work again, I wanted to help other people, and I wanted my son to be proud of me. 

Talking about your past work on The Insider in a People interview, you said, “I needed a drink and a shower every night when I got home.” Now that you are sober, could you go back and do that job again? 

No. I have been asked to do it again twice, but I couldn’t. My problem wasn’t the celebrities. I liked all the celebrities. But I couldn’t go back to dealing with how management treated celebrities and how they used them. They would tell me to go to a celebrity and ask them if they’ve ever thought about suicide. I couldn’t believe it and said, “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to ask them that.” They would push me to ask about whether they had ever been depressed in order to get to the suicide question, but I refused to do that to another human being. 

That kind of stuff ruined pop culture. It leaves a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. It got out of hand, and I would never do it again. Management believed the way to get ratings was to go severe tabloid, and that was just ugly. Even before I went down, I had stopped doing that kind of journalism. I didn’t want to pick on people anymore. I think that’s why so many of those celebrities and athletes come to me today. By not doing that kind of thing, I built a lot of trust, and that’s hard to get. 

You recently posted a fascinating quote by Mark Twain on your Facebook page: “A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” Although we all know that Twain always had one foot in comic irony, such insight remains powerful. Do you have your own approval today? 

Yes, and that’s the key to sobriety. Don’t tear yourself down. I can’t believe it when I see people go to meetings for 20 years, but still refer to themselves as a piece of shit. That’s just wrong. You have to love yourself. You have to get along with yourself, and that’s been the key for me.

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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 with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.