by Brian Viner; The Independent
In December 1971, when I was 10 years old, an American actor called Pete Duel killed himself. To my friends and me, the news came as a horrible blow. Duel played the outlaw Hannibal Heyes, alias Joshua Smith, in our favorite TV show, Alias Smith and Jones.
Heyes and his partner Kid Curry, alias Thaddeus Jones, played by Ben Murphy, were icons in the Farnborough Road Junior School playground. They seemed to be able to cope, with unfailing good humor, with everything life threw at them. Yet Duel, it turned out, could not. On New Year’s Eve morning, unfashionably worried about the future of the planet, and also fretting because an astrologer had predicted that 1972 would be a difficult year for him personally, he put a bullet through his head.
Even at that young age I was aware of the distinction between an actor’s personality and that of the character he portrayed. I had learned the hard way, when a man who had just played a rollicking Widow Twanky in an amateur production of Aladdin that I had greatly admired, and whose autograph I coveted, told me and my friend Gary, on a No 17 bus, to “piss off.” But Duel’s death still seemed particularly hard to rationalize. He was handsome and wealthy, and one of the stars of a hit show. It took me a while to understand, in a childlike way, that the trappings of success are purely external; that happiness, and even basic contentment, comes from within.
The tragic death of the children’s TV presenter Mark Speight brought all this back to me. What propelled him over the edge was obviously rather different to the demons that drove Duel: had Speight’s fiancée, Natasha Collins, not died in such sad circumstances, in her bath after taking cocaine, his life would have continued to look gilded. But his death still left me, and plenty of other parents whose children watched Smart, the art show he presented so brilliantly for 10 years, trying to explain to our offspring why such a seemingly jolly cove would decide to end his own life.
There is no easy explanation. Indeed, it was reported yesterday that the BBC received complaints from parents following Newsround’s coverage of Speight’s death. According to the BBC, the program carefully avoided using the word “suicide,” instead saying that “police don’t think he was killed by anyone else.” Yet there were still young viewers sufficiently distressed for their parents to protest.
Having not seen that edition of Newsround, I can’t judge whether the indignant parents were being over-sensitive, or whether the program got its tone wrong. But I’m inclined to think it may have been the former. In fact, if there is anything remotely positive to have emerged from Speight’s untimely death, it is that kids have perhaps learned that bad stuff happens, even and sometimes especially, to those whose lives seem permanently aglow with fame and success.
In an age practically defined by reality television, with dispiriting numbers of teenagers expressing an ambition simply to become famous, it’s not such a bad lesson. They need to be taught that celebrities merely live heightened versions of the lives we all lead: we all have successes, failures, triumphs and tragedies, but for celebrities, under constant public scrutiny, those ups and downs get intensified. That can be hard even when you’re on an up, let alone a down.
My 12-year-old son, Joe, who currently has aspirations to become a professional actor, was very interested recently in the death of Heath Ledger, whom he knew from the comedy-adventure film A Knight’s Tale. His mother and I didn’t spare the details. We told him that Ledger died from an accidental overdose of pills prescribed to help him to sleep, and that he was an anxious man whose life was blighted by insomnia. It seemed important for Joe—who, it is safe to say, doesn’t intend to become the kind of actor who scrapes a living from bit parts in The Bill—to understand that outward success does not preclude inner torment. Sometimes, of course, they feed on each other. But we didn’t head too far down that path. There’s a limit to how much psychology you can throw at a child, especially when Friends is about to come on.
Fifty years ago this month, one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament, Lana Turner, became embroiled in a particularly newsworthy tragedy. Her lover, Johnny Stompanato, a small-time Los Angeles gangster, was stabbed to death in Turner’s bedroom. His killer, who had overheard Stompanato threatening to harm Turner, was the star’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane. Now there was a child who grew up understanding that stardom without happiness is not worth the gilt on a Golden Globe.