IS PAT BACK? IS O’BRIEN O-VAILABLE? What former Access Hollywood and CBS Sports star Pat O’Brien said about his new sober life!
Forgive me. Back in the days when people still watched TV, shows like Access Hollywood had a certain genial hustle. A prehistoric form of clickbait. These shows would pose a tantalizing question about a celebrity but never quite manage to answer it. The technique had an acknowledged master. His name was Pat O’Brien.
"Television’s a series of moments," O’Brien said over lunch in February. "So I figured out how to get great moments." Once, on the red carpet, O’Brien saw Julia Roberts. There was little chance Roberts would say anything interesting about her new movie. So O’Brien leaned over and whispered into her ear, "Just laugh as hard as you can." As the cameras rolled, Roberts threw her head back and emitted a huge laugh. The "moment" was then translated thusly: "WHAT DID PAT O’BRIEN SAY TO JULIA ROBERTS THAT MADE HER LAUGH?" Who wouldn’t want to know that?
"The best one was James Gandolfini …" O’Brien said. "You could not get him to do an interview during The Sopranos. We’re on the red carpet and he comes walking past, ignoring everybody. I put my microphone down at my side. He sees me and he walks over to me."
"He whispers in my ear, ‘Ba da boom, ba da bing.’ And walks away. We promo’d that fucking thing for five days. ‘An exclusive interview: WHAT JAMES GANDOLFINI TOLD PAT O’BRIEN!’"
O’Brien and I were at a West Hollywood restaurant that seemed to have been built as a staging ground for celebrity interviews. The décor was Roman style; someone had parked a black Porsche out front. O’Brien asked the waiter for a Coca-Cola, and then, eyeing my tape recorder with a self-mocking grin, said, "That’ll come out, ‘Could I have another gram of coke?’"
These days, O’Brien himself is an unanswered question. A TV career that spanned from March Madness to the Oscars red carpet was derailed by alcoholism and a handful of lascivious voicemails he left in 2005. Alcohol is no longer a problem. "There’s an app," O’Brien said. He showed me a message on his phone: "You’ve been sober for: 8.30 years, 99.67 months, 3,304 days, 79,296 hours." Meaning: since November 2008.
But O’Brien’s world of sober celebrity has its own demands, its own uses for his famously sonorous voice, even its own awards shows. It begs its own questions: WHAT IS A PUBLIC LIFE LIKE IN THE AFTERMATH OF A PUBLIC SCANDAL?
"Imagine me, the face of sobriety," O’Brien said. You don’t to have to imagine. As they say on Access Hollywood, O’Brien invited us to tag along and find out …
"I’m Pat, and I’m an award-winning alcoholic."
It was three days before the Oscars. O’Brien was standing behind a podium at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. A small, lively crowd had gathered for the Experience, Strength & Hope Awards, which every year celebrates the "honest memoir" of a celebrity who recovers from addiction and writes about it. Last year’s honoree was Mackenzie Phillips; this year’s was O’Brien.
The room was warm and inviting, with none of the predatory smiles typical to a Hollywood party. Many of the attendees and honorees were in recovery, so at the reception beforehand everyone sipped coffee and tea from black plastic mugs. Twelve-step magazines littered the tables. "I think there’s an unspoken idea that we’re all happy to be alive," said the actor Tony Denison, who got sober 24 years ago and was a regular on The Closer.
It was true that the celebrities on hand were of a different strata than what O’Brien was used to interviewing outside the Dolby Theatre: Denison, who played Joey Buttafuoco in a TV movie; Bruce Davison, who was an anti-mutant senator in X-Men; the actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. But as Davison noted from the stage, the show felt like a high school reunion. O’Brien could look around and see semi-famous faces he knew from his daily 12-step meetings in L.A.
Red carpet interviews are testaments to a star’s invincibility. At the Experience, Strength & Hope Award, the stars in the makeshift interview area (minus the red carpet) spoke of the fragility of fame. "I get it, man," said Brandon Novak, a former pro skateboarder and Jackass star who got sober from his addiction to alcohol and heroin two years ago. "I’ve been in movies that broke box-office records. I was a New York Times best-selling author. I did things in life that people would equate to success or happiness. And I had never been so lonely or miserable or sad in my life."
Of all those in attendance, O’Brien’s fall was the most public, the most humiliating, and, in grubby, Q score terms, the most severe — for O’Brien had the most to lose. "If I was not OK with myself," he told me later, "this would be the worst time of year for me to watch television, with the Oscars, the Grammys, the Final Four coming up. … Because I did all those things."
Our collective amnesia makes it easy to forget just how big a star O’Brien made himself in pop culture. In 1979, when he arrived at CBS Sports, O’Brien was a cagey, vainglorious local news reporter: an Irish American Geraldo. "He had savoir faire," said Pat Riley, whom O’Brien covered when he was coaching the Lakers. O’Brien wore his hair long and had a mustache; he freely mixed sports with pop culture; he was jazzy where CBS Sports was (and still is) remarkably starchy.
"‘Pat — don’t do that!’ — how many times did I hear that?" O’Brien said. "And then I’d do it, and I just got more popular."
When O’Brien took over halftime of CBS’s NBA coverage, it was an undernourished asset. (For a time, CBS showed prerecorded games of H-O-R-S-E at halftime.) O’Brien figured out that the best way to sell the NBA was for viewers to hear as much as they could from Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Charles Barkley. "He had a great relationship with the players," said Riley. "He could get in and get out of them what he needed to. They trusted him, and he never did anything to break that trust."
Once, before a playoff game, O’Brien asked Michael Jordan if one man could beat the Lakers. "We’re playing the Boston Celtics, Pat," Jordan said.
O’Brien did stunts like assembling the Celtics’ starting lineup in his hotel, in uniform, before a game — the kind of cheekiness that predicted the golden age of SportsCenter, according to Ted Shaker, the former executive producer of CBS Sports. The network soon gave O’Brien hosting duties at the Final Four, the World Series, and the Olympics.
When O’Brien jumped to the world of infotainment — to Access Hollywood in 1997 and The Insider seven years later — people thought he was nuts. But O’Brien’s charge at Access Hollywood was the same as it was at CBS: to simulate intimacy with stars that had neither the time nor desire for it. When intimacy proved impossible, O’Brien used certain tricks. As the red carpet cameras rolled, he’d tell a celebrity: "You know, we were talking the other night about …" It seemed like they were best pals.
O’Brien’s shows bombarded viewers with tantalizing questions. "IS GEORGE CLOONEY LEAVING HOLLYWOOD?" (Sure, but only to do charity work overseas.) "DID ANGELINA BRING A GUN ON SET WHERE CHILDREN WERE PLAYING?" (Yes, she was making an action movie.)
Later, to O’Brien’s dismay, his producers took a mere tease and made it a cynical exercise. O’Brien would ask a celebrity if they’d ever contemplated suicide. He said: "Then they would run just me saying, ‘Have you ever thought about suicide?’ And they’d freeze it" — without playing the star’s answer. "We’d never pay it off."
All the while, O’Brien was living a pharmacologically risky life. At the ’83 Pan Am Games, in Caracas, Venezuela, he filled a hotel dresser drawer with a kilo of cocaine — then went on CBS to report on the games’ stringent drug testing. "I wasn’t an awful drunk," O’Brien said. "I’m not an awful person." After he joined The Insider, in 2004, he was bingeing at night, and asking the makeup department to cover up the injuries he sustained when he fell or collapsed. During one afternoon and night in 2008, O’Brien polished off a dozen bottles of Silver Oak wine.
On March 17, 2005, O’Brien was awoken in his bed in Los Angeles by a team of producers, network executives, and his attorney, who said, "Pat, there’s this tape on the internet."
Three days earlier, O’Brien had been drinking and using cocaine with his girlfriend and two women he’d just met in New York. He had no memory of flying back to L.A., nor any memory of the voicemails he’d left on one of the women’s phones: "You are so fucking hot"; "Let’s get crazy — get some coke"; etc. The blackout was so complete that O’Brien told me he still doesn’t know the name of the woman he was calling.
O’Brien had reported on fallen celebrities; now, he was one. "They’re running me in slow motion on my own freakin’ show!" he once remarked. Before Paramount would let O’Brien go back on the air, he had to submit to two humiliating sitdowns with Dr. Phil.
"I could never figure out why it was such a big deal," O’Brien said. "I really couldn’t — and I’m smart. Every night on the news. Helicopters over my rehab. … Maybe because I was on TV every day, and my voice is recognizable. It was probably kind of fun to hear me say, ‘fuck.’"
It was also the dawn of the Voicemail Era of celebrity scandal (Alec Baldwin’s entry arrived two years later), when leaked audio could be consumed in the comfort of the home or office. Ironically, we no longer needed a TV show like O’Brien’s to see a star hit bottom.
"I remember riding from rehab to a meeting, going by newsstands," O’Brien said. "Every magazine: ‘Pat O’Brien’s Sex and Cocaine Scandal.’ Scandal? There was no sex! After all that, I didn’t even get laid."
To the world, the details of O’Brien’s fall were spectacular and bizarre. For the crowd gathered at the Experience, Strength & Hope Award, they were neither of these things. They were almost familiar.
"My name’s Joe," the former Eagles member Joe Walsh said from the stage, "and I’m an alcoholic."
"Hi, Joe!" said the crowd.
Walsh told a story of emerging from a blackout on an airplane next to the comedian Don Novello as they landed in Paris. Walsh had no memory of getting on the plane, nor any idea of why he should be in Paris with Novello.
A comedian named Sarge Pickman — who worked at CBS in the ’80s — told a story of driving Michael Jordan’s parents from the New York studio, where O’Brien had interviewed them, to Jordan’s game that afternoon in Philadelphia. Pickman was high on crack and PCP, and drove the Jordans to the Spectrum at blazing speed. Then, with the NBA’s first family safely delivered, Pickman smoked more PCP and planted himself on the bench right next to the 76ers.
It took O’Brien four separate stints in rehab before he got sober. (Before his final stay, at Hazelden in 2008, he weighed 130 pounds.) "In all the times I was in rehab, I never saw anybody who was there as an alcoholic [saying], ‘I got to have a drink!’" he said. "Never saw it. Drug guys are a little different. I had a roommate who would smash up these vitamins and put ’em in a syringe he snuck in. I said, ‘What does that do for you?’ He said, ‘Eh, something to do.’"
"I had one roommate who was an engineering student. He was a goth kind of kid, you know? He would spend every day making all these equations," O’Brien said. "It was amazing. He was trying to figure out the exact amount of heroin he could use and not overdose."
O’Brien’s recovery arguably brought him closer to the stars than the red carpet ever did. After a stint at the Betty Ford Center, in 2008, Mariah Carey — whose career O’Brien helped launch at the NBA Finals — cornered O’Brien at an event and said, "Enough, enough." Three years earlier, when O’Brien checked into rehab the first time, the physician who treated him was Dr. Drew Pinsky, the radio advice guru and former CNN host. O’Brien no longer needed to simulate intimacy with celebrity; he could look around his star-studded 12-step meetings in L.A. and experience the real thing. As we were saying in AA the other night …
"I’ll see a [famous] guy’s got a drug problem or alcohol problem," O’Brien said. "Two days later, I’ll get a call from them. They all say, ‘What do I do?’ I say, ‘First of all, don’t hide. You can’t hide this. And if you’ve harmed anybody, walk to the nearest camera and do the O’Brien three A’s: admit, apologize, and advance. Then we’ll talk.’
"I always say to ’em, ‘A funeral is more expensive than rehab,’" he added. "I’ve been to a lot of funerals." O’Brien tried to help Whitney Houston before she died in 2012; in an open letter to Lindsay Lohan, he wrote that "there remain a great number of people who are worried about you. I am one of them." (O’Brien’s old show, The Insider, once did a feature on Lohan’s messy house.)
O’Brien is mostly happy to offer up his life as a cautionary tale. But his ego — nourished by two decades of TV paychecks — is far too big to let himself be seen merely as a 12-step partner to the stars. More than once, he said, "I’m not dead."
But at the Experience, Strength & Hope Awards, poking fun at one’s reduced status was part of the happy spirit of the evening. "Thank you for remembering," Ed Begley Jr. said after the audience applauded the mention of his name. Pickman joked about working "a sparsely-crowded room at a Jewish cultural arts center" and said to O’Brien, "You fucking drive your career into the ground and then you a get a four-dollar plaque!"
Before O’Brien took the stage, they showed a photo montage of him with his famous friends: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Muhammad Ali, Michael J. Fox. The Beatles song "With a Little Help From My Friends" played; O’Brien had struck up palships with Paul and Ringo. A few minutes later, the crowd rose to applaud when O’Brien took the stage. Then, as he descended the stairs, plaque in hand, he slipped and fell.
"In the old days, that would have been on every internet site," O’Brien said over lunch the next day.
You could almost hear the urgent unanswered question: HAS PAT O’BRIEN SLIPPED AGAIN? But this time, as far as I could tell, nobody on the internet even noticed. One benefit of being out of the spotlight is that you can trip without it having to mean anything.
Minus a few Twitter trolls, O’Brien said he no longer gets many snide comments. His image has been refashioned thanks to his omnipresence on the benefit circuit ("I’m like the recovery emcee") and the normal Hollywood process — familiar to any viewer of Access Hollywood — whereby a fallen star, after being subject to a few million punch lines, is rewarded with a new title. He becomes a survivor.
O’Brien is now a portal to fallen celebrity. CNN waved him into the green room when Prince died. "I became like the grim reaper for drug deaths," O’Brien said. "I said, ‘You guys, isn’t there anybody else?’" A paparazzo recently stopped O’Brien on the street to ask if he had any thoughts he’d like to share about Charlie Sheen.
In the world of recovery media, O’Brien is, well, Pat O’Brien. He has delivered an "Overcoming Adversity" talk at a PR firm; he did radio and the inevitable podcast. When a celebrity crashes and burns, we assume they also lost all their money in the process. O’Brien — who was paid $4 million a year for hosting The Insider — said he didn’t lose a thing.
Asked what he missed most about being on television, O’Brien said, "Again, I’m not dead."
He added: "I don’t like to sit up at night and read that I’m not on TV anymore. I’ll be back on."
IS TV DUE FOR A RE-PAT-RIATION? WHO’S GOING TO BE FLYIN’ WITH O’BRIEN? Ah, those unanswered questions. If this were an infotainment show, the camera would now move from the subject to the host — a host like Pat O’Brien — who’d flash a reassuring and hopeful smile.