TV By Day. March, 1977
By Chris Dent
His vagabond youth brought Richard to the brink of self-destruction!
Richard Dean Anderson has been there. He's been on the inside of the drug culture, where grass, pills and needles are a way of life. He's seen it all, from withdrawals to overdoses, by the very young and the more mature. He knew all the tricks for buying illegal drugs on the black market, and confesses almost shamefully that he had been a borderline case himself.
However, Richard Dean Anderson, who plays Dr. Jeff Webber on "General Hospital," has come back. He is a handsome young man who looked at himself in a mirror one winter's day and wasn't at all pleased with what he saw. Emotionally he had reached the very depths of despair, and had the foresight and fortitude to escape from an element of society that not only kills and addicts but deforms as well.
Playing a young doctor on "General Hospital" is his first actual acting job. It's the first creative endeavor that's forced Rick, as his friends call him, to discipline himself on a day-to-day basis. Up until now his life has been more like a gypsy's - roaming the country, getting in and out of trouble, having near-serious confrontations with the law, existing hand-to-mouth.
"I have been a vagabond of sorts," Rick says as he sits in a chair in his secluded hillside duplex apartment in a Los Angeles suburb. "I traveled a lot and hopped from job to job, and when I got out here I was able to keep up that same rhythm, doing commercials and a show here and there. This is the first real steady acting job I have had.
"So working on 'General Hospital' has altered my lifestyle drastically," he says with a grin. "I've never been used to this. I mean, I can't really discipline myself, but I'm becoming more conscientious. In the past, I've always been able to skirt any discipline that was forced on me but this is a professional environment and I've had to adjust myself to it."
Rick's journey to his lifestyle of today began when he left home at the age of 14. He says he doesn't recall that it was an unhappy home life, "because I didn't stay around long enough to find out. My father understood my kind of wanderlust, I guess, and I'd always pop back every once in awhile, but I was out and away most of the time.
"But basically it was a stable home, as far as I can tell. There were some things that came out about the family that I've talked mainly to my father about, and I guess things were kind of breaking and frayed at the edges while I was living at home. My parents divorced a couple of years ago and I have three brothers scattered around, all younger. I was the ice-breaker and I don't know if I was a very good example."
Rick pauses a moment to sip a cup of late-morning coffee, contemplating the conversation, weighing his next comment before adding, "There are a lot of things in that era of my life, when I was hitching rides and hopping freights and traveling around, that I'm not real proud of. I don't really regret too much, but there was one aspect that was a little sleazy and kind of shady, almost underground, I guess. I have learned from it and I got out of it just in time.
"I never took on Hell's Angels or things like that. I was thrown in jail once and was able to talk my way out of it. I was hitchhiking through a town that didn't allow hitchhiking and I had hair down to my waist and kind of smelled funny I suppose, but I managed to talk my way out of that.
"I got into my share of fights. If I got beat up I could take care of myself. My father had told me that I had to realize the responsibilities I was taking on by being out on my own, and I've had a good knack for survival."
You try to envision this tall, clean, short-haired actor sitting before you with long hair and dirty clothing and you wonder if he was in fact a hippie.
"Yes," he says without hesitation, "I suppose that's the way society looked at it. I always thought that I was kind of on a peripheral level because when I was 18, I guess, the drug thing was real big; hot and heavy. I was living in Minneapolis at the time, and everybody I knew was into it in some respect, feeling or doing or dead strung out or whatever. I didn't know anybody who was straight.
"So," he continues with a sigh, "I was drawn into it naturally, and I began my own involvement with it. I was always kind of borderline because I had the wisdom and insight to know that certain things aren't going to get you too far, but I was still involved. I never got busted but I had the look of a hippie, real long hair and a beard and all of that. I was just kind of playing around."
Co-star Georganne LaPiere
came to visit Richard in
his suburban hillside home.
Working on GH in the
role of Dr. Jeff Webber has
taught Rick the self-discipline
he lacked before.
It's hard to believe
that this clean-cut young man
was once a wayward drifter!
Despite such a lifestyle, Rick did manage to finish high school, "with flying colors actually. I was a jock basically and my father was a teacher, so there was a certain amount of ease in getting through school.
"But from the time I was 14, I lived in crummy apartments in dinky towns in and around Minneapolis, my home town. I hitched around; came out to California a couple of times during the summer. I finished high school and the year after my graduation I went to St. Cloud University in Northern Minnesota for a year and then I skipped a year and came out to San Francisco, got involved in whatever and then went back and something happened.
"There is a section in my life there that's a little cloudy, but by choice I ended up going down to Ohio University. I woke up one morning and had a revelation. I realized that I was taking too many drugs and drinking too much and smoking and my body just wasn't functioning. So I snapped out of it.
"I was used to having control," he continues, "and I just realized I was doing the wrong thing. So I called a professor I had met at St. Cloud who was in the theater department there and was now working at Ohio University and he said, 'Let's get together.' Now this was around 3 a.m. So I met with him, we walked around campus and talked.
"Then I went to New York and stayed there for awhile and then went to Chicago, back to Minnesota, and finally gathered all my things and went back to Ohio and started school. Within a year I went through quite a war and changed from being kind of a wipe-out case to somebody who was intent on getting something done again.
"I got involved in sports and was almost a professional hockey player until I started getting my body broken in pieces, but at O.U. I was part of a group of theater people and it was sort of an honor to get accepted. Fifteen people were chosen out of 3,000 and it was a national theater program. I stayed there for about three and a half years."
The contrast in Rick's life is obvious, and when asked why or what turned him around he says softly, "There were many things that led up to it. I was a witness to a lot of things, but most importantly I was a witness to myself, to what I was doing. But the whole drug scene was very ugly to me and I had the intelligence and the sensitivity, I guess, a kind of perceptiveness, to get out of it. It was a very obvious, intelligent move.
"But I was on a borderline, and if I had waited around any longer I would probably be dead by now. It was that kind of ugly thing. After what I've been through, I'm lucky to be alive. I grew up a little harder than anyone in my family, and I grew up fast. Fortunately, something caused me to call that professor and he was instrumental in helping me find a different set of values.
"I still drifted around after college, but it was on a different level. I came out here and I always managed to find work of some type before this show. And I now know that I have the ability for survival. I've had a lot of fun and had a lot of things thrown in my way, and basically I have just had a light attitude towards life.
"This show had really changed my lifestyle. It requires discipline and restrictions, which I'm not used to. I'm not into material things, which I guess is a trait one develops after being impoverished most of one's life. But today, when I do have time on my hands, I'll get on one of my three motorcycles and take off to the mountains or wherever it is I might want to go. I value that freedom.
"The difference, of course, is that I have to come back, and that's been a good influence on me. I've grown in that sense, and I'm just grateful that I've been given that chance. It could have been a helluva lot different."
There is a finality to Rick's voice. A realization that he was indeed fortunate to have survived, and there is no denying that his future is a lot brighter than his bleak past.
Dent, Chris. "After What I've Been Through, I'm Lucky to Be Alive!." TV By Day. March, 1977: p. 30-31 +50, 52.