As he is often referred to by those who still remember him today, Jan-Michael Vincent was the Brad Pitt of the 70’s and 80’s. When I was growing up back then, there was no studlier dude ever captured on film. Nobody even came close. His Adamesque looks and sculpted physique made every girl and woman in America swoon, and probably even made a lot of adolescent boys question their sexual orientation. It was simply impossible for anyone, male or female, gay or straight, to deny after taking even the briefest glance at him that the man was gorgeous. There was nothing rugged about him.
The story of how his career in films got started is the stuff of Hollywood fairy tales. In a chance encounter, he caught the eye of a film scout when he was just twenty-two and still in the California Army National Guard. Almost overnight, he rocketed to success with just a bare modicum of talent and zero acting experience, and was placed in major motion pictures opposite of such giants as Robert Conrad, Rock Hudson, Charles Bronson, John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Mitchum– just to name a few. The truth is, the man hardly ever had to work a day in his life, and I say that with all due respect for anyone who has ever taken up acting as a profession. What I mean is, he never had to work his way up or pay his dues. Even worse, he let it all go to his head, and came to believe that he deserved the success that came all to easy for him. Sadly, he became a living example of the old adage that cautions – anything that is too easily gained can be too easily squandered.
Financially, Vincent hit the pinnacle of his career when he was cast opposite of Oscar winning actor Ernest Borgnine in a starring role for Airwolf, a television series that ran between 1984-1987. At 200-250K per episode, he became the highest paid actor in the history of television up to that time, long before Charlie Sheen claimed that title two decades later. With easy money flowing in, the actor began squandering it on cocaine as well as liquor, and it was during this time, when he had the world by the tail, that his drinking spiraled out of control for reasons that no one can fathom to this day. According to Airwolf Assistant Director Warren Gray, it was during the second season that Vincent’s addictions became obvious to everyone on the set. By the third season, his drinking and drug use had gotten so out of control, he rarely showed up for work sober enough to recite his lines. Ultimately, the production delays caused by Vincent’s constant state of inebriation put the show’s production behind schedule and seriously over budget, and led directly to its premature demise. Thanks to one man’s uncontrolled addiction, everyone who worked on the show abruptly found themselves out of work when the third season ended. The man himself became an unemployable, has-been, B-film actor, almost as quickly as he became an A-list Hollywood star.
After that, not much was seen or heard of JMV until August 26, 1996, when he drove his car into a light pole in Mission Viejo, California, and broke his neck in the collision. Sure enough, later toxicology reports showed him to be “extremely intoxicated” at the time of the accident, with a blood alcohol content that was twice over the legal limit. He was found unconscious and not breathing when paramedics showed up, but they quickly managed to get air into his lungs by inserting a breathing tube down his throat and into his trachea. He otherwise would have most certainly died at the scene. (As thanks after his recovery, the actor later filed a lawsuit against two paramedics/ firefighters for permanent damage that was done to his vocal chords in the process of saving his life.)
I remember that afternoon well, because I had been practicing my breath hold diving in Lake Mission Viejo, a couple of blocks from my house, when the accident occurred. The water was crystal clear and warm, and there was a drop-off within swimming distance from the East beach, where I could dive down as deep as 45 feet before finding the bottom. There were quite a few trout down there, too – the size of small tunas. It wasn’t the ocean, but it would do on a late Monday afternoon after work, just to help me clear my head. I must have been underwater to have missed hearing the sirens of the police cars and ambulance.
On the way home, just a quarter mile down the road, I saw a crumpled wreck of a small car left by the side of the road that had not been there just an hour earlier when I drove to the lake after work. There was nobody around, and it was just sitting there with an orange tow-away sticker. What really caught my eye, though, was a gorgeous longboard that was sticking straight up out of the back seat, obviously placed there after the crash. It appeared to be unscathed.
I was just getting into surfing back then, and had been looking everywhere for a deal on a good second-hand board. I pulled over and thought about leaving a note with an offer for it that would cover the bill for towing, but thought better of it when I saw the real condition of the car’s front end and the windshield. It was obvious that this had been a serious accident, and whoever it was must have been seriously injured, if not killed. My curiosity was piqued, so I kept an eye on the local news that evening, and didn’t have to wait long before the identity of the surfboard’s owner was revealed. Imagine my surprise when I learned not only who he was, but also that he lived a stone’s throw from me. (By the way, that’s not his actual car being shown in the news stories you’ll find online – his was a Mazda Miata convertible.)
In the days that followed, the tabloids and television news were filled with headline stories, first of the accident, and then others about the disintegration of the actor’s career over the past nine years. It also came out that Vincent had been in court many times to answer for charges of domestic abuse, drug possession, and driving under the influence. One damaging story emerged after another as court records revealed that he had stomped a kitten to death after beating up one girlfriend in a drunken rage, and kicked another in the stomach while she was pregnant with his child, causing her to miscarry. His second ex-wive had filed a restraining order after being repeatedly assaulted by him. The guy was apparently a mean drunk and not a very nice man, to put it mildly. More to the point, he had some definite rage issues.
Things quieted down until a year later, after he had fully recovered from the accident. A flurry of stories and interviews about the actor began to appear on Extra and Entertainment Tonight – all announcing his recovery, rehabilitation, and supposed comeback in a bit role on Nash Bridges. It was obvious that somebody had hired a PR consultant. And then, 20/20 ran a much more frank and somber interview, in which he was asked some hard questions about his past and his future that were impossible to dodge:
Anyone who has struggled with alcohol can watch these interviews and immediately discern that JMV’s profession of newfound sobriety was anything but sincere or heartfelt. It was clear, by his own admission, that he still loved and craved alcohol, and showed very little remorse for his transgressions. Most heartbreaking of all, however, was the appearance by his daughter, and her expression of hope that her father was finally getting sober and returning to the human race after being estranged from her for most of her life.
Predictably, more arrests for drunken driving and parole violations soon followed, until Jan-Michael Vincent finally disappeared from the public eye for good, for the most part. Until last week, that is, when I caught a story about him on the front page of the National Enquirer out of the corner of my eye at the grocery store. The headline reads, “They Cut My Leg Off, But I’m Still Alive!” I have to admit, my first thought was, Oh Lord – who is he suing now?
Doing some research, I have found various snippets of reports of the once famous hunk living on the streets and sleeping on park benches, and spending some time in jail before finally relocating to Mississippi. The following interviews with him have haunted me ever since I saw them. It is one thing to grow old, but as you watch these and previous interviews in chronological order, you will see the progressive degeneration of the actor’s mind and his memory, owing to the way alcohol kills brain cells – quite literally.
He is now an old man, and the loss of his leg due to an infection is the least of his afflictions. He seems to barely know who or where he is, and struggles to speak an intelligible sentence. He hardly remembers having a daughter, much less any real details about her. In one statement, he denies having any memory of the automobile accident that claimed his voice.
At the age of 70, it truly is too late for this man to ever hope to turn his life around, since he passed the midlife fork in the road long ago. 1996 should have been his wakeup call, but it wasn’t. It is sadly obvious that he never really was committed to choosing sobriety, and he chose to live his life in denial of his addiction. He was living a dream that few can even imagine, and he allowed it to be stolen by alcohol. My hope for anyone who may read this and is struggling with their own addiction, to alcohol or any other intoxicating substance, is that you will ask yourself – how do I want my life to end? Certainly not like this…