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A Life Cut Short: Cory Monteith: 1982-2013

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He played a smooth-singing, sweet-talking jock on TV, but in real life Cory Monteith was fond of describing himself with one word: awkward. Even after the gangly, 6’3″ star rocketed to stardom on the FOX smash Glee, he still “thought of himself that way,” says Maureen Webb, an early mentor who discovered Monteith when he was a 20-year-old self-described “wayward youth.” Dining with Webb and his manager Elena Kirschner at Vancouver eatery East of Main on July 11, Monteith – who had completed rehab for substance abuse two months earlier – “was in great spirits,” says Webb. Eschewing alcohol for rhubarb lemonade, “he looked so healthy,” she says. He talked about his recent four-day hike on Vancouver Island’s Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, and when the subject turned to his work with Project Limelight Society, a nonprofit arts program for kids, “his face lit up,” says Webb, who cofounded the group. Having overcome his own tough childhood, “he said, ‘The performing arts saved my life once. I want to give back.’ ”

But that was not to be. Just two days later the 31-year-old star was found dead in his room at the Pacific Rim Hotel of a deadly mix of heroin and alcohol, hours after returning alone from a night out with friends according to a report released by the coroner on July 16. “We are in shock, and mourning this tragic loss,” his rep said in a statement on July 14. Local investigators quickly ruled out foul play. (A source says officials found drugs in the room.) As questions about his death and a possible relapse swirled, those close to the star – who had spoken candidly about his past drug battles, telling Parade in 2011 that he was “lucky to be alive” after abusing hard drugs (“anything and everything,” he said) – were reeling. “This has rocked all of us,” costar Mike O’Malley, who played the stepfather of Monteith’s character, Finn, told PEOPLE. Adds a show source: “Everyone is stunned.”

It was a sudden end for a young man who had already faced a series of obstacles. A high school dropout who won his role on Glee at age 26 with a homemade audition tape and no vocal training, Monteith projected an air of low-key affability, but several insiders say that he and much of the young cast indulged in a lifestyle that comes with being single, rich and famous. “They worked hard and partied hard,” says another Glee source. At the same time Monteith quietly struggled with stardom. “Fame was hard for him,” says one friend. “It was something he knew he deserved but something he never quite knew how to handle.”

And yet in the past year he had found love and happiness with his costar Lea Michele, 26. (See box on page 51.) The actress spent the days after his death receiving visitors at her Hollywood bungalow. Although the two had been traveling separately and hadn’t stepped out at an event together since the 12th Annual Chrysalis Butterfly Ball in L.A. on June 8, “they were very happy and very in love” when Monteith died, says a source close to the actress. A friend who has spent time with her in recent days says she is shattered: “She needs to be left alone to grieve. Everyone is worried about her.”

Just three months earlier, Michele had been by her boyfriend’s side when he made the surprise announcement that he was seeking treatment for substance abuse. “I love and support Cory and will stand by him through this,” she told PEOPLE at the time. Prior to his admission to rehab, many friends had no idea he was struggling. He was respected for his unfailing professionalism on the set of Glee. “I never saw him come to work late, lose his temper, not know his line or argue with crew and castmates,” a show source says of Monteith, who threw an annual wrap party for the cast and crew. Given the show’s 10-month shooting schedule, stamina is part of the job. “The cast members make a one-hour musical every nine days,” says the source. “You’d have to be superhuman to use drugs with any regularity and get the work done.”

Perhaps because he was so professional, his descent back into addiction was a longer slide than most people realized, says one source, adding that an intervention was staged prior to his most recent stint in rehab. “He was a very gracious guy, but his lifestyle was destructive.” During his last days he indulged in Vancouver’s nightlife, partying at Portside Pub and Queen’s Republic on July 12. A few days earlier, on July 7, he stopped by café The Shop, which is steps away from an alley known for drug-dealing.

Passionate about music and acting, “there was a kind of innocent quality about him,” says Kirk D’Amico, who worked with him on 2011’s Sisters & Brothers and is a producer of Monteith’s upcoming release All the Wrong Reasons. “Even though he was part of this machine that is FOX and Glee, you never got the sense that he was jaded. There’s a kind of Canadian-ness. He had this really charming easiness about him. Typically people who have drugs in their past seem much darker.”

But Monteith had never hidden his own dark past. Growing up in Victoria, B.C., the younger son of Ann, an interior designer, and Joe, a retired serviceman, “I never fit in,” he told Parade in 2011. His parents divorced when he was 7, and by 13 he was skipping school to get drunk and smoke pot. An intervention and subsequent rehab stint at 19 failed, and it wasn’t until after a relative confronted him about stealing money that he said he got serious about sobriety. “I was done fighting myself,” he said in 2011. “I finally said, ‘I’m gonna start looking at my life and figure out why I’m doing this.’ ”

He was discovered soon after at a youth arts group. “I thought, ‘He seems interesting,’ ” recalls Webb. A series of small roles led to his big break on Glee. “I remember him calling me,” says Lesley Diana, his publicist at the time. “He said, ‘I got the role! I got it!’ He was just thrilled.”

But over time he began to chafe at the gap between his squeaky-clean alter ego and his own complex reality. “You see this young, all-American quarterback-looking dude … and you just immediately make assumptions,” he told Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos in 2011. Says the host: “Cory was brave enough to want to live a good life.”

Lately he had begun to branch out, taking on the role of an addict in the drama McCanick. “He said, ‘I was this character,’ ” says director Josh C. Waller. Adds Sisters & Brothers director Carl Bessai: “Whatever he struggled with, he wanted to channel into his work.”

Glee producers, meanwhile, are grappling with the sudden loss of one of their biggest stars, whose character had left for college and did not appear in last season’s final episodes to accommodate Monteith’s rehab. The show had been set to begin shooting its fifth season in late July for a Sept. 19 premiere date, but Monteith’s death casts uncertainty on those plans. Will the series address the character’s departure? “I don’t know,” says a Glee source. Amid all the lingering questions, however, this much is certain: “It will be really hard when we do go back to work,” says the source. “Cory was such a sweetheart.”