Until the night of Oct. 27, 1982, Eileen Brennan lived as though she were Little Mary Sunshine all grown-up. The flame-haired actress with a colleen complexion took her cues from the role she had created off-Broadway a quarter of a century ago. Like Little Mary, Brennan had a dirigible perkiness that no sorrow could puncture, no depression deflate. She combined chipper optimism with an overlay of brassy charm that made her popular in a show business world where there are often no friends, only contacts.
Brennan had just finished dining with Goldie Hawn that October night when her world collapsed. On a Venice, Calif. boulevard, darkened by a temporary power outage, Brennan stepped into the path of an oncoming car and was hurled into a ghastly abyss. She suffered a catalog of injuries—smashed legs, a fragmented jaw, a broken nose, an eyeball wrenched from its socket. All the bones on the left side of her face were broken.
Those injuries slowly and painfully healed. The nightmare really began when Brennan, taking the pills her doctors prescribed, realized that she was an addict. To break this pharmaceutical stranglehold, she entered the Betty Ford Center for a six-week treatment in August 1984. “It was my only hope,” says the 50-year-old actress with candor. “I had reached the stage where I was taking anything I could get my hands on.”
Immediately after the accident the drugs were an absolute necessity. “That was the worst pain I have experienced—including labor,” she says. Her former husband, British-born poet-photographer David Lampson, was shaken when he arrived at Brennan’s bedside the day following the collision. (Divorced in 1975, the two remain close.) Says Lampson, “When I saw her, there were no facial features left. It was horrendous. She looked rather like E.T. on a pillow.” Brennan remained hospitalized for another two months. Initially she was treated with shots. When pills were prescribed, she received at various times Percocet, Valium, Ativan and Darvocet. “I do think the medical profession has something to answer for,” says Lampson. “She had tremendous mood swings. Literally, there would be laughter one minute and tears the next.” With her release from the hospital and the cancellation of the TV series Private Benjamin, in which she co-starred, she cracked.
Brennan’s return home heightened her fears and insecurities. “I got so paranoid,” she says, “I had a door put into my bedroom that led to the outside, so if anything happened, I could get out of the house.” Pals such as Hawn and Brenda Vaccaro visited regularly. Lily Tomlin dressed up Brennan’s sons, Sam, now 13, and Patrick, 12, as her lounge-lizard character, Tommy Velour, to amuse Brennan. Richard Pryor sent over tapes of his shows for entertainment. But laughter was not the best medicine for Brennan. She relied instead on a variety of painkillers, antidepressants and antianxiety pills. “I went through the Percocet at first,” she says. “I was always pretty good at getting it.” Although friends cared for her sons, the boys were not spared Brennan’s agony. “I told them exactly how I felt. We’ve always been honest with each other, probably because I’ve been in therapy for years,” she says. At one low point she cried to her sons, “Kids, I’m sorry. I just can’t help it. I want to die.”
By the time Brennan was offered the pilot for her current ABC series, Off the Rack, in January 1984, she was nearly recovered physically—she still has no feeling on the left side of her face and her left leg remains stiff because of an implanted steel plate—but was deeply addicted. “I began to play games with myself—hiding the drugs, taking them on the sly. I would change pills. I’d say, ‘Well, I won’t take Darvocet or Percocet, I’ll take Ativan or Valium.’ ” Returning to work meant kicking the drugs entirely.
Brennan entered the Betty Ford Center the week before her 50th birthday. “I spent the first two weeks crying,” she says. “I was ready to leave every day.” Twice-daily group therapy sessions revealed Brennan as a woman in turmoil. “I was hit by a car. I almost died. My show was taken away from me. I was frightened,” she says. Little Mary Sunshine could not just breeze through with a smile and a wisecrack. “You’re so naked there,” she says. “All of those defenses of being witty and charming don’t count. I thought I was taking drugs because of the physical pain. I learned I was chemically dependent.”
Nowadays the only pills Brennan takes are vitamins. She has maintained that postclinic discipline through support groups. “It’s talking things out with each other. I don’t stuff my feelings with pills, I share them,” she says. She also remains close with Mary Tyler Moore, who was at the Betty Ford Center at the same time. Brennan’s professional outlook has improved too. Her performance in Off the Rack has received critical approval and the network is pondering a fall pickup. According to Brennan, her acting has been affected by the experience. “No question about it. I trust myself more,” she says. “I’m not looking outside for reinforcement.” At home, she adds, “My sons think I rose from the dead.”
Physically, she may never match her former self. “I’m not as light on my feet. Things I took for granted, such as getting in and out of cars, are much more difficult.” In other respects, she has found a comforting calm. “Everyone hits bottom their own way,” she says. “Mine came through my accident, which led to my pill addiction, which led to my birth. I say birth rather than rebirth because I feel born new. I reestablished a spiritual connection that is lost when you are taking any kind of drug. Strangely enough I wouldn’t have missed my accident. It just knocks me out to say that, but I mean it.”