Great comics almost always create public humor from private pain. But in the decade since Owen Wilson ambled onto the Hollywood radar as a bumbling burglar in the cult comedy Bottle Rocket, the laid-back surfer dude with the crooked nose and the slow Texas drawl has always seemed different: wry, loopy, kind and light. “He’s divine,” says Rocket producer Polly Platt of her longtime friend. “Just an angel.” So it was with true shock that Platt and Wilson’s other friends and family learned that on Aug. 26, Wilson had slashed his wrists at his home in Santa Monica in an apparent suicide attempt.
“It’s impossible,” Platt told PEOPLE on Aug. 28. “He’s far too full of life and is at the prime of his career.” But another pal confirmed the worst about the crisis that landed him at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center: “Owen was very despondent. He slit his wrists. He almost did not make it.”
As stunning as the news was, others close to Wilson, 38, were not surprised to hear of the latest dark chapter in the life of a man who they say has battled his share of demons, which have included drug addiction. According to the Santa Monica Police Department, the 911 call that brought an emergency crew to his home shortly after noon on Sunday was classified as an “attempt suicide.” The following day Wilson issued a statement saying, “I respectfully ask that the media allow me to receive care and heal in private during this difficult time.”
For now, his immediate well-being is the primary concern of friends such as Woody Harrelson, Wes Anderson, Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Garrett, who visited Wilson at the hospital, and the actor’s close-knit family. Brothers Luke, 35, who initially found Owen, and Andrew, 43, were by his side in the hours and days after the incident; his parents, Robert, 66, and Laura, 67, fought past anguish and exhaustion as they kept a revolving vigil. As the brothers headed out to get take-out dinner on the evening of Aug. 26, “Luke was visibly distraught,” says a witness. The following day, as he ran out to Starbucks, his eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. “It’s a very hard situation,” says Carolina Cerisola, an Argentinean salsa dancer who dated Wilson in 2004 and has remained close to him. “I talked to his uncle. He said Owen is okay. I am just trying to be supportive.”
What drove Wilson to an act of self-destruction that one friend calls “the most out-of-character thing”? Asked what brought him to this point, another good friend says, “It would be irresponsible to say it was any single thing. People are complicated. Owen is no different.” Those close to him know he is far more complex than the ber-relaxed dude he has played to perfection in such hit films as Wedding Crashers, Zoolander and Meet the Parents.
An easygoing college dropout who loves to jog with his Australian cattle dog Garcia, flirt with girls at the beach and skateboard around his neighborhood, at times, friends say, he is also a moody loner who has long struggled with what, in a 2005 Playboy interview, Owen called an “Irish strain of depression.” Says Platt: “Oh, he has a dark side, definitely.” She got a firsthand view of it after initial criticism of Bottle Rocket, which Wilson cowrote with longtime friend Anderson, who also directed the film. Platt noticed that Wilson barely spoke during the editing process, keeping his stress and feelings to himself.
Then one day, when she walked into a nearby church, “I looked over and saw Owen kneeling on the floor.” Some 30 movies later, Wilson still fears failure. “People can’t understand the pressures,” says Platt. “Agents telling you to do this movie or that, people treating you differently, you don’t know who your friends are.” Adds another friend: “Owen is fun, kind and caring. [But] it’s like he has a little John Belushi in him. He has demons; on some level, he’s managed them for years.”
Sometimes, however, Wilson could no longer keep them in check. According to a source who has been close to Wilson for many years, the actor has ventured into “the hard stuff” in the past, and he was in rehab clinics at least twice – once at Promises, once at Hazelden – in the past decade. (Reports that Woody Harrelson recently staged an intervention are denied by Harrelson’s rep.) Of course, Wilson’s laid-back stoner gaze is as much a part of his image as his off-kilter smile, and the actor has always played it up to the public, whether joking about buying Clear Eyes at 7-Eleven in high school or acting so loopy on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last year that Stewart asked him, “How high are you”? Wilson simply grinned.
No one who knows Wilson has ever claimed he is a choir boy. Growing up an Irish Catholic in then mostly Protestant Dallas, he was proud of his intellectual parents – Robert managed the local PBS station, and Laura is an accomplished photographer – but he also felt the outsider. Though a gifted writer, he was not a stellar student. As a 10th grader at St. Mark’s prep school in Dallas, he stole his geometry teacher’s textbook and copied out answers to an exam. After he was caught, Wilson was expelled. He agreed to go to the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell at the behest of his parents, and learned “to follow the rules there,” he told The Australian Magazine in 2005. Then again, rules were made to be broken: In May Owen was a no-show at a New York Times panel appearance with his brothers in Manhattan. Asked about Owen’s absence, Luke playfully answered, “He’s under the weather, but . . .” Then Andrew chimed in, joking, “Elizabeth Taylor called it exhaustion.”
For a while, beginning last August, it seemed Owen might have found someone to settle down with – Kate Hudson, his costar in You, Me and Dupree. The couple dated after she separated from her husband, Chris Robinson, but split in May. Soon after, he jetted off to Europe, where he was photographed shopping and eating ice cream with a mystery brunette. He then met up with pal Bruce Willis at a Paris Rolling Stones concert; they later attended the Berlin premiere of Live Free or Die Hard. Asked by PEOPLE how Wilson was faring post-Hudson, Willis said, “He’s doing well.”
But when Wilson returned to L.A, several friends noticed something was off: “He was not that Owen who had backyard barbecues and sat around laughing with friends,” says one. The source attributed his mood change at least in part to his breakup with Hudson, perhaps because his self-professed commitment phobia was once again at odds with his own dream; at a 2005 press junket, he admitted that “I thought I’d be married by the time I was 30 and be starting a family, but it just hasn’t worked out that way.” Whatever the reason, says a pal,” he pulled away from friends. He went MIA for a while.” And not for the first time; during a two-year romance with Sheryl Crow that began in 1998, says another source, “he would disappear for two to three days at a time and then come back. She would be worried sick.” As were his friends this time around. Says one: “We’ve all been worried about him possibly doing drugs again.”
Still, there were no clear signs Wilson was in serious trouble in the days before his crisis. His actions seemed normal, whether grabbing a casual lunch at Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica or having dinner with his father and uncle at a local Italian restaurant.
One possible indication that something was amiss: Around 11 a.m. on Aug. 24, he pulled up to St. Monica church and walked inside. The signs now are far more serious. While colleagues on his upcoming film The Darjeeling Limited, costarring Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, head to the Venice International Film Festival, Wilson will be in L.A., as he put it, “healing.” Meanwhile, his friends are grateful that help came before it was too late. “He’s really funny and warm and sensitive,” says one close pal. These are not the qualities, of course, that one instantly associates with Hollywood. Adds his friend: “Maybe that’s why he’s in the situation he’s in.”
• By Karen S. Schneider with Bob Meadows. Alexis Chiu, Jennifer Garcia, Mary Margaret and Kristen Mascia in Los Angeles, Linda Marx in West Palm Beach, Darla Atlas in Dallas and KC Baker and Jeffrey Slonim in New York City