Starting Over

Margot Kidder opens up after she suffered a breakdown, disappeared and turned up filthy and battered in a stranger's backyard


ON THE AFTERNOON OF MONDAY, April 22, as wind stirred the debris on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and police sirens bleated in the distance, Margot Kidder—disheveled, missing her dental work, dressed in dirty clothes—huddled inside the cardboard box that served as the home of a street person she knew only as Charlie. No director yelled “Cut!” No one hurried over from craft services with hot coffee. No makeup artist retouched the dirt on her face. The actress was living out a waking nightmare that would eventually make headlines around the world and cause heartache among friends and family.

During her ramble through the depths, Kidder saw another homeless man light a crack pipe.

“Don’t do that to your body,” Kidder told him.

“Don’t you be judgin’,” the man replied.

“He’s right,” Kidder recalls thinking. “I have no right to be superior. Here I am. I am homeless.”

Last week, Kidder, 47, paced the porch of her memento-filled log cabin near Livingston, Mont., and talked about “the most public freak-out in history.” The smoky voice and sexy vibe that made her the man from Krypton’s main squeeze in four Superman movies in the late ’70s and ’80s are intact, as is her frenetic energy. But her harrowing escapade has taken its toll on her plucky personality.

The highly publicized disappearance for four days last spring was not the first Kidder crash. Since she first rose to prominence as Lois Lane, she has seemed to spend as much time acting out as acting. There have been addictions and recoveries, husbands and divorces, a stable of boyfriends (including Superman III costar Richard Pryor and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), episodes of bizarre behavior, and an auto accident that left her bankrupt and partially paralyzed. Some fanciful souls have attributed her misfortunes to “the Superman curse.” But while her costar Christopher Reeve fell from a horse and became a symbol of courage, Kidder fell into madness and became an object of tabloid pity. Speaking of her ignominious April episode, she says, “I was like one of those ladies you see talking to the space aliens on the street corner in New York.” Yet the actress is no quitter. Says comedy writer and pal Rosie Shuster: “Margie has the resilience of Rasputin. She just keeps coming back.”

Kidder says the root of most of her problems—which include “mood swings that could knock over a building”—is manic depression, a disease that affects over 2 million Americans and causes those afflicted to vacillate between euphoric highs and desperate, enervating lows. She was first diagnosed with the condition by an L.A. psychiatrist eight years ago. But, suspicious of medical opinion, Kidder refused to accept the finding—or to take lithium, the recommended treatment. But after her most recent slide into the abyss, she could ignore the truth no longer.

Just two weeks before finding herself a street person, Kidder had been working on her memoirs, appropriately titled Calamities. She had entered, as she did every two years or so, a period of intense creative ferment: a manic state, in which she sometimes wrote for 10 to 12 hours a day. “It’s very hard to convince a manic person that there is anything wrong with them,” says Kidder. “You have no desire to sleep. You are full of ideas.”

But then came disaster. As she pecked away on her keyboard, a computer virus caused her laptop to swallow up file after file. Over the next few days, she found that three years of work had vanished. Frustrated and fearful, she flew to L.A. on April 16 to take her computer to a data-retrieval company. She was supposed to go on to Eastern Arizona College, where, ironically, she was scheduled to give a class in career management for actors. On April 19, the data retrieval company told her that her files couldn’t be salvaged. “That’s when I went from really distressed to absolute delusion,” the actress recalls.

That is also when Kidder came to the conclusion that her first husband, novelist Thomas McGuane, “was trying to kill me.” She had divorced McGuane, who refused to speak to PEOPLE for this story, in 1977 after several turbulent years. (Afterward, Kidder was briefly married to actor John Heard and then to French director Philippe de Broca.) Disoriented and terrified, she returned to the L.A. airport on Saturday afternoon, April 20. Kidder was fixated on the idea that McGuane and the CIA were plotting to kill her because her book was powerful enough to change the world. Says manic-depression expert and author Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), a Johns Hopkins University professor who has recently corresponded with Kidder: “Manic-depressives often become delusional in the manic phase. And their usual form is paranoia.” Kidder saw agents and assassins everywhere. “I know you’re looking at me!” she shouted at passersby at the airport.

Still in the airport at 3 a.m., she hooked up with a TV crew from WBIR in Knoxville, Tenn. “My ex-husband has hired people to kill me,” she told them. Recalls anchorman Ted Hall, who recognized her: “I could see there was no plot. It was so sad. She was dirty, tired, no makeup.” By then, Kidder had thrown away her purse because she thought there was a bomb in it. In the early hours of April 21, she tried to take a taxi but didn’t have enough money for the trip. She tried to use her ATM card outside the airport but thought the cash machine was about to explode. “I took off running,” Kidder recalls. “I slept in yards and on porches in a state of fear.” By the afternoon of the 21st, Kidder had made her way downtown, a distance of some 20 miles, and was taken in by Charlie and another man. Says Kidder: “I tried to make little jokes about how to behave because I wasn’t from this neighborhood. The other man just looked at me and said, ‘None of us are from this neighborhood.'”

In his cardboard shack, Charlie “took such incredible care of me,” says Kidder. “I was cold. I was hungry. I was terrified beyond belief. He stayed with me and held me.” Kidder had lost some caps on her front teeth that sometimes fell out and which she cemented back in place with Krazy Glue. “When you’re having a manic episode,” she says, “you don’t always remember to pack the Krazy Glue.”

The next day another homeless man tried to rape Kidder, kicking her in the stomach, hitting her in the face and dislodging the last of the caps on her front teeth. Kidder hit back and remembers reasoning in desperation, “You’re a good person. You don’t want to do this.” The man backed off.

Back in Montana, family and friends were frantic. When Kidder hadn’t shown up in Arizona, her agent John Blake called Margot’s only child (with McGuane), Maggie Kern, 21. Working with the L.A. police, Maggie made dozens of calls to friends. “I even tore apart my mother’s cabin looking for old phone books,” Maggie told Barbara Walters on 20/20. At one point the police told Maggie that they didn’t know whether they would find Margot alive. But her brother John (one of five Kidder siblings), a Vancouver, B.C., inventor, never lost faith. “Margot is incredibly strong,” he says. “She’s a survivor.”

Late on the 22nd, Kidder set off on foot to see her friend Shuster, a former Saturday Night Live writer who has a home in La Crescenta, some 12 miles north of downtown L.A. Margot had hacked off her hair close to her scalp as a further disguise. She spent the night in a motel room, arranged for by some Alcoholics Anonymous members she had met in her wanderings.

The next day, the 23rd, says Kidder, “I was walking up this endless mountain and had the wondrous realization that though I was stripped of all traditional forms of identity, I was still me.” That moment of relative clarity finally led to her rescue. Feeling less driven to hide, the actress took refuge in a backyard in Glendale, where she encountered homeowner Elaine Lamb and told her, “I may not look like it, but I’m Margot Kidder.”

Tipped off by a 911 call from Lamb, the Glendale police found Kidder and took her to Olive View Medical Center in nearby Sylmar, where she was placed under observation. On April 25, Kidder’s sister Annie, a Toronto theater director, got her transferred to UCLA Medical Center, where she felt the care would be better. On April 30, Kidder had to go to court and prove to a judge that she was no danger to herself or others before she was allowed to leave UCLA.

To avoid the press, Margot went to a rented house on an island near Vancouver. There, her brother John introduced her to manic-depression author Jamison’s writings, and Kidder had a shock of recognition. “Finally,” Kidder says, “I was able to accept the diagnosis.”

That realization was a long time coming. The second oldest child of Kendall Kidder, a mining engineer, and his homemaker wife, Jill, young Margaret Kidder grew up in raw Canadian mining towns like Yellowknife, in the remote Northwest Territories, where she was born in 1948. She was whip-smart and stunningly beautiful as a teenager. “I was a hot babe with teased hair and white lipstick,” she says. “My mom sent me to boarding school so I wouldn’t get raped by a miner.”

Her energy and sense of drama virtually chose her career for her. Retired drama teacher Ruth Rapanos says that at Vancouver’s Magee Secondary School, Margot “was a like a little star.”

Yet, though she hid it from teachers, parents and peers, Kidder was already experiencing bouts of suicidal depression and odd flights of fancy. At age 14 she swallowed a handful of codeine pills because a boyfriend had dumped her. “It never occurred to anyone to send me to a shrink,” she says. “I was just a teenager with a broken heart.”

Another time, she became enthralled with a certain pine tree, believing that if she could climb to the top and spin around it fast enough, she would somehow “become one” with it. “I’ve always called it ‘keeping the monsters in,'” she says of her demons. “I knew it wasn’t socially acceptable at a high school dance to talk about the time you got homogenized with pine cones.”

Graduated from Magee two years early, she immediately landed a role playing a troubled teen in Moose Fever, a Canadian Broadcasting Company TV movie. “I thought in acting I could let my real self out,” she says, “and no one would know it was me.” Around age 21, she began seeing psychiatrists for her mood swings but never trusted their approaches. “Trying to help someone who suffers from a surfeit of feeling by encouraging them to let out more feelings is absurd,” she says.

Her secret life did not stop Kidder from taking on Hollywood, though. She moved to L.A. at age 18 and got a part as a virginal prostitute in 1969’s Gaily, Gaily. She worked her way through a string of films, including The Great Waldo Pepper, before taking off as Lois Lane in 1978. After the first Superman, Kidder worked in films like The Amityville Horror and, eventually, less stellar projects.

Throughout her career, Kidder sometimes rode the roller coaster of her illness. “The reality of my life has been grand and wonderful,” says Kidder, “punctuated by these odd blips and burps of madness.” Some events were out of her control. An auto accident in 1990, when she was working on the TV series Nancy Drew and Daughter, left her confined for a time to a wheelchair. A back operation for a herniated disk in 1992 restored her ability to walk, though she still has a somewhat flat-footed gait. More than $600,000 in medical bills drove her into bankruptcy, however, and the pain led to an addiction to pills and alcohol. She later joined a 12-step group. Says Kidder: “If I felt myself starting to go manic, I’d get drunk. Better drunk than crazy.”

It wasn’t all a downer. An apparently tireless serial dater, she was attracted to men as various as director Brian DePalma (Dressed to Kill) and Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, and they were attracted to her. “She loved them and left them all over the globe,” says a longtime friend, author Toby Thompson. “We’d be watching TV, and she’d say whether this guy [onscreen] was a good lover or not.” In fact, Kidder takes some pride in aspects of her disease, noting that Lord Byron, her favorite poet, and novelist Thomas Wolfe were also manic-depressives. “When you listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, you get pleasure,” she says. “A manic-depressive gets rapture.”

Getting work, though, is another matter entirely. In a nervous Hollywood, where film completion insurance is more important than star egos, Kidder has filled the last few years with voice-over jobs, guest shots on series including Murder, She Wrote and occasional stage roles. She recently landed a recurring part as a drama teacher on NBC’s Boston Common (she first appears this week). Kidder is also back at work on her memoirs. A computer whiz was able to retrieve much of the material from her laptop.

The greatest gift of her recovery, however, is an improved relationship with her daughter, which Kidder had seen in the past as her “bottomless well of grief. Nothing was ever stable for Maggie. Manics run through a lot of money, so there was no financial security.” As for emotional stability, she adds, “I was whipping through husbands a mile a minute.” Since Margot returned to Livingston in June, she and Maggie have reached a new and better place in their relationship, Kidder says.

If things are looking up now, Kidder doesn’t forget that they have looked up before—just before she plunged off the edge again. This time, in addition to confronting her disease and going public with it, she is taking her medicine. But Margot, being Margot, doesn’t go the usual route. “I hate lithium because it works just under the level at which it is toxic,” she says. She has been helped, she reports, by Canadian acupuncturist and therapist Elena Crippen, and is trying Depakote, an antiseizure medicine that helps some manic-depressives. With the assistance of her friend, actor Russell Means, she is also looking into Native American herbal remedies. “I’m not saying it’s all over,” she points out. “I’m saying this is the pattern of my life. In three years I might be having another wig-out. I have no idea. I just have to accept the fact that this is me, or I ain’t gonna make it.”


DANELLE MORTON in Livingston

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