By Tom Gliatto
April 05, 1999 12:00 PM

David Strickland had high hopes for Forces of Nature, the new Sandra BullockBen Affleck hit in which he plays the lovelorn ex of Affleck’s bride-to-be (Maura Tierney). Until now, Strickland was best known as Todd, the boyishly immature music critic on Brooke Shields‘s NBC sitcom, Suddenly Susan. In Forces, his first major studio movie, Strickland had the opportunity to steal a few scenes and got to sing Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds” comically off-key. Still, the romantic comedy was a bit frothy for his taste. “I really truly enjoy really dark comedy,” he said, “or really disturbing drama.”

On March 22, Strickland’s life ended in a drama that went beyond dark and disturbing. At 4 a.m. that day, according to Las Vegas police, the 29-year-old actor checked into the Oasis, a motel in a seedy section along the Vegas strip, and paid $55 by credit card for Room 20. “He was pretty quiet,” recalls motel owner Peter Napoli. “He didn’t express himself.”

When the actor failed to check out before 11 that morning, the desk clerk entered the room to find Strickland, still fully dressed in blue jeans and khaki shirt, hanging from a ceiling beam, a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Below him, six empty bottles of beer lay on the floor. “It’s an obvious suicide,” says Metro Homicide Lt. Wayne Petersen, “although we have not closed the investigation.”

No one, so far, has explained how the actor wound up in Las Vegas. A dancer at a Los Angeles erotic dance club called Fantasy Island, where Strickland was a regular, recalls seeing him at the club with three friends as recently as 2 o’clock Sunday morning. “He was jumping around and introducing everyone to his friends, being Mr. Hollywood,” she says. “He was happy and joking.”

That was the Strickland that Suddenly Susan cast and crew members chose to remember as the set shut down production for a week. “I am devastated by the loss of my best friend,” Brooke Shields said in a statement. Strickland, says costar Nestor Carbonell, who plays photographer Luis Rivera, “held us together because he was very light and fun. He was the glue.”

But despite his easygoing charm on-and off-camera, he was perpetually in danger of unraveling, says Carbonell, when his manic depression would tip him into alcohol and drug abuse. (Strickland, as part of a drug-checkup program for his Oct. 31 arrest for possession of crack cocaine, was due to check in March 22 at the municipal court of Los Angeles.) “If he had an episode where he fell off the wagon, it would be once every two months, sometimes once every six months,” says Carbonell. “He’d have a bad episode, and we’d all worry about it for a night or two, and he’d resurface as if nothing had happened. He’d always resurface.”

In an interview with PEOPLE in early March at his two-bedroom Santa Monica apartment, Strickland spoke happily of falling in love with Beverly Hills, 90210 star Tiffani-Amber Thiessen at a kickboxing studio six months before. “We’ve been inseparable ever since,” he said. He also described a comfortable upbringing near Princeton, N.J. (he attended private school with Erik Menendez), and later in Los Angeles, where his father, Gordon Strickland, an executive, moved for business. (He’s now divorced from Strickland’s mother, Karen, executive director of Find the Children, which locates missing and abused kids.)

But Strickland admitted in the interview that he was a recovering alcoholic and member of AA. He said, “It really came down to, how do I live without drinking, even though I have the same problems as everybody else who at the end of the day likes to have a drink?” Or something stronger. Last summer, says a friend, “he told me about being in Las Vegas doing cocaine and hanging out with these dealers, thugs, lowlifes. He said, ‘I’m out of control.’ ”

Carbonell believes that, ironically, it was his recent happiness—a successful sitcom, a new movie, a satisfying relationship—that drove Strickland to that room at the Oasis. “The drinking and the drugs were self-medication for him to come down from the high of all the great work and good things,” says Carbonell. “He wanted so badly to be able to handle his success.” But the demons won.

Tom Gliatto
Tom Cunneff, Liz McNeill and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles, Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas