By Tom Gliatto
Updated April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

At 5 a.m. on March 18 actress Mackenzie Phillips was awakened at her San Fernando Valley home by the phone call she had been dreading. It was her stepmother, Farnaz Phillips, calling from the UCLA Medical Center. “Come over now,” Farnaz said quietly. After seven weeks at the center, Mackenzie’s father, singer-songwriter John Phillips, 65, the creative force behind the ’60s group the Mamas and the Papas, was fading. His heart, already strained by an earlier liver transplant, had in recent days slowed—sometimes to a halt—as his body struggled to fight off an infection. Mackenzie, who the day before had sung him folk songs, stood by his bed with a small group that included Farnaz, 51, his fourth wife, and her father’s cousin Bill Phillips. “He passed away at 8:10,” says Mackenzie, one of Phillips’s five children from his first three marriages. “It was very peaceful, and he was not conscious.”

Given the former One Day at a Time star’s own confessions about overcoming substance abuse while living with a drug-addicted father, such a tender deathbed tableau might not have been expected. “I always loved my dad,” Mackenzie, 41, says now. “I just didn’t approve of my dad.” But in all the dysfunctional mayhem, she realizes, she and her high-profile siblings—including singer Chynna Phillips, 33, formerly of the group Wilson Phillips, and model-actress Bijou Phillips, 21—somehow forgot that the man who was father to them was Papa John to the world. “When I was watching TV last night and the news said, ‘The nation mourns the loss of a legend,’ I broke down,” says Mackenzie. “We lost sight of the fact that he was this genius.”

The Mamas and the Papas lasted only from 1965 to 1968, but their infectious hit singles, notably the haunting “California Dreamin’ ” and “Monday, Monday,” were instant pop classics, aural Polaroids of the flower-power era. Despite a mere five albums the group entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. A perfectionist in the studio, Phillips achieved robust harmonies with bandmates Cass Elliot, then-wife Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty. “I’ll always remember those beautiful vocal sounds,” says David Letterman’s hate Show musical director Paul Shaffer, who first met Phillips more than a decade ago. “I know John’s arrangements note for note.”

Music, though, would not prove his salvation. In the mid-’70s, Phillips sank into a heroin and cocaine habit that so damaged the circulation of his hands they were turning black when he entered rehab in 1980. “I have no idea what my music would’ve been like without the drugs,” he mused in 1998. “What would the Titanic have been like if it hadn’t sunk?”

Even postrehab, Phillips was a physical wreck, requiring a liver transplant in 1992, then two hip replacements that left him wobbly—and led indirectly to his final hospital stay, says his friend, producer Harvey Goldberg. Initially Phillips wanted to check up on a shoulder injured in a fall, but in a matter of days “doctors found a stomach infection,” says Goldberg. The infection seemed to clear up. Little more than a week before his death, Phillips was even singing aloud. “Then it came back,” says Goldberg, “and everything started coming apart.”

What makes his death even sadder is that Phillips seemed to be finally getting his act together. With Goldberg as producer he had completed a new album, Slow Starter, his first in two decades, due this summer. He had also finished polishing a 1970s recording session with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and had met with producer John Davis about a film bio of the group. “He was excited,” Davis says. “He’d put a lot of the demons behind him.”

They had hounded him almost from the beginning, first in Parris Island, S.C., then in Alexandria, Va., where his father, Claude Phillips, an alcoholic career Marine, was stationed. John, no angel himself, claimed to have racked up 297 demerits in a short-lived stint at the U.S. Naval Academy. “But he always loved music,” says Sue Phillips, 64, his first wife and mother of Mackenzie and Jeffrey, 43, now a mortgage-loan officer. “He loved writing songs.”

He got his start in the then hot folk-music scene with a group called the Journeymen but made a major detour during an early-’60s San Francisco gig. Phillips caught the eye of a beautiful blonde, 17-year-old Michelle Gilliam—”and that’s where my life with John ended,” says Sue. They split in 1962. John and Michelle married and became the nucleus of a new band, augmented first by Denny Doherty and then by “Mama” Cass Elliot. When they met producer Lou Adler in 1965, he signed them at once.

But torn by romantic tension, the group scarcely made it through the Summer of Love. After Michelle had a fling with Doherty, Phillips briefly fired her. The band ended in 1968, and Phillips and Michelle divorced two years later. In time Michelle, now 56 and the mother of Chynna, established herself as an actress. Doherty, 59, tours with a one-man show about the group. Elliot died of a heart attack at 32 in 1974. Meanwhile Phillips’s acid-dropping, pot-smoking lifestyle spiraled into addictions to cocaine and heroin. He shared his habits with his third wife, South African actress Genevieve Waite, mother of Bijou and son Tamerlane, 30, a songwriter. Before his 1981 sentencing to a month in jail for conspiring to distribute narcotics, Phillips finally entered rehab, as did Genevieve and Mackenzie. Speaking of his family in 1996, Phillips told PEOPLE, “It’s been a real kettle of fish. We have a nice bouillabaisse now.”

Despite all the domestic upheaval, says Shaffer, Phillips was a good father. When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Shaffer says, “Mackenzie was there, Bijou was there, his whole family was there,” including fourth wife Farnaz, a poet and painter he wed in the mid-’90s. And when the remaining two Papas and one Mama got up to perform “California Dreamin,’ ” says Shaffer, “John sang like a bird.”

Tom Gliatto

Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles and Sue Miller in New York City