Accused of trying to steal drugs, former Eight Is Enough star Adam Rich makes a fifth stab at rehab

By Tom Gliatto
August 26, 1991 12:00 PM

MY PHILOSOPHY IS SIMPLE,” SAYS former Eight Is Enough child star Adam Rich, now 22. “Yesterday’s a canceled check, and tomorrow’s a promissory note. But today is cash. Today is all you can really bank on.”

Despite such self-helpful wisdom, the recent days of the onetime TV moppet, now grown to 5’3″, might better compare to a failed savings and loan. The man who was described almost invariably as “cute little Nicholas” during the four seasons (1977—81) he played the youngest of eight on the popular ABC series was arrested on April 6 for suspicion of breaking into a West Hills pharmacy in suburban L.A. Prosecutors say that Rich, who allegedly smashed through a window with a tire iron, wanted to steal morphine, and that minutes before the break-in, he had been at the nearby Humana Hospital emergency room, where he requested (and was denied) painkillers to dull pain in his right shoulder.

The pain was real. It stemmed this time, he says, from a recent operation on his dislocated shoulder. But even before the surgery, he had used his shoulder as a way to get drugs. “What I used to do,” recounts Rich, “was lean up against a wall and knock my shoulder out on my own to get IV morphine and prescriptions to last me a couple of weeks. I did this about 12 times, and after that my arm couldn’t stay in the socket. That’s why I needed the surgery.”

Just as young Nicholas might have done in a pinch, upon his arrest Rich contacted his TV dad, Dick Van Patten, who immediately posted the $5,000 bail. “I just did what anybody would do for a friend,” says Van Patten, 62. Rich claims he didn’t have the option of calling either of his real parents, Francine and Bob, who are divorced. “My mother had changed her phone numbers and didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” he says. “You know, like that tough-love kind of thing.” Rich says his lather, a retired mechanic, rarely speaks to him.

Barely 24 hours later, Rich bailed himself out for $250 after he was arrested in Northridge for shoplifting sunglasses and socks from a Bullock’s department store.

“I was kind of like a walking zombie,” Rich says of that lost weekend. after which he checked into the Betty Ford Center for five weeks. It was his second visit to the treatment facility—the first, for cocaine addiction, was in 1989—and his fifth attempt to overcome a drug-and-alcohol problem that, he ruefully estimates, cost him a million dollars over a decade. When he got out, says Rich, “I went straight into a recovery center [in Santa Monica], living with other people dealing with the same struggles.” He’s still staying there and attending daily support meetings. “I’m doing pretty well,” he says.

Rich—who has pleaded not guilty to both the break-in (a hearing is scheduled for this week) and the shoplifting (that case goes to trial Sept. 3)—isn’t the only grown-up child star lately to have behaved as if he needed a very large, very powerful babysitter. His arrests came only weeks after Dana (Different Strokes) Plato was charged with robbing a video store, and Danny (The Partridge Family) Bonaduce was arrested for punching a transvestite prostitute. (Plato pleaded guilty June 6; Bonaduce, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, will be sentenced later this month.) Nor is Rich the only of his TV siblings to have had problems: Willie Aames, 31 and a costar on Charles in Charge, struggled with substance abuse after the series ended, and Lani O’Grady (Mary) was treated for a Valium habit in her mid-20s.

But the case of this moppet manqué has a special poignancy. “What you saw in those early episodes—an innocent, sweet, lovable kid—was what Adam was,” says Dianne Kay, 36, who played sister Nancy. Rich instantly became an audience favorite—and a soul mate to Van Patten, himself a former child star (he played Nels on TV’s Mama from 1949 to 1956). “All the kids on Eight Is Enough were nice,” says Van Patten, “but they just didn’t have Adam’s magnetism.”

Rich won the part of Nicholas when he was 9, five years after he had pointed to the family TV and told his mother, a housewife, that he wanted to “get in the little box.” (His mom now runs a dormitory at California State University, Northridge; his brother, Wayne, 17, is a high school student.) A six-month acting class at 4 led to an agent, more than 100 commercials and, in 1977, the Bradford household.

After the series ended in 1981, Rich had roles in two short-lived series—an ABC adventure show, Code Red, in 1981-82, and a CBS sitcom, Gun Shy, in 1983. But he soon was preoccupied with new interests. He had started drinking at age 11, when he found that alcohol made him feel more comfortable at parties. Connie Needham, 31, who played sister Elizabeth, remembers the time the cast attended a network-affiliates meeting. “Adam was only about 14 then,” she says, “and walking around with a vodka and soda.” The cocaine and other drugs began away from the series, in school, as the teenage Rich tried to shed that “cute little Nicholas” image. At 12, he was smoking pot (he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1983); at 14, dropping LSD; at 15, snorting cocaine. He dropped out of Chatsworth High School in 1986 and did…nothing. “I was just too busy having a good time,” he says. “My agent would call with job offers, and I would tell him, ‘I don’t want to work. I’m on vacation.’

By the time he resurfaced for an Eight Is Enough TV-movie reunion in 1987, it was obvious that the vacation had lasted too long—especially on the day Rich overslept (“I had stayed up late getting high, then I took something to put me to sleep”), became disoriented driving to Lorimar studios, got in an accident and dislocated his shoulder. Finally he turned up, hours late, at the set. Rich claims he took the studio’s suggestion and, after shooting finished, went to a treatment center, “but I was kicked out when I got busted smuggling cocaine in.”

Two years later the production of An Eight Is Enough Wedding almost became a requiem when Rich collapsed and nearly died—the result, publicist Jeff Ballard said at the time, of a virus. But it was an overdose, Rich admits now, that plunged him into a two-week coma and partial paralysis.

“I was taking so much Valium and other pharmaceuticals that my body just broke down and went into a coma,” Rich says. “The doctors didn’t expect me to live. Once I got over that hump, they didn’t expect me to walk again. We had everyone thinking I was this courageous dude battling a virus, but truthfully my attitude was, ‘Let me just f—-ing die.’ ”

Now, he says, he would rather live. And he’d like to work again, although he has no firmer plans than to start going out on auditions. Van Patten thinks it’s not enough just to work toward a showbiz comeback. “Adam should have something else going for him too—some education or another job,” he says. “He has to keep busy.” These days Rich is up at 7 A.M., has a workout at Gold’s Gym in Venice, meets with his support group, shoots pool, strolls the Santa Monica beach and watches television (Late Night with David Letterman and Cheers are favorites).

He’s also slowly reestablishing contact with his family (he moved out when he was 18). His mother will say only, “I do love and care about my son very much. And, yes, I’m very optimistic.”

But Rich knows he can’t have the same confidence in the future that cute little Nicholas might have had, growing up in the security of that little box. “I’m not out of the woods yet,” he says. “And what I’ve been through is impossible to understand unless you’ve been there.”