5. Graham Chapman
Another high-functioning addict was Graham Chapman, of British comedy troupe Monty Python. He was an alcoholic from his time as a student and drank every day, in order to “face the world”. He would forget material he’d written just a few hours previously and embarrassed the other Pythons by giving a drunken interview to the NME. Following that incident in 1977, he stopped drinking but died of cancer in 1989.
4. Owen Wilson
Owen Wilson is a sad example of an actor who worked hard, turned out a huge number of films and then crashed down in spectacular fashion. He appeared in 27 films between 1996 and 2006 and had a solid relationship with both director Wes Anderson and the other actors in the “Frat Pack”, headed by Ben Stiller. As a result, the work kept coming in and he was due to start work on “Tropic Thunder” which starred and was directed by Stiller. However, in August 2007 he was rushed to hospital amid rumors of a suicide attempt. He had recently broken up with girlfriend Kate Hudson and their split was said to be the reason behind it. He was treated for depression and withdrew from both “Tropic Thunder” and public life in general.
Friends of Wilson, and Courtney Love in particular, laid the blame on British comedian Steve Coogan who allegedly plied Wilson with drugs when he was trying to break the habit. Coogan denied the allegations, saying they were “unfounded, unhelpful and hurtful to all concerned.” The episode had spooky parallels with the Wes Anderson film “The Royal Tenenbaums” in which Wilson played a celebrity who battled with drug addiction. In that film, it is Owen’s brother Luke who attempts suicide. In real life, it was Luke who found Owen after his attempt.
Gradually, he returned to work albeit at a slower pace, and had a son in January 2011.
3. Tony Hancock
Another British comedian who drank heavily, Tony Hancock was best known for his eponymous series “Hancock’s Half Hour”, which ran on first radio then TV from 1954 to 1961. He was a “difficult man to get on with”, according to fellow comic Spike Milligan and he certainly gave the impression of alienating those around him. First, he pushed away comedy partner Sid James and then his scriptwriters. From 1960 onwards, he was a man on a self-destructive downward spiral and he later blamed this on an interview he did for the BBC’s “Face to face”. The probing nature of the questions caused the already self-critical man to over-analyze himself and pick fault with everything he’d achieved. It is said that he never quite recovered from that interview.
His romantic life was a mess as well. He married Cicely Romanis in 1950, but took Freddie Ross as a mistress, eventually replacing Cicely with her in 1965. At the same time, he was conducting an affair with Joan Le Mesurier, the wife of one of his best friends. Freddie attempted suicide in 1966 and the marriage was dissolved 2 years later.
Hancock himself committed suicide in 1968 with a combination of pills and vodka. His suicide note contained the poignant words “Things went wrong too many times”.
2. Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking comic, who led the way for other black comedians to make it in mainstream culture. He was a stand-up primarily, and used his platform to address the thorny issue of race in post-apartheid America. He also made a number of comedy films in the 1970s and 80s. Without Richard Pryor, the entertainment world would look very different today.
However, he was not a tame man – his stand-up was outrageous and full of swearing, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and he set fire to himself while freebasing cocaine, an incident he would later describe as a suicide attempt. He was also an MS sufferer and broke yet another taboo by talking openly about his condition. He was married seven times, but only to 5 women, and in some ways is the epitome of the fast-living, fast-talking comedian. He died at 65 from a heart attack and black comedians are still enjoying his legacy.
1. OJ Simpson
Top of our list is a man not primarily known for his comedy. He rose to fame as an American football player but put in a very funny and credible performance as Nordberg in the Naked Gun films. He had a promising comedy career ahead, but in June 1994 his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman were found dead and Simpson – who had previously been accused of violence against Brown – was tried for their murders. He was acquitted, but his reputation never recovered and he spent the next few years in and out of trouble with the law before finally being arrested in 2007 for various felonies (including armed robbery) and sentenced to 33 years in prison. It’s hard to imagine a harder fall from grace than OJ Simpson’s.