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The Terminal Man : Timothy Leary is facing death the same way he's always faced life--like a rebel. He's even looking forward to it.

August 28, 1995|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man who urged a generation of Americans to "Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out," is preparing for the ultimate drop out.

Timothy Leary has cancer. And to hear him talk about it, he's ecstatic.

"When I found out I was terminally ill, and I know this can be misinterpreted, I was thrilled," says the ever-elfin Leary with enthusiasm. "I was now entered into the real challenge of how to live an empowered life, a life of dignity."

Leary, 74, sits at the breakfast table of his Beverly Hills home, drawing on the first of the many Benson and Hedges cigarettes he will smoke in the next hour. Although he has always cut a trim figure, he is now painfully thin.

In January he was told he had prostate cancer and that it was too far along for surgery.

"How you die is the most important thing you ever do," he continues. "It's the exit, the final scene of the glorious epic of your life. It's the third act, and you know, everything builds up to the third act.

"I've been waiting for this for years."

This jaunty stance from the former Harvard psychologist who became a celebrity in the 1960s for extolling the use of LSD does not seem to be manufactured solely for the public. Shortly after the cancer was diagnosed, Leary contacted his old friend Ram Das, author of the seminal counterculture spiritual handbook, "Be Here Now."

"I got a phone call from Timothy and he said, 'I have two wonderful pieces of news,' " says Ram Das, speaking from his home near San Francisco. "I can't remember what the second one was, but the first was that he had cancer that had metastasized and that he was dying."

In an interview earlier this month, his first about his current condition, Leary never wavers from the enthusiastic demeanor that has been his public persona for three decades.

Actually, it is more a salon than an interview. As friends and business associates drop by, Leary, never one to turn down an audience, eagerly beckons them to sit at the table and join in the conversation about his pending death.

"This is wonderful," he enthuses looking around the table and smiling broadly. "This is such a taboo topic, and here we are talking about it.

"I grew up in a culture where you never talked about how much money you made or anything about death. I love topics the Establishment says are taboo."

Although Leary says he feels no pain, he wears soft slippers to protect his feet and the cushion of his chair is further padded by a pillow. He has sores on his hands and face, caused by a bacterial infection.

Leary is still a household name, but he would probably not be welcome at the breakfast tables of many Americans because of his unwavering promotion of psychedelic drugs as a way to expand consciousness.

But Leary--who in addition to being an ex-college professor, has also been a West Point cadet, actor, gubernatorial candidate, lecturer, software developer, stand-up comedian and convict--relishes his stance as an outsider. There is no surprise that even in death, he plans to go his own way, at the time of his own choosing.

"I use the term 'voluntary dying,' " says Leary. "It's a nice way of saying 'killing yourself.' "

Leary was on a traditional, professorial career path in the psychology department at Harvard in 1960 when, after an experience with a psychedelic mushroom in Mexico, he began a series of experiments with mind-altering drugs. This led him to contacts with the literary and hip set of the time--Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Charlie Mingus, to name a few--and to his being pressured into leaving Harvard.

But in the mid-1960s, as the hippie movement spread, his fame grew to international proportions. The fame diminished during the 1970s, much of which he spent either in prison on drug and prison escape convictions, or on the run in Africa and Europe.

In 1979 he re-emerged in Los Angeles and became a fixture on the filmland party circuit. He appeared in a handful of movies, the best known of which is "Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams," and most of which are long forgotten.

He lectured widely, wrote an autobiography and got involved in numerous computer and media projects, few of which reached fruition.

It was a far cry from his scholarly past and from the years when he was thought of as an important cultural figure. But Ram Das, even though finding himself in disagreement with Leary on many matters, said his friend's contributions continued to be significant, especially in fields such as virtual reality.

"Timothy moves fast through things, leaves them half-digested and goes on to something else," says Ram Das, who before becoming immersed in an Eastern spiritual quest was Richard Alpert, a colleague of Leary's at Harvard.

"That's very much the way a visionary works. He moves on, but he leaves a lot of ideas behind. It's like science fiction. Someone writes about a world but they don't actually create it. They leave a map for others to follow."

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