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A Family's Pain, for All to See

A Texas couple's legal battle over 'LAPD: Life on the Beat's' airing of the aftermath of their son's death highlights questions of common decency and the credibility of reality-based shows.

November 29, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

HOUSTON — Bob and Marietta Marich had spent much of their lives in show business, earning prominence in this sprawling metropolis where both were deeply involved in theater and she once hosted a popular TV talk show that he produced.

The Marichs passed on to their children, Michael and Allison, a love of performing arts that motivated both to become actors.

Michael had studied theater at the University of Houston, where his teachers included famed playwright Edward Albee. Dreaming the dreams of many young thespians, he joined his older sister in Los Angeles in 1992, and two years later took a modest studio apartment on the second floor of a white-stucco, dormitory-style building at the corner of Cheremoya and Franklin avenues in Hollywood.

In 1996, he died there.

Michael's death--from a heroin overdose combined with alcohol--devastated his parents and sister. What happened afterward compounded that pain and motivated Bob and Marietta to initiate two lawsuits, one in Los Angeles Superior Court against the entertainment firms behind the syndicated "reality" series "LAPD: Life on the Beat," the other in federal court against the city of Los Angeles and two Los Angeles Police Department officers sent to investigate Michael's death.

Even though they never knew Michael to use drugs or drink excessively, the Marichs are now resigned to what led to his death in the early morning hours after an evening of partying with friends. Michael "made a dumb, dumb mistake" in doing drugs that night, Bob acknowledged in the eulogy he gave for his son in Los Angeles.

The legal war continues, however. The couple has appealed last year's dismissal of their suit against MGM/UA Telecommunications Inc. and its subsidiary, QRZ Media Inc., which produces "Life on the Beat." The city, meanwhile, is seeking dismissal of the Marichs' other suit.

"Life on the Beat" caused the family great anguish by videotaping and displaying Michael's body in his apartment. The crux of the Marichs' legal case, though, is a telephone call to them by an LAPD officer who they charge invaded their private grief because it was recorded and included in the show's segment on Michael's death.

The tragedy has immersed the family in a controversy that also touches on other issues.

One is LAPD conduct. Another is the propriety of close ties between police, fire and emergency units and the so-called "reality" TV series that videotape them--action shows such as "Life on the Beat," whose rosy depictions of their subjects raise questions about their credibility.

Overriding these, perhaps, is the issue of common decency. Does having the possible legal right to do something also grant media the moral right? Shouldn't the Golden Rule of "Do unto others . . . " apply here?

"Every right is offset by other rights, and a decent person of character weighs and balances those," says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles.

In dispute is just how much weighing and balancing "Life on the Beat" did regarding Michael Marich.

*

Michael was 27 when he died, a promising actor with growing TV and movie credits and an income that topped $80,000 in the last nine months of his life. He so impressed Albee that the playwright anointed him a "shooting star" in a letter read at a memorial service for Michael in Los Angeles.

As a teen, Michael hung out with his friends some nights drinking beer in Houston's Memorial Oaks cemetery. Today, he's buried there.

His grave is not far from the verdant, meticulously kept middle-class section of Houston where he and his sister were reared and grew to love the theater, and where their parents have lived in the same comfortable ranch house since 1963.

Like the Marichs' marriage of 47 years, their house and neighborhood project stability. That was shattered for them about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1996, a Sunday, when Marietta was in the den watching a movie on TV while Bob slept in their bedroom. She was about to turn in when the phone rang.

"I wondered who would be calling at this hour," recalls Marietta, a handsome, genteel-mannered teacher and actress who still works occasionally in films. "I answered the phone, and I started to hang up because I thought it was one of those calls about giving you a new long-distance service." The voice was male. "He asked to speak to my husband. I told him that he was asleep and that I could talk to him. He said, 'I really need to talk to Mr. Marich.' I said again that he was asleep and that I could take a message. He said, 'It's about his son.' I said, 'I'm Mrs. Marich.' He said, 'Are you Michael Marich's mother?' I said I was. And he said, 'Well, your son is deceased.'

"I said, 'Michael?' And he said, 'That's correct, Michael Marich.' I didn't know what to think. I just didn't believe it. It didn't sound like an official call. It didn't sound real. He sounded preoccupied, like when kids call and you know they are horsing around.

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