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A Fallen Star

Addiction: Former actress, now 54 and living on the streets, dreams of a movie comeback.

February 21, 2001|NOAKI SCHWARTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a good week for June Fairchild. She and a friend scraped together enough to stay at the Rosslyn Hotel, a tattered building off downtown's skid row that charges about $28 a night.

In her eyes, it is a glorious place. She doesn't see the bars shielding the concierge or the worn patches in the deep red carpet. At 54, she would rather remember what it looked like when she was a starlet in Hollywood during the '70s. She would rather tell you how she visited actress Mae West in a Rosslyn room during the filming of the grande dame's last movie, "Sextette."

"I asked Mae West what the key to her success is," Fairchild says. "She said, 'I'm very boring in real life. I made up the walk and the talk.' "

Nobody is going to ask June Fairchild that question. They might ask, instead, how she fell from a promising actress partying alongside film and rock 'n' roll legends to a middle-aged woman spending nights curled up in a cardboard box on skid row. They might ask why a woman who wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. to collect and sell copies of the Daily News in front of the downtown courthouse is talking about acting again.

"An angel in the middle of a snake pit," she calls herself. The woman whose last film role was the Ajax-snorting lady in Cheech and Chong's comedy "Up in Smoke" in 1978 says she has kicked her drinking problem and just needs to get enough money together to get some head shots to her former agent. She has not lost the twinkling blue eyes, smooth skin or sense of wonderment of her youth, and they make her look and sound like a hopeful ghost.

The story begins in Manhattan Beach, where she grew up as June Wilson and was voted Mardi Gras girl and best-dressed at Aviation High in 1965. Soon she was picked out of a dance club on La Cienega to be a go-go dancer on a TV dance show called "Hollywood-A-Go-Go."

"Mom always said I had a tiger by the tail," she says, her voice quivering at the memory.

As she grew up, her idol was Marilyn Monroe; she identified with Monroe's childlike quality and vulnerability. Her childhood dog, coincidentally, had the same name as Monroe's--Tippy. They were both very popular with men. ("Does that sound egotistical?" a wide-eyed Fairchild asks.)

She made the "Playboy After Dark" TV show, started getting bit parts and began dating singer Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night. She says she was the one who proposed the name after reading an article on how Australian aborigines sleep in holes in the earth and use their dingo dogs for warmth. The coldest evening in the Australian outback, the article said, was called a three-dog night.

Fairchild did about a dozen movies from 1968 to 1978. When she talks about them, she occasionally slips into the present tense. She remembers Rosalind Russell pulling her aside and saying she thought Fairchild would go far. In her best Jack Nicholson impression, she recalls being pestered for weeks by the actor to be the cheerleader in "Drive, He Said." And she reminisces about her lush place on Laurel Canyon Drive in the Hollywood Hills, before it accidentally burned down when she fell asleep smoking a cigarette.

It was in the midst of all of this that she began dabbling in drugs, eventually starting the decades-long spiral of drinking. She drank through her relationships, which, despite surrounding her in furs and jewels, were often abusive, she says. She gave birth to a daughter who is now 15 and living with another family.

Single and 46, Fairchild moved to downtown Los Angeles into a $350-a-month apartment with "lots of cockroaches and water beetles." She started making as much as $200 a night working as a taxi dancer, dressed in a black cocktail dress and heels, with her hair pulled up in a French twist.

Her memories of the last few years are murky. She called a former member of Three Dog Night, Chuck Negron, for help at one point, when she was out on the streets, pleading with him that she was "falling and slipping fast."

Negron knew. He was a former addict who didn't kick drugs and alcohol until he was nearly 50. They had met when their careers were both taking off. His band would eventually release 12 consecutive gold albums, including the hit "Joy to the World."

Negron put Fairchild in Cri-Help, the rehabilitation center that helped him kick his habit. It didn't work for her. Neither did another facility. In between, she started staying overnight at drop-in centers and a few times slept in cardboard boxes with borrowed blankets. Charming some gang members who recognized her as the Ajax lady, she got some protection on the streets. Despite this, she says, she was robbed and raped.

Negron wonders whether Fairchild is honest enough with herself to recover. Her youthfulness could hinder her, he says. She can look in the mirror and say, "I'm not looking too bad; everything's fine." The only clue that she's over 30 are her slightly crooked fingers--the early onset of arthritis.

With childlike defiance, she says she believes her hardships are temporary. She knows this because years ago, while visiting Mae West, she had a psychic reading. Like any 30-year-old wondering about her future, Fairchild asked whether she would ever get married, have a child and make it as an actress.

The psychic's voice was grave as he told Fairchild that, indeed, she would get married and have a child. He went on to say she would have her own TV series, something she still believes will happen. Imagine Marilyn Monroe's voice and you can hear June Fairchild saying with a smile that she knew "Up in Smoke" would be her last film for some time, so it had to be memorable for her comeback. "That's why I made it so that everyone would remember. . . ."

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