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Back From the Brink

Recovery: A 1970s starlet who has lived on skid row is getting her life together again.

June 03, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She arrived by public bus, not by limousine.

Still, her return to Paramount Studios could not have been more glorious to June Fairchild.

"I'm in heaven," the 1970s starlet said after she stepped from the No. 10 bus and walked onto the Melrose Avenue movie lot.

Fairchild was at the studio to sign a merchandising contract that will allow the manufacture of movie souvenirs tied to her role in the 1978 Cheech and Chong cult favorite "Up in Smoke."

It had been a long, difficult journey back to the limelight for the homeless, 55-year-old former actress--one made possible by friends she never knew she had.

After appearing in "Up in Smoke" as the "Ajax Lady," a befuddled character who sniffed cleanser instead of cocaine, Fairchild disappeared into her own chemical-induced puff of smoke.

She started out by partying and dabbling with drugs, and soon was drinking heavily. There were two failed marriages and a series of abusive relationships. She was subsisting on general relief payments by the end of the 1990s.

By then she was homeless. She slept in skid row hotels, shelters and--when things got really tough--beneath borrowed blankets inside cardboard boxes on filthy downtown Los Angeles streets.

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From a Life of Glamour to One of Pain, Trauma

It was a far cry from the days when she had roles in a dozen films, appearing alongside Beau Bridges, Clint Eastwood, Rock Hudson and Jack Nicholson.

Instead of a promising drama career, Fairchild's life was one of pain and trauma.

She was assaulted on skid row and had tried several unsuccessful stints in rehabilitation centers by 2001, when The Times found her trying to sell enough newspapers outside the downtown courthouse to pay for a $28-per-night hotel room.

A subsequent story that February chronicled her struggles and prompted dozens of offers of help. It also got Fairchild arrested.

Police who recognized her from her photograph in the paper picked her up on a charge of having alcohol in an open container.

Records showed she had not successfully completed probation from a previous drunk-driving conviction, so she was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The two news articles marked a turning point in her life, Fairchild said.

"It told me, 'Let's stop horsing around, let's get it together.' If you can't get it together at a shelter or on the street, maybe jail is best," she said.

A friend from the 1960s, Leon Blinka, made arrangements for Fairchild to serve out the final portion of her sentence under house arrest at his Silver Lake home.

Other Times readers helped too.

Celebrity photographer Greg Gorman updated Fairchild's portfolio with new glamour and head shots. Film producer Lou Adler paid for driving lessons she needed to get her license reinstated. State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) met with her and was persuaded to seek funding for a woman's dorm at a downtown shelter where she had once stayed. Cable TV show host Alan Ray escorted her to the premiere of the movie "Legally Blonde." A gown and a makeup session were donated for the evening.

Classmates from the old Aviation High School in Redondo Beach, where Fairchild graduated in the mid-1960s, donated clothes and cash and invited her to a school reunion last summer in Manhattan Beach.

"I just had this urge to protect her like my child," said Gail Barr, a high school friend who tracked down the former actress.

But the struggle continued. Fairchild joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She fought to reconnect with her 16-year-old daughter, who lives with friends in Santa Monica. She bounced from one temporary living arrangement to another.

All along, Fairchild clung to her dream of a return to acting. In a way, she explained, her talent had served her even on the streets.

"You can act your way into safety. I've done that when it's dark. You better do something smart to save yourself," she said.

"I want to work. I have my Screen Actors Guild card--it's current. l'm going to be self-sufficient. I'm going to take care of my daughter. I want to get a little house and do it right. I'm not thinking small."

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Hoping to Get Back in Front of the Camera

No wonder Fairchild was delighted when a letter from Paramount Studios was delivered to a friend's house where Fairchild collects her mail. It wasn't a job offer, but it was close.

Another 12-step participant, writer Michael Casey, accompanied Fairchild on the bus to the studio to sign the marketing contract.

"She's back to work after 15 years," Casey said softly after walking through the Paramount gates.

Outside companies want to do additional action figures, T-shirts, bobbing-head dolls and the like for fans of Cheech and Chong films, said Kirsti Payne, director of product development for Viacom Consumer Products, Paramount's licensing division. People have requested the Ajax Lady character, Payne said.

"I'll get 5%? Two-and-one-half percent? I don't care," Fairchild told Payne. "I'm in heaven."

Glancing around at the movie posters decorating the studio office walls as she started to leave, Fairchild spoke of finding an agent and getting back in front of the camera.

"I'd love to play a bag lady. Not that I've ever been one. But I've observed them," she said. "I'm never late. I know my lines. I'm a bankable girl."

Before getting back on the bus, Fairchild explained that she would soon be moving from a San Fernando Valley apartment to a place in Venice.

At week's end, those plans had changed. Venice was out--it was too expensive for a person still relying on general relief and the generosity of friends.

Fairchild spent two nights in a Valley motel before landing, temporarily, at the home of a friend. "I probably won't make much money from the products," she said of the marketing deal. "But that's OK. I'll do fine."

She'll bounce back, she promised.

It would be the ultimate show business comeback.

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