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COLUMN ONE

The 13th Step to the Stars

'Sober companions' help ensure that a concert tour or movie shoot goes off without a hitch by keeping artists from their addictions.

March 27, 2002|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ and DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As partygoers circled around, Tim Tankosic watched a beautiful woman expertly smuggle a pack of drugs to the movie star. It was exactly the kind of temptation that Tankosic, a highly paid "sober companion," was hired to ward off.

Soft-spoken and cerebral, with a homey, unaffected air, Tankosic prefers to see himself as a motivational helper rather than a drug cop, so he was relieved when the actor handed him the unused drugs as they left the party--no hassle, no fuss.

"I said, 'Thanks for doing the right thing,' " said Tankosic, 45, who declined to identify the actor or any of his other clients. "I said, 'It's everywhere, isn't it? It's going to be like this for the rest of your life.' "

Only in Hollywood, where the rich employ a platoon of helpers to insulate them from the vagaries of daily life, would there be a full-time, paid position as a "sober companion"--also known as a "minder" or "clean-living assistant."

It's difficult to imagine a Fortune 500 company hiring a baby-sitter to make sure the chief executive officer didn't snort cocaine before a shareholder meeting. But film and rock stars are distinct creative talents, one-of-a-kind performers who can make or break $100-million movies or drive the profits of huge record companies. For some of them, addiction has followed fame.

In the days of Judy Garland or even John Belushi, studio flunkies and concerned friends kept stars working by pouring coffee down their throats or hiring bouncers to keep the drug pushers away. Today's corporate Hollywood insists on more reliable methods. Minders are the front-line workers, paid as much as $5,000 a week to keep fragile performers sober and functional.

Some recovery specialists see the practice as a quick fix that shields the corporate bottom line while doing nothing about the underlying causes of addiction. The minders, they say, are hired to protect the film rather than the star.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. and comedian Chris Farley employed baby-sitters on movie sets and are said to have stayed clean for the duration of the filming. But Downey later relapsed, and the 300-pound Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997.

Despite these discouraging outcomes, celebrity baby-sitting is a growth industry. Among the reasons: Addiction is not stigmatized the way it once was. Entertainers are encouraged to confront their problems and enter recovery programs. And the insurance industry is insisting on preemptive steps to minimize the risk that a star's relapse will delay or scuttle a multimillion-dollar film.

A representative of the San Francisco-based Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., which underwrites more than half of all movies produced in this country, said that as many as 20% of the films he has insured since last summer included a high-risk artist with drug problems.

Brian Kingman, a broker at AON/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Brokers, who secures cast insurance for such studios as DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros., has a matter-of-fact attitude toward the issue.

"When there's a known substance abuse problem, you normally talk to all of the artist's handlers, the personal doctors of the artist, the managers and lawyers, and you basically roll up your sleeves and say, 'How can we put together a system or a product where we can package this particular actor to the insurance marketplace so we can get cast insurance?' " Kingman said. "We might have a substance abuse counselor with this particular actor that is on the set and with the person 24/7."

Tankosic, a freelance writer and former addict who has a medical degree and extensive counseling experience, is usually hired by the artists and paid by them or their production companies. He is an independent baby-sitter, not associated with any treatment center.

"The point is to be a rock," he said, "a friendly face, a reminder of recovery, a safe person."

The emotional support Tankosic lends his clients is not significantly different than what members of Alcoholics Anonymous provide for one another for free. However, many of the tasks he performs are unique to the baby-sitter industry.

On a typical movie location, Tankosic lives with the celebrity in a home far from the hotel that houses the rest of the cast and crew. In the morning, he rises with the star and they meditate together. After breakfast, he accompanies the star to the set, and then to a support group meeting typically held in a trailer. They might go to another such meeting that night.

During off-hours, Tankosic said, he tries to make sure the star has fun, although he steers him or her clear of "slippery places"--any locale where drugs or alcohol are available.

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