Diary of a Media Hoax: The Death of Adam Rich
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Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Brandon Lee, Famous Amos -- they were all young, they were all reckless, and they were each kinda sexy in their own tragic sort of way. Of course, they're all dead, too. And in their deaths, each was subjected to a maelstrom of the customary media lionization, distortion and exploitation. Together they constitute the canon of pop icons "cut down in their prime," whose deaths are of course "tragic," and whose deaths beget fawning tributes, sordid accounts of their private lives, and, for those media outlets shrewd enough to milk the story, higher ratings and better sales at the newsstands.At Might magazine, a small San Francisco-based bimonthly of issues and satire, we figured that the best way to make fun of the whole practice was to create our own dead celebrity. By publishing a bogus dead-celebrity tribute issue -- complete with sordid details, rumors and exclusive interviews -- we could spoof the genre while maybe even putting one over on a few gullible and/or flat-out stupid people. But first we needed a star who would let us fake their death. The conditions were thus: he or she had to be famous enough to have wide name recognition, but not so famous that that readers would question why they hadn't heard about their demise. We chose Adam Rich, best known as Nicholas, the adorable youngest child in the late-70s TV dramedy Eight is Enough. One of our contributors had grown up with him in L.A., so we called and pitched the idea. He's a laid-back kind of guy and believed in what we wanted to do, so he said okay. He sent us a bunch of pictures from his child star years -- Adam with Bill Cosby, Adam with Brooke Shields (!) -- and we had a photographer take some new pictures. Adam provided some background, helped flesh out the story, and approved the final copy. But he had no idea what he was in for. In the issue, we recounted the events that led to his murder at the hands of a certain Tad Michael Earnhardt, a desperate out-of-work L.A. stagehand. We looked back fondly at his career, and talked about what he'd been doing in the intervening years, from his hobbies -- painting, motorcycles, tattoos -- to his obsessive work on something we called "The Squatter Project," rumored to be a brilliant, genre-busting film that was to feature a host of Hollywood's heavy hitters, including Nicholas Cage and Harrison Ford. On the cover we put a suitably soft-focused black and white photo of a glassy-eyed Rich, a photo that perfectly aped the Rolling Stone/Spin cover stories about Kurt Cobain. The cover lines read, "Adam Rich, 1968-1996; Fare Thee Well, Gentle Friend. His Final Days. His Last Interview. The Legacy He Leaves." Funny, right? At least we thought so. The cover, plus the 10-page spread within, was so overwrought, melodramatic and intermittently hilarious that we couldn't imagine that anyone could possibly believe it was real. So we decided to bolster its credibility by issuing a straight-laced press release, heralding our exclusive report on the under-reported murder of Adam Rich. The first place we faxed was Hard Copy. Time elapsed between faxing the release and their breathless call to Might: approximately 18 minutes. A Hard Copy producer wanted to know more details. Why hadn't they heard about it? Could we put them in touch with family and friends? Could they get an exclusive? We were thrilled. Getting Hard Copy, purveyors of just the kind of shameless pap we were satirizing, to report the story as fact would have iced our cake. We fibbed enough to keep them interested. They searched and searched, but they couldn't find confirmation anywhere -- no obituary, no police report, nothing. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, apparently they actually do reporting.) Still, they were eager. It was obvious they wanted more than anything for it to be true. But the jig was up about an hour later when the National Enquirer -- who we hadn't faxed, but who I guess shares tips with Hard Copy -- called Rich's publicist and demanded to talk to Adam. A National Enquirer -Adam Rich-Adam Rich's publicist conference call ensued: Adam Rich: "Hello?"Adam Rich's publicist: "Adam, are you alive?"Adam Rich: "Uh, yeah."The Hard Copy producer, tipped off by her National Enquirer cohorts, called back and chewed us out. It was then that we rethought our approach. It was obvious that any media outlet, by calling the L.A.P.D. or the county coroner -- or Rich's publicist -- was going to quickly find out that Adam was not indeed dead. It almost killed us, but we reluctantly resolved that from then on, we'd let callers in on the joke.But most of the damage had already been done. The magazine had been on the newsstand for about two days and Rich's poor publicist -- who didn't know what we and Adam were doing -- was getting at least fifty calls a day. Newspapers, radio stations, colleagues and old girlfriends were calling to offer condolences and to learn more. Why hadn't they heard? Why wasn't there a memorial service? One old girlfriend saw a copy of the issue and cried for two days before mustering the courage to call Adam's number. Expecting his last outgoing message, she was shocked when a real live Adam answered the phone. Other actor friends called and were pissed when they learned the truth. And just when Rich was starting to get nervous about the fallout from the story, it got worse. An AP reporter tracked down Eight is Enough costar Dick Van Patten in somewhere like rural Missouri, wanting a comment on Adam's death. Van Patten was beside himself, and called Rich's publicist, deeply distraught about the news. Van Patten was set straight, but Rich was shocked by the reach of our little magazine. He intimated that perhaps the whole thing had gone too far."No offense to Might," he said, "but I didn't really think anyone would see it." Whether or not they had seen the magazine, the rumor was soon everywhere, and posted to newsgroups all over the Net. Rich asked us to fax out another press release, and together we posted an official response on the Net. The statement, besides making it clear that he was indeed alive, ended with this conclusion from Adam: "Personally, I believe that if you can't laugh at yourself, you've missed the biggest goddamn joke in your life. Thanks for caring, and lighten the fuck up."The piece has taken some unfortunate turns. Tabloid schmaltz like The Star, The Globe and the National Enquirer have written snippy little things about this being Adam's "desperate" attempt at a comeback. A writer for the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat put forth the comeback theory, adding that Rich's career was "going nowhere fast." (In contrast, of course, to the career of someone who's writing the celebrity gossip roundup for a piddling little paper in a tiny California town.) What no one wants to do is to allow a former child actor to have a life, to move on from a troubled past. Still, there's been some good news. As I write this, I'm listening to Rich being interviewed on a popular morning radio show. It's his tenth media interview in two days, and the calls keep coming in. He's been accepting interview requests only from those who want to talk about the article, and its message. Back from the dead, Rich has turned into an eloquent commentator on media exploitation. Irony can be sweetly rewarding.Adam flew up from L.A. for our issue-release party a few weeks ago. At the event, dozens of presumably savvy Might readers approached Adam, almost uniform in having been duped by the story. At one point, a beaming Rich was surrounded by about a dozen fawning women. "I really thought you were dead," one said, extending a pen and a copy of the issue. "Can you sign my copy?"The Might Adam Rich Storyby Christopher Pelham-Fence; with Naomi Robbins in Venice, Kent Burden in Hollywood, Didi Gateaux in Brentwood and Cocoa Clarke in Beverly HillsThe mass of ice plant that grows along the California coast just up from Malibu is particularly plentiful, and Billy, Will and Jared's favorite spot at the water's edge is covered with it. Its dense, pulpy leaves cover the ground like a dank blanket, and seem to swallow the sounds around it. Today the usual sounds -- sea lions barking, waves crashing up against the shoreline -- are joined by the voices of these three teenagers. It is the song of mourning for slain actor Adam Rich."He was just so real, so honest with his emotions -- in every one of his roles," says Billy, 18, whose weathered blond hair blows softly in the coastal breeze, as he skips rocks into Santa Monica Bay. In a flannel shirt and Converse All-Stars, his bowl cut half-shadowing his eyes and his cheeks still pudgy, it's nearly impossible to miss the resemblance between Will, 19, and Nicholas Bradford, the character Adam played on the seminal '70s family dramedy, Eight Is Enough. Indeed, Will could be his hero's reincarnation. "I was real young when it was on, so I've only seen it in reruns," he confesses. "But I swear, even though I was an only child, it was like Nicholas could've been me.""I never actually saw the show," offers Billy, "but he still meant everything to me."I can't believe he's gone," adds Jared.But ask Will and his friends just why Rich is gone, and the reply comes almost in unison: "Short temper."Not since Kurt Cobain, Brandon Lee, River Phoenix, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Lord Byron and Shannon Moon has the sting of remembrance been so bittersweet. And yet, this time, the memories seem to be shared on a more personal basis, as thousands of fans gather in spontaneous outbursts of mutual feeling and shared recollections. Indeed, Adam Rich's untimely death was largely ignored by the national media. But when Betty Buckley takes the stage in "Cats" tonight to sing her signature rendition of "Memories," it will resonate with new meaning as she mourns her slain former Eight co-star. For she knows, as well as the thousands of others who've found out through word of mouth in the past weeks, that here in the City of Angels, on the city's most famous avenue, outside a club, in a parking lot, Rich was killed in a senseless act of violence that has become all too familiar in urban America. The details remain sketchy, but this much has been confirmed by the LAPD and unnamed sources close to Rich and the case. At 1:04 a.m. on March 22, Rich walked out of the swank Asp Club on Sunset Boulevard and headed for his car parked around the corner. The street light in front of the club was out. It had been raining. And 5/8 of the way to his 1986 Porsche 911 Turbo 20 feet away, Rich was confronted by a mysterious stranger -- who has since been identified as 29-year-old unemployed dinner theater stagehand Tad Michael Earnhardt. Earnhardt brandished a gun and demanded Rich's wallet, which the actor reluctantly handed over. Then, displaying hints of the short temper Billy and his friends speak of, Rich offered a sarcastic -- but according to Earnhardt, pointedly accurate -- remark. The short, rotund Earnhardt, whose beefy frame belied a hypersensitive and trigger-happy teddy bear within, responded by shooting him three times in the chest. Earnhardt was picked up by police minutes later in a movie theater.At the time of his death, Rich was hard at work producing an independent film whose plot, title and cast remain shrouded in mystery. Rumors say that it was a genre-bending blockbuster in the making, incorporating multimedia and interactive elements -- the type of film propelled by a raw personal vision that comes along perhaps once in a generation. The cast and crew of Rich's mystery film (known in Variety gossip columns as "The Squatter Project"), and nearly everyone in the small beach community of Venice where he made his home, were shocked by the tragic loss of one of America's finest young acting talents. Yet the Los Angeles police remain coolly -- some might say cruelly -- indifferent. "That kind of shit happens around here all the time, especially in parking lots," said LAPD Sgt. David Vigliano in a prepared statement. If you believe in destiny, that we are all just derelict Chinese spy satellites hurtling through the atmosphere on a plotted trajectory toward a final flame-out, then Adam Rich was destined to die in a senseless and completely unpredictable way. The ultimate irony is that Rich, infamous for his short temper, would be sent to meet his maker by one with an even shorter temper than his own. For while Adam Rich is uniformly remembered as a kind, giving and effusively charming soul, nary a single recollection is absent of his somewhat darker side. "I can remember the first time I met him," recalls Kentaro Tanizumi, an animator who brought Rich's voice to life as The Wizard in the cartoon TV series Dungeons & Dragons. "We were talking motocross, trading wipeout stories, you know, friendly as could be. Then all of a sudden he was flyin' off the handle because it was too humid." "It was like fire and ice with Adam," says Heather Locklear, who starred on Dynasty when it was shot next door to Eight on MGM's Culver City lot. "One minute he was charming the pants off you -- like, literally -- and the next minute he's totally berating you about your shoes. But I was just like, 'Adam, they're just shoes.'" "I've never seen anyone so totally embrace a role," says Lorne Greene, who worked with Rich on the short-lived ABC series, "Code Red." "But he'd be running lines with you on the set, and then, totally out of the blue, he'd be tearing his trailer apart. The tiniest little thing could set him off.""He'd be playing with G.I. Joe, happy as a clam, and then for no apparent reason, he'd order Joe to run commando mission on his sister's Barbie dolls," recalls Rich's mother, Francine. "He was like that since the day he was born." That day was October 12, 1968, and the place was Brooklyn, N.Y. Francine and her husband, Robert, moved Rich and brother Wayne out to California when Adam was five. Though nobody in Rich's family is an actor or even a producer, he demonstrated a precocious proclivity for the life of a thespian, and his future as an actor seemed predestined. "Oh, he used to put on little shows when family would come over," says Francine. "He'd write down whole scenes that he'd seen on TV and act them out. Then after about three months of him bugging me, I finally let him go to acting school." Rich's talents were the biggest sensation at Beverly Hills School of Performing Arts since its opening in 1971, and they were so taken by his gift that the instructors brought in the top child-actor agent at the time, Iris Burton. Those who knew Rich early in his career would attest to his unadulterated innocence. "Adam was like a baby seal," says Jules Wandermann, director of BHSPA. "He fucking shimmered in the sun."Rich's talents -- along with some fast talking from Burton -- got him cast opposite Hollywood patriarch Henry Fonda in a long-running commercial for GAF viewfinders. "Adam's youth and enthusiasm seemed to invigorate Henry," recalls Wandermann. "And if I'm not mistaken, it wasn't long after they started working together that he saw the script for On Golden Pond. " Of course, soon after the commercial stopped running, so did Fonda. He died at the apogee of his career, as did Rich.But one of the millions who saw the GAF viewfinder commercial was Lorimar Productions producer Tim Hamilton. After five callbacks and two screen tests, he instantly recognized Adam's innate talents and cast him in the role of Nicholas Bradford for Lorimar's one-hour pilot of "Eight Is Enough," based on the best-selling family saga by author Thomas Braden. Braden passed away soon after writing the screenplay. Now Hamilton is dead, too. On March 15, 1977, the newly formed cast of Eight is Enough assembled in director Kent Morris's Beachwood Canyon bungalow for the ABC debut of the hastily edited pilot of the show. When the clock struck eight (a coincidence?), a nervous energy emanating from the cast and principal crew crackled in the Hollywood living room like kindling. They gathered and stared at the television with increasing tenseness, brought together now by their shared doubts: Could a show about a family with eight kids make it on American television? A show about a family with eight kids that lived in Sacramento? A family with eight kids that lived in Sacramento whose father was Dick van Patten? The odds seemed stacked against them. But Rich would later tell friends that he could see his destiny laid out before him that night from his seat in a bean bag chair by the ficus. Just eight years old at the time, he was perhaps the only one present who could see that the show would be an instant success. The precocious youth stood up as the credits rolled and proclaimed, "It's a hit! A palpable hit!" The room stared at him in disbelief.Rich was right, of course. Eight Is Enough went into immediate production as a one-hour series, and for the next four years established itself as a Wednesday night institution for millions of American families. And from this cast of over seventeen regular players, it was Rich who leapt into the collective heart of America. Within months of the show's debut, Adam was featured on magazine covers and morning wake-up shows nationwide. But despite the show's wild success and Rich's universal popularity, problems developed between America's latest pre-pubescent darling and the rest of the cast of "Eight." Even at the age of ten, Rich was prone to bouts of self-imposed solitude and moments of unpredictable, gale-force rage. One time on the set, he threw a bowl of catering-truck macaroni salad at co-star Willie Aames, who played brother Tommy. Another time, in a discussion with an unsuspecting gaffer, he pulled a knife. "Back then, people had this impression of Adam being this adorable little pip-squeak, and he wasÉ most of the time," says Susan Richardson, who played Susan. "But he had a dark side you just couldn't imagine unless you were quite imaginative.""He scared me. Scared me bad," confides Karate Kid Ralph Macchio, who had a small part on Eight as Nicholas's friend Jeremy. "I'm glad he's dead."Rich had an entirely different feeling about his next show,