Thursday, April 21, 2011




Shortly after his intervention, Frank checked himself into the Charles Durning Institute for Over-the-Counter Drug Addiction, just minutes outside of Palm Springs, California.

CHARLES DURNING, ACTOR/OWNER OF THE CHARLES DURNING INSTITUTE: I myself have never had any issues with addictions of any kind, and I actually see people who become addicted to any kind of substance as being emotionally weak. But I had seen many people…many of my friends, in the industry…suffer from addictions to what many people would think are safe, common medications. I wanted to help my friends. And besides the whole helping people thing, it was a great financial opportunity for me. That place in its first year bought me a house in Tahoe, three bed, two bath.

FRANK:        There I was, nearing my fifteenth birthday, and I already had my first addiction. Most child stars don’t have drug problems until they are 18, maybe 21, even, when they are more grown up and are going through a transition period into full adulthood. But not me, I had to do it at 15. I was ashamed of myself, but I was also determined to get back to normal. Whether or not I was going to get back into entertainment was not my concern…this was about being able to live a normal life.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON, CHIEF THERAPIST, THE CHARLES DURNING INSTITUTE:            The first thing we have to do is get any memory of the drug – in the case of Frank it was the lozenges – out of his system. Unfortunately for Frank, he had taken so many cough drops that the smell of them was practically trapped in his pores. So, for the first two days of his visit, we had him in our sweat lodge.

FRANK:        After two days of constant perspiration, I was at my ideal weight and the lozenge smell was gone. It’s amazing how much you let yourself go when you’re not working regularly.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    Frank was an active participant in our group therapy meetings, almost too much. Sometimes, it was like he was in an audition.

FRANK:        Hey, the place was owned by an actor, there were a lot of people in the industry staying there, so you have to be on any time there is an opportunity to impress. Besides, they videotaped all of the therapy sessions – who knows who might see it?

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    There’s no truth to the rumor that we videotaped the group therapy sessions and then kept them in an archive. I don’t know where that rumor started.


The group therapy session took place four days after Frank checked into the institute. In the room were Frank, Lynnette Rodrigues-Samson, and four patients, who will be known as John K., Mary Y., Tom K. and Linda C.

FRANK: Hi, my name is Frank.

ALL (IN UNISON):      Hi, Frank.

FRANK: Many of you may know me as Jeffrey from Who Took the Gravy? (pause, as he waits for a response that does not come). Anyway, I have always had this deep voice, and I reached a point where I became increasingly frustrated with it.

JOHN X:            Yeah, having that voice would irritate the hell out of me.

LYNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:                        John! Frank, please continue.

JOHN X:                        I’m just saying that I understand.

MARY Y:           Your running commentary is not necessary.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:         Can we get back to Frank?

FRANK: I was at a low point, lower than I had ever been. And I had to ask myself, what do lozenges do? Maybe they shrink my liver, do they? Maybe they pickle my kidneys, yeah. But what do they do to the mind? They toss the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Lynnette, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

LINDA C:          Wait a minute, I recognize that speech. That was from Lost Weekend, that old Billy Wilder film.

TOM K:              Really?

LINDA C:          Well, not exactly the whole speech, but pretty much the gist of it.

TOM K:              I never saw that film.

LINDA C:          Oh, it’s really good. Ray Milland was in it.

FRANK:             You’re, uh, I—

LINDA C:          Dude, you’re such a faker!

FRANK:             I don’t know what you’re talking about.

LYNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:            Frank, did you just do a monologue from Lost Weekend?

FRANK: (long pause) Alright, you caught me. But it seemed so apropos.

JOHN X:             That sucks, man.

FRANK:             What, me doing the monologue, or my performance?

FRANK:        After that, it took a few days for the other patients to take me seriously once again.

One of Frank’s best moments in the institute was his introduction to Wendy Peski, another patient at the institute.

WENDY PESKI:      I was 16 at the time, and I had developed an addiction to Neo-Synephrine, a popular nasal spray at the time. At one point I was going through three bottles a day - it practically became an inhaler for me, except that it was going into my nose, but whatever. One of the other patients introduced me to Frank on my second day at the place. It was Luau Night at the institute, which was done every Friday. I remember they served a lot of pork, which I didn’t like and I almost didn’t go to the event because of that, but I just decided to show up and hang out. I never had watched Frank’s TV show, but I had heard of him. He seemed nice.

FRANK:        Wendy was…she was genuine. I was attracted to her the first moment that I saw her. She had this thing where she was constantly sniffing all the time, like she was trying to keep her nose from running, but somehow I found it to be cute. Love makes you do some crazy things.

WENDY PESKI:      The first thing that attracted me to Frank was his presence. He filled up a room. Maybe his voice had something to do with it, but it was more than that. He was just comfortable with himself, which is saying something when you’re in a rehabilitation center.

FRANK:        For the rest of the time I was there, we were side by side. She became my first girlfriend. I liked the fact that I was dating an older woman.

WENDY PESKI:      My first time was with Frank. It was the first time for both of us, I believe. We almost got into trouble because he couldn’t stop moaning, and everyone told me they could hear this low “Ooooooohhhhhh….” throughout the halls.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    We do not encourage the coupling of patients, but we’re not going to stop them from fulfilling their needs…except for their need of over-the-counter medications, of course.

FRANK:        We got some teasing for my moaning, but I got some pats on the back, too…although getting a pat on the back from a 38-year-old VapoRub addict for getting laid can be a bit creepy. But it was all in good fun, I guess.

After six weeks of treatment, Frank was free to go. But it also meant saying goodbye to his first love.

FRANK:        She had five more days left in her treatment cycle, and although she lived in Southern California, the Lasters had decided that I needed to come home to West Virginia to continue my recuperation. I understood why they wanted me to come back, but I was disappointed.

WENDY PESKI:      We tried to write to each other, and we’d talk on the phone once in a while, but that doesn’t last. We decided to end things about two months after we last saw each other at the institute.

Back in West Virginia, Frank had to deal with being the fallen hero returning home.

FRANK:        There was some disappointment, sure. People expected a lot more, perhaps too much, perhaps, as I thought I had accomplished a lot. Most of the 15-year-olds in my town were lucky to have a job at K-Mart, and they’re making fun of me? Please.

The urge to fall off of the wagon hit him hardest when Wendy ended their relationship.

FRANK:        I started hanging out at the local Woolworth’s, looking at all of the lozenges they had displayed. But I held firm.

ANTHONY CLEMENTS, STORE MANAGER, WOOLWORTH’S:  We wouldn’t have sold him cough drops even if he wanted. We trained all of the cashiers to not sell them to him, and all of the people in town were told not to enable him by buying them for him. But he never tried to buy them. He was close, but he never strayed.

FRANK:        Occasionally I’d take a couple of hits of Neo-Synephrine, just to remember Wendy, but it wasn’t the same.

Frank occasionally used his celebrity for good within the community.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        We had Francis speak a couple of times on Sundays, and he was a constant visitor at the youth center. We were starting to see the old Francis again.

FRANK:        I even started a workout regimen. I had gotten a copy of The Jane Fonda Workout at a rummage sale at the church on VHS, and I really got into getting into shape.

GWEN LASTER:     It was good seeing him working out, but the leg warmers he wore were a little too much.

FRANK:        Hey, when I get into something, I go into it full-tilt.

As summer headed into fall, Frank was about to face his biggest challenge yet – high school.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        We were concerned about such a sudden life change – he hadn’t been in a regular classroom for several years – but we felt that we had to get him back into a normal life.

FRANK:        I thought that my previous celebrity might help me have a smooth transition, but not being around people my age for some time, I didn’t realize that about 90 percent of all teenagers are pure, concentrated evil.

JIM BUCKNER, TEACHER, MONROE HIGH SCHOOL:      Frank was good in the classroom – actually, I would say he was ahead of the curve. Socially, though, his celebrity was greatly resented.

FRANK:        I found out what a “swirlie” was about 17 times.

Frank’s high school career lasted a grand total of 27 days.

FRANK:        I decided to get my G.E.D., and I was a naturally inquisitive person, so I did a lot of independent reading. I’d read any book that the church wasn’t burning. I got my G.E.D. on the first try. And I decided that I would lay low for a little while, figure out my next step.

Frank’s “laying low” period lasted over three years.

[1] Videotape obtained from a former employee of the institute whose name is withheld in order to protect his identity.

(To see Chapter 9, click here)

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