sam kinison photo

Friends Shocked by Violent Death of Mellower Kinison

By Amy Wallace
Times Staff Writer
Originally printed in The Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 12, 1992

The shock comedian was sobering up, associates say. A teen-ager is held in the collision

They were the kind of kids to whom comedian Sam Kinison’s bellowing stage persona was often said to appeal–two young men, in their late teens, driving fast in an old pick-up on a Friday night.

Their 1974 Chevrolet truck reportedly was filled with beer cans as they tore down U.S. Highway 95, swerving into oncoming traffic near the California-Nevada border. Moments after hitting Kinison’s Pontiac Trans-Am head-on, fatally injuring the comedian and knocking his new wife unconscious, one of the teen-agers had only this to say, according to witnesses: “God! Look at my truck!”

On Saturday, Kinison’s friends said they could not believe how he had died. The 38-year-old comedian, who made his reputation as a hard-drinking, loudmouthed wild man, had just returned from his Hawaii honeymoon with Malika, the 26-year-old Las Vegas dancer he had married a week ago today. He was settling down, friends said, sobering up and trying to “come into the mainstream.”

“I can’t accept it. Especially the fact that he was not doing anything wrong,” said comedian Richard Belzer, an old friend, who noted that Kinison was on his way to work–a sold-out show in Laughlin, Nev.–when he died. “He was going to a job. His wife was in the car. It wasn’t a drug overdose. It wasn’t self-indulgence. He was living a clean life.”

Immediately after the crash, which occurred near Needles at about 7:30 p.m., Kinison at first appeared fine, said friends who watched the crash from a second car and reported that beer cans from the pickup were strewn across the highway. With what appeared to be only cuts on his lips and forehead, he wrenched himself free from his mangled vehicle, lying down only after friends begged him to.

“He said: ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,’ ” said Carl LaBove, Kinison’s best friend and longtime opening act, who held the comedian’s bleeding head in his hands. Kinison paused, as if listening to a voice that LaBove could not hear.

“But why?” asked Kinison, a former Pentecostal preacher. It sounded, LaBove said, as if “he was having a conversation, talking to somebody else. He was talking upstairs. Then I heard him go, ‘OK, OK, OK.’ The last ‘OK’ was so soft and at peace. . . . Whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer and he just relaxed with it. He said it so sweet, like he was talking to someone he loved.”

Kinison died at the scene from internal injuries, according to authorities. An autopsy is planned.

Police did not release the name of the Las Vegas teen-ager who was driving the pickup truck, but California Highway Patrol dispatcher Tine Schmitt said the youth had been taken to Juvenile Hall in San Bernardino, where he was being held on suspicion of felony manslaughter.

Schmitt said the driver sustained moderate injuries and his passenger, also a juvenile, was more seriously hurt. Malika Kinison was in serious condition Saturday at Needles Desert Community Hospital.

Those in Kinison’s entourage speculated that the youths had been drinking. Majid Khoury, Kinison’s personal assistant, said there was beer in the back of the truck and in its cab. “It was all over the place,” Majid said. The CHP refused to discuss whether the two teen-agers were drunk or whether they had been given blood-alcohol tests.

Friends described Kinison as a warm man, generous to a fault–a description that seemed at odds with his brazen brand of humor. Especially in the early years of his career, the rotund comic was the king of shock comedy–vulgar, vitriolic and ear-splittingly loud. To many, he was downright offensive.

Where other comedians joked about sex, Kinison screamed about carnal relations among lepers and homosexual necrophilia. Other favorite targets included televangelists, women and Andrew Dice Clay, the abrasive comedian to whom Kinison hated being compared. He even had a few jokes about driving under the influence.

On Kinison’s 1988 album “Have You Seen Me Lately?” he defended drunk driving this way: “How else are we gonna get our cars home?”

But even Kinison’s critics admitted that he was much more than another gross-out comedian. At his best, he was a biting social commentator. The son of a preacher from Peoria, Ill., Kinison was particularly brilliant, many said, at dissecting religious hypocrisy.

In a riff on fallen televangelist Jim Bakker, Kinison imagined Judas, sitting in heaven, saying: “Maybe I’ll get a reprieve.” Jesus, meanwhile, “was goin’ through the Bible sayin’, ‘Where did I say: “Build a water slide?”‘”

Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the club where Kinison’s act first caught fire, said: “Sam was a healer, a comedy innovator, a brilliance. To hear his tirades in the main room on his special night were moments in comedy that will never be repeated. Wherever Sam is now, he is resting and we will dearly never, never forget.”

Belzer called his friend “one of the best comedians of his age. Beneath the rebel was a man with a real heart who had something to say about religion and politics. A lot of the audience went (to his shows) to see the wild man. But they came away having done a double-take on certain issues.”

Rodney Dangerfield, another longtime buddy of Kinison, agreed.

“It’s a big loss to people who want to laugh,” said Dangerfield, who had featured Kinison in his 1986 movie “Back to School.”

In recent years, some said, Kinison’s act had gotten tamer. Instead of the homeless, he aimed his razor-wit at Vice President Dan Quayle, who he said was greeted at Cabinet meetings by the chorus: “Hey, Dan’s here. Anyone want anything from Burger King?” After the gay and lesbian community took him to task for his jokes about AIDS, Kinison publicly repented, calling himself “insensitive” and promising to no longer make light of the AIDS epidemic.

In his personal life, too, Kinison–who once described his past cocaine use as being so heavy he used a garden hose to inhale–had mellowed as well.

Kinison, who starred in the Fox comedy series called “Charlie Hoover,” had been negotiating with the television network to do a variety show and was expecting to sign a two-movie deal next week, said Bill Kinison, his brother and manager. He said the comedian was looking forward to getting off the road for awhile, leaving the reckless lifestyle behind and spending more time with his family and friends.

“We had taken a turn in the career that we had been wanting to take,” Bill Kinison said. “He knew he couldn’t live on the road forever.”

A week ago, before a small gathering of friends at the Candlelight Chapel in Las Vegas, he and Malika had formalized their five-year relationship–marrying at 2 a.m. on the birthday of Kinison’s late father.

“He said it would be a tribute, and an easy day to remember,” said Florence Troutman, Kinison’s publicist. Dressed in a tuxedo and red bow tie, Kinison wept, Troutman said, as he recited his vows. “He was very happy.”

Kinison and his wife spent last week at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kona Coast, arriving back in Los Angeles early Friday. Kinison, who had been on a back-breaking road tour for much of the last year, had a sold-out show scheduled that night at the Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino. He was, friends said, revived and ready to work.

At midday, the Kinisons headed east, the lead car of a two-car caravan–Kinison’s brother, his personal assistant Khoury and LaBove followed in the van that also carried Kinison’s dog, a Lhasa apso named Russo. Three miles north of Needles, LaBove was startled awake in the back seat.

“I heard Bill saying: ‘Watch out for that guy, Sam. That guy’s in your lane,’ ” LaBove said. “Then I heard Bill scream, ‘Watch him, Sam! Watch him!’ Then I heard the most horrendous crash.”

The van skidded to a stop, LaBove said. Bill Kinison ran to check on his brother and, thinking that he was merely shaken, turned his attention to the driver of the pickup truck. The teen-ager was out of the cab, surveying his crushed windshield and seemingly uninterested in the human damage that had been done, LaBove said.

“He said: ‘God! Look at my truck!’ And Bill said: ‘You think you’ve got problems now, you don’t know who you hit,’ ” LaBove said. “He was thinking Sam was going to get out of the car yelling. He thought Sam was OK.”