By Jane Wollman Rusoff
With additional reporting by A.J.S. Rayl and Jon Weiderhorn
Originally printed in Entertainment Weekly, No. 122
Friday, June 12, 1992
“That’s when you know you’re pretty f—ed up, when it makes sense to fall asleep… I was driving between Needles and Barstow… It’s about 120 miles of desert… It’s four in the morning, man… Hey, this is a pretty good time to go to sleep … (SCREAMS HYSTERICALLY) So I totaled this f—in’ car out, man!… I f—in’ totaled it! And it made SENSE at the time!…” — FROM THE “SAM KINISON FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT HOUR,” APRIL 4, 1991
IRONY OF IRONIES: On April 10, 1992, almost a year after delivering that routine on HBO, Sam Kinison was killed in a head-on collision on that same stretch of arid desert road between Needles and Barstow, Calif., the same haunted section of U.S. Highway 95 that opens Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A 5’8″, 275-pounder whose appetites matched his bulk, a kamikaze comic known for his piercing screams and full-bellow takes on sex, religion, and drugs, Kinison was heading for a stand-up gig in Laughlin, Nev., five days after marrying his third wife, Malika Souiri, 27. Eleven miles north of Needles, a pickup driven by an allegedly beer-drinking 17-year-old smashed into Kinison’s Pontiac, leaving Souiri unconscious and the 38-year old comedian dead.
The greatest irony of all: Everyone thought he’d die sooner. With his massive addiction to alcohol and drugs, Kinison had been pegged by his friends and even by himself for a John Belushi-style demise. He once joked with friends that he’s probably be found dead one day “with a couple of 16-year-old girls in a cheap motel with an ounce of blow and a scissors sticking out of my back.” That he should die just when he seemed to be chasing the demons from his life – not exactly clean and sober, according to the autopsy report, but closer than he’d come in years – simply made no sense. And still doesn’t. In the weeks since he died, Kinison’s friends and family have tried to come to some understanding of his death and life, especially of those last bound-for-hell years.
Analyzing Kinison, once a troubled, rebellious child and later a holy-rolling preacher, they see a study in light-and-dark contrasts. He was “a shy little huggy bear,” says guitarist Joe Walsh, and also a man who “loved turmoil – that’s what made him tick,” says comic Allan Stephan, who often toured with Kinison. He had reportedly led a Black Mass or two in his time, yet “Jesus was always near his heart,” according to former girlfriend (and Jim Bakker nemesis) Jessica Hahn. He compulsively beat up men and women, yet was so respectfully devoted to his mother, Marie, that their relationship “was almost Elvis-like,” according to Sam’s brother, Bill.
All of us are creatures of complexity, but in Kinison the contradictions ran to wild extremes. “Most people would go to the edge,” says his friend Robin Williams. “Sam would jump over it.”
This is the trajectory of his fall.
THE EARLY PART of his story is well known. Born in Peoria, Ill., the third son of four boys in a family of poor preachers, he was bred into anger – whether from his upbringing in poverty, to the devil, no one was ever able to determine fully. He worked as a Pentecostal evangelist from ages 18 to 25 but eventually found his true calling in comedy. Starting at a club in Houston and gravitating to the Los Angeles laugh circuit in 1981, Kinison got his break in 1985, when Rodney Dangerfield put him on his young Comedians HBO special and gave Kinison what he would later call “the six minutes that changed my life.”
By 1987 Kinison had sold 100,000 copies of his album Louder Than Hell, hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared in Dangerfield’s movie Back to School, befriended the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Ted Nugent, and Howard Stern, and was pulling in as much as $50,000 per concert gig. His comedy style was unlike anything ever heard – or, in his case, unlike anything ever heard outside of a psych ward: Addressing himself to starving Ethiopians, he roared: This is sand. Nothing grows here. Know what it’s gonna be like in a hundred years? It’s gonna be sand! you live in a f–ing desert! We have deserts in America – we just don’t live in them! Why don’t you move to where the food is?
But at the same time Kinison was telling friends that he was having major problems dealing with success. “He didn’t know who to trust,” says Walsh. “All of a sudden everybody wanted to be his friend. One time he called, depressed and crying. He said, ‘Am I blowing it?’ Sam never quite believed in himself, and it tore him up.”
It was around this period that Kinison’s rage, never completely repressed but now stoked by cocaine, began to explode. A pummeling of comic Mark Goldstein in front of Kinison’s stand-up alma mater, the Comedy Store, forced owner Mitzi Shore to give Kinison an ultimatum: “I told him I didn’t want him around until he cleaned himself up. He left and I didn’t see him again for two years.”
His girlfriend at the time, comedian Tamayo Otsuki (Davis Rules), found life with Kinison too rough to take. “As a person, Sam was a complete screwup,” says Otsuki. “He had a nice, soft side, like a 5-year old boy. But he was heavily into drugs. I left him about 60 times during the two years we saw each other. He’d call and leave 50 messages on my machine in one day. I finally had to disconnect my phone and move. I had to disappear because he’d come to my house and break in. He broke the window, the door, my chairs. His ego was hurt. He said, ‘How can you leave Elvis?’”
Malika Souiri, the Las Vegas dancer he started seeing after Otsuki and who he eventually married, describes her relationship with Kinison as “up and down like a roller coaster. I stood up to Sam lots of times, and I think he respected that.” Comedian Carl LaBove isn’t quite as delicate. “It was one of those drag-down, knock-down, fight-it-out relationships,” he says. “Sam took his punches too – she’s a kick-ass girl.”
Early in 1988, Kinison’s career began to lose momentum. In February, United Artists sued him for essentially walking out of what would have been his first starring film: Atuk, a piece of fluff about an Eskimo that goes to New York. Although the case was settled out of court, word went around that Kinison was unreliable and impossible to work with. The powerful Creative Artists Agency had already dropped him as a client. Then in May Kinison was dealt a ravaging personal blow. His brother Kevin, 28, the baby of the family, shot himself to death in his parents’ house in Tulsa after suffering a nervous breakdown. Kinison was devastated and began thinking about suicide himself. “Till the day he died,” says Bill Kinison, “Sam was still moved to tears when he talked about Kevin.”
The comic’s 1988 concert tour took in less than previous year’s, but that didn’t stop Kinison from playing the prodigal. He was paying off a house in Malibu and renting a four-bedroom apartment in Hollywood Hills. He spent lavishly on clothing, mostly from H. Lorenzo’s on Sunset Strip. He ate at Spago, Dan Tana’s, and the Palm and often left 100 percent of the bill as a tip. “He was very extravagant,” says comedian Richard Belzer. “Every meal was a celebration.” Although he dieted on and off, Kinison was a binger by nature. Descending on Ben Frank’s one night in 1988 with Hahn, his occasional date at the time, Kinison ordered sausages, bacon, eggs, buttermilk pancakes, and biscuits. “The grease made the Exxon oil spill look mild,” says Hahn. “And after eating all that, he said, ‘I feel good – want some dessert?’”
And there were drugs. Always drugs. Kinison’s booze and cocaine intake, never stinting, now began to rival his food consumption. In fact, a rider in his performance contract required promoters to provide an oxygen tank backstage. Its purpose: to revive him between shows. Comic Doug Bady remembers seeing Kinison “sucking on and oxygen mask before a show. I wondered how was he ever going to get out there. He looked like he was going to fall asleep or pass out. But he would undergo a transformation almost, and by the time he got on stage, he was right on.”
Avoiding unconsciousness was also a big challenge at home. “He hated to sleep,” says Hahn. “He’d practically have to pass out first.” One of Kinison’s domestic goals was to stay up till the early morning hours to watch reruns of his favorite childhood series, The Fugitive. Among his prized possessions was a pair of bar tabs signed by the show’s star, David Janssen.
By 1990, Kinison was an outlaw. The mere rumble of his name meant trouble. His album Leader of the Banned was selling poorly, and MTV dropped his video from its rotation. HBO backed out of a projected special. On tour, he was so high one night, according to guitarist Randy Hansen, “The audience began throwing things at him and chanting ‘Refund! Refund! Refund! He was barely able to stand up.”
Weirdness was everywhere. In June 1990, a 320-pound man, who had met Kinison hours before, allegedly attacked Souiri, who by this time was living with Sam, while the comic was passed out upstairs. She fired off four shots from one of Kinison’s many guns. The ensuing rape trial resulted in a hung jury and the case was dismissed, but the incident helped Souiri come to a definite conclusion about her life with Kinison.
“The party was over,” she says. “I felt it was good for us to stop everything and start to live life to its fullest.” The two made a pact to go straight, and Kinison joined an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, where he befriended fellow member Ozzy Osbourne. In March 1990, Kinison began telling audiences he was no longer getting high.
The sad truth was that his new leaf stayed turned over for only a few months. After that, clean and sober was more of an image than a reality for Kinison. According to Randy Hansen, “Sam told me, ‘What’s important is that the audience believes I quit. Whether I’m doing drugs or not is none of their business. What I want them to know is that I don’t encourage anything…and that I try to be a role model.’ He wanted to get rid of that image of, ‘Yeah, let’s go get f–ed-up and party.’”
It’s said that even a fleeting exposure to the AA program can affect one’s life. So it was with Kinison. Though he was still drinking, his drug consumption went down, and he and Souiri slowly settled into a routine, non partying domestic life. The industry took notice. Kinison guest-starred on a Christmas episode of Fox’s Married…With Children in 1990, racking up the show’s highest ratings, and began negotiating for his own Fox series, Charlie Hoover.
But maintaining the new image wasn’t easy. In July 1991, Kinison missed an hour-long appearance on The Joan Rivers Show because he was too drunk to get our of New York City’s Plaza Hotel. Rivers admits she was furious but says, “Sam was devastated by it. He was upset because he thought he might lose his role in his series, which was to start in a few months. He really cared, for all the talk about his not giving a shit. He wanted the success. He was a pro and knew that a pro has to act in a certain manner.”
Charlie Hoover, a series of microscopic concept, featured Kinison as Tim Matheson’s 12-inch-high alter ego. Kinison didn’t put much stock in the show, but he showed up for work every day. And when it was canceled this February after a three-month run, Kinison had no regrets. He already has a few paths mapped out. On April 14, four days after he died, he was supposed to have signed with New Line Cinema, his first film contract since 1988; the two-movie deal called for a concert film and a comedy with either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rick Moranis. That same day, Kinison was scheduled to sign with Fox for a variety show, a comedy hour patterned after the old Jackie Gleason Show, with Sandra Bernhard as his possible co star. This was going to be a good year.
Kinison was in a celebratory mood on April 5, when he married Souiri at the Candlelight Chapel in Las Vegas. They honeymooned for two days in Hawaii. “It was the most relaxed I’d ever sen him,” says Souiri. “This time, it seemed like it was really coming together.”
Two days later, Sam and Malika set off for his gig in Laughlin, with brother Bill and other friends following in a van. Bill saw the pickup truck heading directly toward Kinison’s car. With a steep embankment on his right, Sam had no room to maneuver. Both vehicles went straight up in the air on collision and crashed back down. Majid Khoury, Kinison’s personal assistant, who was in the van, found Sam “lying on his side diagonally across the seat, facing Malika, as if covering her at the time of impact. He was trying to get up and saying, ‘I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. How come?’”
Then he lost consciousness and though CPR was attempted, Kinison lived only about three or four minutes after the accident. At the hospital, Souiri says, “I forced my way in to see Sam. I wanted to kiss him. But when I tried, blood came out of his mouth. I wanted something of him. I wanted anything on me – even his blood. It may sound sick, but I put some of his blood on my chest, over my heart.”
The death certificate states that Sam Kinison died of “multiple traumatic injuries.” The autopsy results, released May 27, showed signs of cocaine and prescription drugs in his system. The 17-year-old driver, who was allegedly drinking beer at the time of the accident, has been charged with vehicular manslaughter. A pretrial hearing was set for June 1.
In an interview last year, Kinison said that while his career was doing just fine, life was another story. “It seems to be one tragedy followed after another,” he said. “Just about the time you think life’s perfect, and you got it just the way you want it, something else comes up that breaks your heart, devastates you. And then you gotta get over that, and try to trust again, believe again, and set up for the next tragedy.”
Or, as he said on the highway between Needles and Barstow, “I don’t understand it.”