March 26, 2004 -- Ever since a group of hot, young actors in the 1980s were dubbed "the brat pack" and made movie millions celebrating teen angst, there has been no shortage of tabloid headlines: There was the Rob Lowe sex tape, Demi Moore's well-publicized love spats and gossip about drug use and rehab.
Then, there was baby-faced Andrew McCarthy. He was the sensitive, vulnerable one on screen, and — at least based on the absence of tabloid fodder — seemed to be a choir boy off screen.
He was only a sophomore at New York University when cast in his first movie, Class, playing Rob Lowe's prep school roommate who ends up being seduced by an older woman. 1986's Pretty in Pink, co-starring Molly Ringwald, certified him as a leading man, box-office golden boy and heartthrob for smart girls.
But what no one knew — not his co-stars, not the tabloids, not even McCarthy himself — was that behind the scenes, the young star was quietly becoming an alcoholic.
"If I was frightened, it gave me good Dutch courage," says McCarthy, now recovered and starring in the ABC series Kingdom Hospital. "I felt confident and sexy and in charge and in control and powerful — none of those things I felt in my life."
‘I Was So Hung Over’
He says he took his first drink at age 12 or 13, long before he started acting. Years later, in his early success, he found he was able to booze it up at night and still hit his lines just right in the morning, even getting praise along the way.
In Pretty in Pink, for example … people said, 'Oh he's so sensitive and lovely,' " McCarthy tells ABCNEWS' 20/20. "I was so hung over for that whole movie … I'm thinking 'God, I got a headache. I am just dying here. I got to go lay down.' But on film, it came across a certain way."
After a night of heavy drinking, McCarthy says he barely got through one scene in Pretty in Pink in which he gazed hazily at Ringwald in a record store.
"If the movies make money, then people don't really care," McCarthy says of the general attitude at the time. "It was the '80s … and there were people doing a lot worse than me … as long as you sort of deliver."
Mark Carliner, who produced McCarthy's second movie, Heaven Help Us, says he cast the teen actor as a school boy who stands up to a bullying priest because, "He had that kind of wonderful mischievousness in his eyes, and there was also a kind of sense of authority about Andrew, and a slight edge."
Carliner was aware McCarthy was drinking with his co-stars and crew.
"It wasn't as if he missed work, or wasn't as if it was carried on the set," Carliner says. "But I just knew that there was some heavy drinking that was going on."
In retrospect, Carliner acknowledges what McCarthy was soon to find out: His drinking was a double-edged sword.
"He was clearly on the edge of trouble," Carliner says. "I could see that was part of the reason that he was so appealing in that role — because there was a sense of danger about Andrew."
But as the movies got bigger, McCarthy says off screen he grew "overwhelmed" and "terrified."
"I wouldn't wish success like that … on anyone under 30, I think," McCarthy adds. "Fame is very seductive and intoxicating. … Everyone says, 'Yes,' and everyone gives you what you want. … I think most people in their 20s are trying to work out who the hell they are."
Drinking ‘With My Buddies’
McCarthy's response was to get back to the East Coast — where he grew up the third of four sons in an affluent New Jersey suburb — and to get as far away from the Hollywood scene and his fellow brat packers as he could.
"I was different than them," he says. "I was reared in the East. It's a whole different mentality. People grew up in New Jersey, and people grew up in Hollywood.
"The Hollywood scene is great when you're hot, but it's just not my lifestyle," McCarthy says. "I love coming here [to Los Angeles]. I love driving by the ocean. I think it's great, but this is not who I am."
But, for a time, fleeing Hollywood also meant escaping into a bottle at a bar in New York's Greenwich Village.
"I drank with my buddies on the corner," McCarthy says. "They were painters and carpenters and cops. … when the bar closed, when they turned on the light at four in the morning, is when I'd leave."
McCarthy managed to keep his problems secret even while the escapades of his brat pack co-stars hit the tabloids.
"A good alcoholic is a very secretive person," McCarthy says. "I was quite effective in some of those films. … It took a while for alcohol to really sort of kick my ass, which it ended up doing completely."
'First Bush Presidency … I Missed'
McCarthy suspects he may have crossed the line some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
"The first Bush presidency, I like to say, I missed," McCarthy says.
By the time he made Weekend at Bernie's in 1989, McCarthy says the next drink had become more important than his career. In 1990, on the set of Year of the Gun in Rome, director John Frankenheimer, confronted him.
"He walked into my trailer the first day, and I was chugging back a bottle of vodka at lunch time," McCarthy says. "He sort of grabbed me … and tried to talk some sense into me.
"I didn't want any of that," McCarthy adds. "I wanted to be left alone. I thought he was harassing me."
McCarthy also dismissed the concerns of his longtime girlfriend, Carol Schneider, an actress he met at NYU.
"She left," McCarthy says, "and then that's when it got really bad, for about a year.
"I had alcoholic seizures and things — violent shaking … and constant sort of body function malfunction," he recalls. "I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. … It was bad."
Yet, he still managed to work and to avoid public scandal.
By the time he made Weekend at Bernie's II, which came out in 1993, "I don't even really remember filming," McCarthy says. "I think that's probably for the best."
In 1992, from a hotel where he was ordering vodka from room service, McCarthy says he finally called a friend in New York and said he needed help. Soon, he headed back East and entered a detox center, and says he's been sober ever since.
‘Thrilled to Be Back’
The next year, when McCarthy says he was six months sober and "still pretty puffy from alcohol," The Joy Luck Club became his first movie after cleaning up his act.
"I was thrilled to be back," McCarthy says. "The greatest thing we have is to become who we are, and I was thrilled to be having an opportunity to become who I am. That's how I felt about it. That's how I still feel about it."
McCarthy continued working, but it was more about paying the bills while he rediscovered what he loved about life.
"There's a lot of stuff out here," he says. "And I'd been acting since I was a kid and I just wanted to do other things."
He traveled to Africa, South America and Asia, and went on a 600-mile trek across Spain.
"I'm a big believer in that Mark Twain line that travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow mindedness," McCarthy says. "I always find whenever I travel I come back a better person."
After redefining his life, he rekindled his romance with Schneider. They married in 1999, and two years ago had a baby boy, Sam.
"She's always been a great sort of believer … in me, when I certainly wasn't," McCarthy says of Schneider. "I sort of lived emotionally in a little three-room house. And then when we had our son, it was like there was a door there that I'd never noticed, and I opened it and there were six other rooms in there that I never lived in before.
"My wife, I think, has sort of taught me how to love," he says, "and I think my son is teaching me what it means to be a man."
By the late 1990s, McCarthy was happier and healthier than he'd been in a decade. He'd also recommitted to his career, but had lost traction in Hollywood. Quietly, he went after theatre roles.
"That's what changed my acting again and gave me the sort of gravitas I didn't I didn't have before," he says. "And then, Kingdom Hospital comes along."
‘He’s Basically Reinvented Himself’
Kingdom Hospital is ABC's dark and surreal Stephen King series about a haunted hospital. McCarthy plays the edgy Dr. Hook and leads a wacky ensemble.
But it didn't come together easily.
As it happened, the executive producer of the series was Carliner, who McCarthy hadn't seen in 20 years. McCarthy auditioned in New York, and Carliner says, "It was not really memorable."
When McCarthy heard he was not going to be cast, he insisted that his agent get him another audition, and he flew to a subsequent session in Vancouver.
"I just stayed there for like a half hour," McCarthy says. "They finally said, 'Enough, you got the job.' "
"It was most unusual for an actor to now fly himself across country on his own nickel, and it was more than a nickel to come and read again," Carliner says. "It was so exciting, because he showed us who Hook was and we had not seen it before. I was thrilled."
But there was still the network to convince.
"Certain of our casting people were vigorous in their opposition to casting Andrew, and they indicated to me that I was going to be buying trouble," Carliner says. "I overruled them because my gut told me that it was different. I felt that I could trust Andrew."
Everyone involved, including the director of the series, Craig Baxley, says this could be McCarthy's big comeback.
"I think he's basically reinvented himself on this," Baxter says. "He's doing such a tour de force, his performance is amazing. … He realizes it's a chance to take his career to the next level, which I think he's certainly going to do regardless of how this works out."
"It's certainly a more high-profile job than I've had in years," McCarthy says. "It's a great project and it's a great part for me. … I'm ready for it."
Now 41, McCarthy, the actor who as a boy fled the fast track of fame, has grown into a man who's ready to embrace life and work and all that comes with it.
"I was an early starter and a late bloomer is how I look at myself," McCarthy says. "If that stuff didn't happen, I wouldn't be where I am now, who I am now. And I like where I'm at now. I like who I am."