'TV Junkie' Used as Classroom Anti-Drug Tool

Rick Kirkham -- a booze, crack and pill addict -- turns the camera on himself.

January 8, 2009, 12:28 AM

Feb. 22, 2008 — -- The movie camera was Rick Kirkham's best friend.

For 30 years, he turned the lens on himself, fooling around with family, trying marijuana as a teen and ultimately smoking crack cocaine.

He even had the camera rolling when he sped down the road high on booze and pills, intent on killing himself.

Through much of that time, Kirkham was a successful correspondent for television's "Inside Edition," covering crime and celebrity gossip.

A gift for his 14th birthday, the camera captured a video diary of Kirkham's life, as he talked intimately about his addiction, his guilt and the love of his two boys, which would ultimately save him from self-destruction.

That raw footage — nearly 3,200 hours in all — became an award-winning documentary called "TV Junkie" and is now part of an educational curriculum that gives teens a first-person account of the seduction of fame and the heartbreak of substance abuse.

From a spot as a dancer on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" at 16 to his rise as a hot-shot crime reporter in Las Vegas, Kirkham, 49, saw his celebrity and income rise as fast as his insatiable appetite for drugs.

"I was secretly developing a death wish and taking more and more risks," Kirkham told ABCNEWS.com. "It was kind of a joke with one of my producers that I would go out in a blaze of glory and the world would see it."

As he traveled the world doing daredevil stunts — being shot from a cannon and nearly dying in a "total body burn" for the show "Inside Adventures" — the gregarious and handsome reporter could do no wrong.

That is, until Kirkham lost his job, his family and nearly his life, as he attempted suicide with 100 pills and two beers — camera rolling — until he passed out and rolled his Jeep.

When he awoke, Kirkham was staring at a photo of his two young boys, and he pledged to clean up his life.

In 1999, after hitting rock bottom, Kirkham handed over 46 boxes of film and 3,200 videotapes to Dallas director Michael Cain, who transformed the raw and disorganized footage into a documentary tour de force. "TV Junkie" won the special jury prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

"I had never seen anything like it, especially the scene where he lights up and smokes crack and questions why he is doing this," Cain told ABCNEWS.com. "He has a great job, wife and kids. But still, it does not stop him. His eyes literally roll back in his head, and he exhales and says what it feels like."

The educational version — "TV Junkie: Faces of Addiction" — was produced with co-editor Matt Radecki; Scope Seven, the team that created the "Supersize Me" educationally enhanced DVD; and the educational company McREL.

The documentary aired last year as part of an HBO series on addiction. The DVD includes related lesson plans, classroom activities and student handouts. The film has on-screen flash facts related to the content.

Recently launched in classrooms, it has been favorably received by educators and police.

"It was like watching a car wreck," wrote Lisa Dianne Binkley of the Tennessee Military Police. "You didn't want to watch, but you couldn't make yourself walk away. … Thank you for creating such a raw, but necessary piece of art."

Drug educators are critical of D.A.R.E. programs in the 1980s and 1990s that provided only information and scare tactics and did little to integrate social, academic and personal competency skills that would steer young people away from drugs.

In 2006, 9.8 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 were illicit drug users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Marijuana is on the decline, but prescription drug abuse remains high. Alcohol consumption hovers at "worrisome levels," and attitudes toward ecstasy and LSD are also "softening."

"Kids have magical thinking," said Elizabeth Robertson, chief of prevention research at NIDA. "If you give an exaggerated message, kids can see through it. They have friends using drugs. They can read and they discount it completely."

Kirkham's story is powerful because it's real, said Cain. "Everyone wants to be someone, to be on TV, to be a star and have their 15 minutes. But that can be taken from us. It's the choices we make."

The project took six years and faced financial hurdles. Cain had just invested all his money in the treatment of his father's pancreatic cancer, establishing the Deep Ellum production company to raise money for research.

"We were two broke people with this piece of gold," said Cain, who couldn't even start editing because he didn't have enough money to make copies of the footage. Kirkham had never even viewed the tapes.

The footage included the birth of Kirkham's children, traumatic fights with his wife and scenes of Kirkham getting high as his life descended into chaos.

"He completely bared his soul to the camera," said Cain. "But he had never watched any of it, so he never learned any of the lessons contained in the footage."

In making the film, Cain and Kirkham agreed on three promises: the truth would be told, no matter how it looked; they would create an educational version; and the film would be submitted to Sundance.

Much of the footage was disturbing. Cain's assistants had to endure Kirkham's suicide attempt. "We should have had a therapist for them," he said. "They had no idea what they were going to see."

Cain's rule was to use only self-narration — no voice-over. That made the film "magic," according to Kirkham. "Watching a guy with everything in the world slowly on camera destroy everything,"

The film opens with stills shot of Kirkham's dysfunctional childhood in Oklahoma City. His father served three tours of duty in Vietnam and his mother turned to Valium for support, the captions explain.

Kirkham began smoking marijuana in high school, and by the time he was 19, a half-brother emerged and taught him to inject cocaine. His television career started at 22, and in 1985, after the exclusive coverage of a bank robbery in which five people were killed, he joined the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas.

The 27-year-old was the most-awarded crime beat reporter in the city's history, with a brash approach that gained the trust of local police, who armed him with a semiautomatic pistol. He joined police on nightly busts of a new virulent drug — crack cocaine.

"I was running with the nasty boys, licensed to carry a gun and a bulletproof vest," said Kirkham. After one bust, the cops broke out seized pipes and Kirkham joined them smoking crack at the station.

"Instantly, I drove back to buy more," he said. "It's that powerful."

Kirkham sometimes spent $200 a night on crack, sleeping only two hours and returning to work, bones aching, head throbbing, but after "tons of coffee," using the adrenaline of the job to keep him going. "Work was exciting as hell," he said.

His addiction accelerated, and in 1988, Kirkham was eyed for a new syndicated show "Inside Edition." He saw his income jump from $28,000 to $119,000 a year.

"I was living in Manhattan, rich, and on top of that, they gave [me] an unlimited budget and credit cards," he said. "I could fly anywhere. Wow, what a danger."

Once, staying in a $500 Miami hotel room, he drove to an underpass to smoke crack with a homeless bum at 2 a.m. "When you're high, nothing else matters," he said. "It almost became a game."

But in 1996, everything collapsed. "Inside Edition," and other smaller stations, had fired him, and the money disappeared. "I was like a zombie," he said. "I was literally smoking crack around the kids and having to beg from losing my house."

As his family fell apart, Kirkham went into a seclusion that lasted three years. "I had no human contact except my children."

During a 1997 suicide attempt, as paramedics pumped his stomach, he stared at the photo of his two children, then 5 and 3. "I was so mad at being alive," Kirkham said. "But I thought if I could find a higher power and a higher love, I would never touch drugs again."

Kirkham's story is a powerful message for teens, according to his Cain, who is now director of AFI Dallas.

"Life is about choices and people aren't good or bad," he said. "Power and strength can come out if you educate yourself and find something bigger and more noble than you. In Rick's case it was his two children."

Shannon Boehm, a young viewer from Los Angeles, wrote Kirkham: "My heart sank, as I could only envision and think to myself, 'Wow, I wonder if that is what my daddy looks like when he is doing cocaine. … Thank you [for] opening my eyes."

Today Kirkham is working on a second documentary about young adult suicide and talks in schools and detention centers.

"I felt rich, popular and famous, but I didn't feel genuinely loved by anybody," he said. "Now, I just love being a journalist and a daddy."

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