Pill Popping in Pop Culture

Jackson is not the first pop icon to battle prescription-drug addiction.

ByABC News
June 30, 2009, 1:23 PM

June 30, 2009 — -- A look at celebrities' public and private bouts with prescription-drug addiction, and their untimely deaths.

Michael Jackson

As the cause of pop icon Michael Jackson's death continues to unfold, early indications point to prescription-drug use as a possible contributor to the cardiac arrest that killed him. Jackson died June 25, 2009, in his Bel Air, Calif., home at age 50. Paramedics found him unconscious on site. He was rushed to UCLA Medical Center, and was pronounced dead soon after. Officials said Jackson received an injection of Demerol an hour before the emergency call.

A senior law enforcement official told ABC News that Jackson was heavily addicted to OxyContin and Demerol. Other reports claim that Jackson took a drug cocktail that included Xanax, Zoloft, Vicodin and Dialuid. Deepak Chopra, who knew Jackson for 20 years, spoke out about Jackson's pill addiction, writing in the Huffington Post, "He was surrounded by enablers, including a shameful plethora of M.D.s in Los Angeles and elsewhere who supplied him with prescription drugs. As many times as he would candidly confess that he had a problem, the conversation always ended with a deflection and denial." Living a life under intense media scrutiny, Jackson often withdrew from the world. His life included abuse as a child, allegations of sexual abuse and a physical transformation that caused some to nickname him "Wacko Jacko." In the years before his death, Jackson faced financial troubles, including losing his famous Neverland Ranch. An autopsy of Jackson's body revealed no indications of foul play, and it will take up to another six weeks to complete a toxicology report and other tests. Jackson is survived by his children, Prince Michael, Paris and Prince Michael II, also known as "Blanket."

Heath Ledger

Actor Heath Ledger died from an accidental drug overdose in January 2008. He was found dead by his masseuse in his New York City apartment. While some sources claimed Ledger was depressed, the actor's father later released a statement declaring his son's death "accidental," which medical examiners later confirmed. A New York City medical examiner said Ledger died "from the abuse of prescription medications," which included six kinds of painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs. Bottles of the generic forms of the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Valium, as well as the sleeping drug Ambien, were found in the apartment. Ledger continues to receive honors after his death, including his Oscar win for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley, the "King of Rock 'n' Roll," died Aug. 16, 1977, in Memphis, Tenn., at age 42. Presley's body was discovered by his road manager, Jerry Esposito, in a bathroom in the singer's multimillion-dollar Graceland Mansion. An autopsy indicated Presley died of cardiac arrhythmia. The singer, who seamlessly blended the elements of blues, rock and even gospel into his music, is one of the most influential musicians in American history. Similar to Jackson, Presley became a recluse, in the 1960s, in the aftermath of fame and financial troubles. According to the Los Angeles Times, Presley had 14 drugs in his system when he died, including the painkillers morphine and Demerol; Chloropheniramine, an antihistamine; tranquilizers Placidyl and Valium; the opiate codeine, the prescription sleeping pill Ethinamate, Quaaludes and one other unidentified depressant. In 1979, Presley's private physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, was charged with "indiscriminately prescribing 5,300 pills and vials for Elvis in the seven months before his death," according to Rolling Stone. He was later acquitted.

Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole Smith was a well-known sex symbol whose life tragically ended at age 39. On Feb. 8, 2007, the Playboy playmate was found unresponsive in a room at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood, Fla. She was taken to a hospital but was pronounced dead shortly after. Law enforcement cited the cause of death as a prescription drug overdose. A toxicology report also found human growth hormone and chloral hydrate, a sleep medication. Medical examiner Joshua Perper said he did not believe Smith tried to kill herself. Smith's boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, and two doctors were charged in March 2009 with giving Smith thousands of prescription drugs between June 2004 and January 2007.

Smith fought bouts of depression throughout her life, including after the death of her son Daniel. While presenting at the 2004 American Music Awards, Smith appeared heavily sedated, often slurring her words. Smith told "Entertainment Tonight" that her addiction to prescription drugs began during the legal battle over the estate of her husband, J. Howard Marshall. But her withdrawal led to severe panic attacks and even seizures. "You just, like, leave your body," Smith said. "It's, like, unexplainable. It's like -- like one time I went to the park, my friend took me to the park, and I thought I was walking on stilts."

Marilyn Monroe

The final years of Marilyn Monroe's life were marked by depression, personal problems and a laundry list of drug and alcohol abuse. The blonde bombshell was found dead Aug. 5, 1962, in the bedroom of her Brentwood, Calif., home at the age of 36. Her death was ruled "acute barbiturate poisoning" and listed as "probable suicide" by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Monroe's toxicology report showed high levels of Nembutal and chloral hydrate, both commonly used to treat sedation. The dosage in the actress' blood was reportedly high enough to kill more than 10 people.

Jimi Hendrix

U.S. guitarist, singer and songwriter Jimi Hendrix was widely known as an abuser of hallucinogenic drugs, especially LSD, as were many other musicians during his time. Hendrix also frequently used amphetamines. He was also a rumored heroin addict, but his heroin use was widely debated because of the lack of needle marks on his body. On Sept. 18, 1970, Hendrix was found dead in the basement of a London hotel after choking on his own vomit during an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. Theories still linger over whether Hendrix committed suicide after a sad poem was found in his apartment later, or even murdered, according to some sources. In May 2009, a book written by James Wright, a former Animals band "roadie," claimed Hendrix's manager, Mike Jeffery, admitted to him that he had Hendrix killed because the rock star wanted to end his management contract.

Chris Farley

Funnyman Chris Farley struggled with alcohol and drugs for years before his untimely death at age 33. In the years before his death, Farley attempted to seek treatment for alcohol and drug abuse on 17 separate occasions and made several visits to weight-loss centers. Farley was found dead Dec. 18, 1997, in the John Hancock center in Chicago from a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine, with atherosclerosis cited as a "significant contributing factor to his death." At the time of his death, it was reported that there were only prescription painkillers found in Farley's apartment. But in the 2008 official biography, "The Chris Farley Show: A Biography In Three Acts," author and brother Tom Farley wrote that there were actually several bags of cocaine found in the apartment.

Margaux Hemingway

At 6-feet tall, model Margaux Hemingway had it all, appearing on covers of the biggest fashion magazines and scoring the first million-dollar contract ever awarded to a fashion model. The granddaughter of writer Ernest Hemingway, Margaux also struggled with epilepsy, dyslexia, alcoholism and bulimia throughout her life. On July 1, 1996, one day before the anniversary of her grandfather's own suicide, Margaux was found dead at her apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. The 41-year-old beauty had overdosed on phenobarbital, a sedative. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Chris Penn

Actor Chris Penn, who starred in "Reservoir Dogs" and "True Romance," was found dead in his Santa Monica, Calif., apartment Jan. 24, 2006. Although Penn had used multiple drugs in the past, an autopsy revealed the primary cause of death was heart disease. But Penn's history of use with the prescription drug promethazine with codeine were listed as possible contributing circumstances. Brother Sean Penn said in a TV interview that his brother died because of his weight.

"Wizard of Oz" darling Judy Garland was a natural on stage but, behind closed doors, the actress and singer turned to drugs after a bitter divorce and the cancellation of her television series, "The Judy Garland Show." It was widely known that Garland turned to various drugs in her early career to control her weight and mood but as her drug intake increased, so did Garland's erratic behavior in show biz. On June 22, 1969, Garland was found dead in her London home, from an apparent suicide. An autopsy revealed "an incautious self-overdosage of barbiturates." Her stomach contained no drug residue, so the drug had been taken over a long period of time rather than one dose, as in most cases of suicide.

River Phoenix

River Phoenix enjoyed great success on the big screen, including a featured role in 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." But in his personal life, Phoenix disliked the attention that comes with fame. He once said, "I've kept my ego and my happiness completely separate from my work. In fact, if I see my face on the cover of a magazine, I go into remission. I shut myself out and freak." His sudden death outside of a Hollywood nightclub in 1993 was caused by "acute multiple drug intoxication," according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office. He was 23. Toxicology tests found deadly levels of cocaine and morphine, along with traces of marijuana, the prescription sedative Valium and an over-the-counter cold medication.