Celebrity deaths, blame-game pitfalls

Three larger-than-life men with strong ties to Las Vegas have died in much the same horrible way. They abused prescription drugs, lived beyond the realm of normal life and were surrounded by a select circle of family, friends and employees who either enabled their demise or tried in vain to prevent it.

Howard Hughes. Elvis Presley. Michael Jackson.

Let's start with Jackson, who died last week at age 50. Although a memorial service honored him as an iconic entertainer, a far darker story is emerging about his final years.

Remember Uri Geller, who gained notoriety in the 1970s for allegedly bending spoons with his mind? He was Jackson's close friend and spent a lot of time with him in England. Interviewed recently by CBS, Geller shed light on Jackson's drug problems and the dearth of people around him who tried to intervene.

"I think that I was probably the only man, maybe besides his father, that shouted at Michael after seeing the way he looked and the reaction to whatever he was taking," Geller said. "I was very concerned for his health."

Geller said it's hard for him to understand how people around Jackson could have let these problems persist. Jackson was a skeletal 112 pounds when he died. "How come, for so many years -- we're not talking about a month or a year -- how come there wasn't someone who realized that they've got to save Michael, they've got to do something to catapult him out of this vicious cycle of him being given things that did this to him?"

Matt Fiddes, a former bodyguard for Jackson, told CBS that he blames greedy, unscrupulous doctors for the entertainer's untimely demise. "As far as I am concerned, they have Michael's blood on their hands," he said. "They know what they've done and there's people out there who could have helped, could have stepped in, but didn't do so for financial reasons."

Perhaps. But it's too easy to lay all the blame on the people in Jackson's life. Just ask those who surrounded Elvis Presley, who died in 1977 at age 42.

One prerequisite for being a friend of Presley was not to question his decisions or get on his case about something. If you wanted to enjoy the rare privilege of hanging out with the king of rock 'n' roll, you did things his way.

Nevertheless, several of Presley's friends say they tried to confront the singer about his drug abuse but they just couldn't get through to him. Lamar Fike, quoted in Alanna Nash's "Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia," says of those final years:

"The sad thing about this whole situation is that none of us could do a (expletive) thing. We went through such hell and frustration that it was unbelievable. The self-recrimination. ... Nobody could have heaped on us what we felt. It was like watching a goddamn runaway Peterbilt truck."

This is similar to another of Geller's comments about Jackson: "Whenever this happened, my screaming at him, trying to instill in his mind that it is dangerous, that it could kill him, that he will die if he continues, most of the times he just stared at me. He just looked at me. His stare just went through me."

Even when close friends confronted Jackson and Presley, it didn't make a difference. They weren't listening, and as long as they had access to an endless supply of pharmaceuticals, their addictions eventually would rise to fatal levels.

At 70, Howard Hughes was considerably older than Presley and Jackson when he died in 1976, but his story is eerily similar. Hughes got hooked on painkillers after an airplane crash in 1946, and by the '60s, while living in Las Vegas, he was experiencing severe medical and psychological effects.

Presley and Jackson had friends and relatives around them, but the people with Hughes in his final years were strictly employees. They were intensely loyal to the billionaire, adhering to the long-standing code of secrecy surrounding his activities. They liked their jobs and didn't dare question what was going on.

Even worse, a few of Hughes' lieutenants who could have done something about his deteriorating health preferred him to be incapacitated. Jack Real, perhaps Hughes' last true friend, wrote in his book, "The Asylum of Howard Hughes":

"He was a virtual prisoner of those whom he had trusted to protect him. Through the drug addiction that he himself had helped to initiate, the bad guys around him appeared to be mastering their own master."

In each of these cases, hindsight is 20/20. If only friends or family members had stepped in ... if only the doctors had been more responsible ... if only the authorities could have known ...

It's impossible to know exactly what might have prevented these tragedies, but one thing seems clear: Each of these men must take the lion's share of the blame for what killed him.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. He is the author of "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue" and is working on a book about Elvis Presley's Las Vegas years. His column appears Friday.