I ALWAYS KNEW I WOULD FALL BIG time," Ray Sharkey said several years ago. Back then he was savoring the rebirth of a career that had nearly been strangled by substance addictions. Those included, in addition to alcohol and cocaine, a six-year heroin habit that cost him $400 a day and left Sharkey—an actor New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael once singled out as the next Jimmy Cagney—an unemployable wreck. But all that, he maintained, had been changed in 1987 after a two-month stint at an Orange County, Calif., rehabilitation center and a star-remaking role in CBS's crime drama Wiseguy.

Now Sharkey, 39, has fallen again—big big time. On July 30 in Vancouver, B.C., where he was filming a guest role on the forthcoming CBS detective series The Hat Squad, Sharkey was arrested and charged with possession of narcotics. That incident, and a recent messy L.A. lawsuit in which Sharkey has been accused of knowingly infecting actress Elena Monica with the AIDS virus, have sparked grave talk in Hollywood not only about his renewed addictions but also about whether Sharkey does, in fact, suffer from AIDS. Sharkey's friends are perplexed and worried. Says actor Gary (The Buddy Holly Story) Busey: "I do know he's been working hard at keeping a straight line."

The line seemed to waver after Canadian customs officials, during a routine inspection of incoming cargo at Vancouver International Airport, discovered small amounts of heroin and cocaine in a black envelope being sent from Los Angeles to Sharkey, who had been on location only three days. A search of Sharkey's hotel found an additional $550 worth of narcotics. He was subsequently released on bail, with a court appearance scheduled for Aug. 13. Sharkey was promptly released from Hat Squad and replaced by Toronto actor Kim Coates.

That makes two legal battles this summer for the scrappy, Brooklyn-born Sharkey. Former girlfriend Monica, 27, daughter of comedian Corbett Monica, filed her suit (for unspecified damages) July 7, charging that she got the AIDS virus during four months of unprotected sex in 1991 with Sharkey. (She tested positive that August, and maintains that she had tested negative three months before their relationship.)

Sharkey has been married for almost four years to former actress Carole Graham, 37, with whom he has a daughter, Cecelia, now age 3. They separated in September 1991, shortly before Monica stopped seeing Sharkey, and Carole filed for divorce this past April, citing "irreconcilable differences." In her filing, Carole claimed Ray earned more than $1 million in 1991. She requested child and spousal support for what she calculated to be monthly expenses of $29,605.

However—and this is perhaps the only good news in Sharkey's life lately—his attorney, Philip Scott Ryan, says the couple recently reconciled. (It is not known if his wife has been tested for HIV.)

Ryan will not confirm whether or not Sharkey has been tested or is HIV positive, but he says the actor is considering countersuing Monica. Sharkey and Monica met, Ryan says, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Her attorney, Howard Harris, says they were introduced through a mutual friend. Monica's main goals with the suit, says Harris, are to warn people about unprotected sex and to wait other women about Sharkey. Ryan insists that Sharkey did not keep any information to himself: "Ray disclosed to her his pertinent medical history."

Sharkey's manager, Herb Nanas, told the Vancouver Province that the actor is indeed sick with AIDS, contracted through intravenous injection. In that July interview, Nanas claimed Sharkey had been losing weight in the past few months because of his illness, a comment not consistently supported by others who have seen Sharkey recently—for example, his friend Beverly Hills hairstylist Giuseppe Franco, who says the actor last month looked "tan and healthy." But Nanas, who did not return calls for this article, has said that he wouldn't be surprised if the illness had prompted Sharkey to go off the wagon: "I don't know what it would be like having a death sentence over your head."

Sharkey has admitted that he has liked drugs ever since his days growing up in Brooklyn's tough Red Hook neighborhood, where he was raised by his mother, Cecelia, a saleswoman. (His father, Ray, a drummer, abandoned the family when Ray was 5; he died in 1984.) But it was not until his first big flush of fame, with his Golden Globe-winning performance as a rock singer's manager in 1980's The Idolmaker, that Sharkey could afford to shoot up heroin on a daily basis. Addiction translated rapidly, brutally, into a series of drug overdoses and four drug-related car accidents. Drugs left him emaciated (he dropped 40 lbs. from his slight 5'8" frame) and helped wreck his first, two-year marriage to model Rebecca Wood (they split in 1985).

The turning point, he said, came in 1986 when he was watching himself—in The Idolmaker—on TV. "I remember crying because somewhere in my wet brain I knew that I had created that guy," he recalled. "I had created the morality, the integrity, the courage, the honor. And at the moment I was watching the movie, I had none of those."

The one standout quality of his career post-rehab has been its industriousness. Sharkey has kept busy with a string of roles in television and such movies as Wired (he played an angel to the drug-abusing John Belushi, an irony lost on no one) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Even now, says casting director Mike Fenton, "I would have no hesitation about bringing him on a project. I have had no negative experiences with Ray Sharkey."

Busey, who last saw Sharkey in December, when they were starring together in the movie Chrome Soldiers, doesn't recall anything negative either. "Ray was concerned with his performance. He was working out. He was being very nutrition-minded. One thing I did notice," he adds. "He was very much within himself." It wouldn't be the first time Sharkey has gone into deep retreat.

TOM GLIATTO
LORENZO BENET and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles and KEITH FRASER in Vancouver

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Keith Fraser.