After 20 Years Awash in Booze and Drugs, Troy Donahue Prizes His Sobering Discoveries
Long gone is his trademark Wind-breaker. Instead, as a kinky washing-machine salesman in Grandview, the wholesome '60s idol dons polyester and gold chains—gladly. In fact, before his auditions for director Randal Kleiser, Donahue hightailed it to a men's clothing store on Hollywood Boulevard to get properly attired for the role. "I wasn't taking any chances," says Donahue, whose last movie was the forgettable The Legend of Frank Woods seven years ago. "I wasn't leaving anything to the imagination."
Nor were the citizens of Pontiac, Mich., where Grandview was filmed last year. "Crowds of teenage girls would swarm around C. Thomas Howell, and teenage boys around Jamie Lee Curtis. But the major celebrity was Donahue," recalls Kleiser. "These women who had grown up with him as their heartthrob followed him everywhere."
Whatever happened to Troy Donahue? The question may have become a cultural joke, but the answer is not. For Donahue the intervening years have been a nightmarish battle against alcohol and drug addiction. The symbol of '60s innocence became a casualty of that decade. "The person does not fit the image," Donahue observes.
From the start of his career the actor was one of Hollywood's most synthetic creations. Born Merle Johnson in New York City, as an aspiring Hollywood actor he underwent a name change engineered by studio executives and his agent, who reportedly also named Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson. "At first they had Paris, the lover of Helen of Troy, in mind," Donahue says. "But I guess they thought they couldn't name me Paris Donahue because there was already a Paris, France and Paris, Illinois." As the son of a General Motors vice-president and a retired stage actress, he was raised well-off and well connected on Long Island. "I can remember always being exposed to Broadway and theater people," Troy says. "I can remember sitting with Gertrude Lawrence while she read her reviews in The King and I."
Donahue became a star in 1959 with A Summer Place, playing the "nice" boy who gets unwed Sandra Dee pregnant. Signed to a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers, he was typecast in Parrish, Susan Slade and a string of soap operas aimed at teenagers. "I was usually cast with blondes," he says. "Since it worked for A Summer Place, they weren't going to break the mold. I guess because I was blond, blue-eyed and tanned, people associated me with all those beach movies that were around then, even though I never did one. I was always the goody-goody, the guy who did what he was supposed to."
But not offscreen. When he balked at appearing as a college basketball player in 1963's Palm Springs Weekend, the studio suspended him. And Donahue soon found that his appeal did not match his ambition—or bank account. During the peak of his popularity, he earned $400 a week under contract and drew only $3,000 total for the hit Parrish. "I was living like a movie star but wasn't being paid like one," he says. "I lived way over my head and got into great trouble and lost everything. I went from a beautiful home, garden, swimming pool to living in shabby apartments."
The drug-induced fall of Troy began when Donahue was still an American darling. While audiences watched him cavort in Palm Springs Weekend ("a beach movie in the desert," he scoffs), he took to alcohol in earnest. "I was loaded all the time," he says. At his worst, "I'd wake up about 6:30 in the morning, take three aspirins mixed with codeine, slug down half a pint of vodka and then do four lines of cocaine. That was just so I could get the front door open to peek out and see if I could face the day." The importance of being Troy was a trap, he found. "I didn't realize that I didn't have to be perfect and that I didn't have to live up to all of those things written about me." In 1965 Warner gave him the chance to break his image by playing a psychopath opposite Joey Heatherton in My Blood Runs Cold. Public response was even colder. Meanwhile, on the screen, pretty boys with toothpaste grins were giving way to homely actors and hippie freaks. Says Troy, "The unknown scared me most when I started to fade in the late '60s."
Not only had his career crashed, so had two marriages—an eight-month hitch to his Rome Adventure co-star Suzanne Pleshette in 1964, followed in 1966 by a two-year interlude with actress Valerie Allen. His addictions made a good marriage impossible. "I would lie, steal and cheat, all those wonderful things that drunks do," he says. "I was crafty. Nobody knew how much I drank then. If a bottle was out on the counter, I'd take a swig when I passed it and quickly put it back."
In 1969 Donahue quit Los Angeles for New York, where he let his "hair grow and did quite a bit of dope. I was very, very gloomy." He got sporadic work—playing a drug addict for six months on the soap The Secret Storm and a Charles Manson-like killer in the horror flick Sweet Saviour. To survive he became dependent on the kindness of strangers: "There was always somebody who could be amused by Troy Donahue. I'd meet them anywhere, in a park, street, party, in bed. I lived in a bush in Central Park for one summer. I kept everything I had in a backpack." That same year he sampled marriage once more. "I couldn't take care of myself, and I knew this friend would take me under her wing," he says. But Alma Sharp, a city administrator, divorced Troy after three years.
After he was paid $10,000 for a bit part as Talia Shire's boyfriend in 1974's The Godfather, Part II—as an inside joke, the character was called Merle Johnson—he returned to L.A., married Vicki Taylor, a land-development manager, did occasional TV shows and made whiskey commercials for Japanese TV. In those ads, says Troy, "I stood in a speedboat, dressed in a tuxedo, holding a glass and toasting the world." Nevertheless, "whatever money I made I put into cocaine," he says. After his fourth marriage broke up in 1981, Donahue says, "I was whipped. Powerless. But the worst thing, I was in pain. Ironically that helped me. In May of 1982 I decided to get sober."
He sought help from the local chapter of an organization for alcoholics. Daily group support brought him confidence. "I look upon my sobriety as a miracle," he says. "I simply do it one day at a time. The obsession to not drink has become as big as the obsession to drink. I was very fortunate."
Recent events have brought other life-changing surprises. Not long after he stopped drinking he encountered a woman he once knew. "She walked over and introduced herself and I remembered that we had been together four or five times in L.A. in 1969. Nothing serious. Just fun and games. She said, 'I'm glad I saw you. I've always wanted to tell you about something. Look over there, Troy.' I looked and across the room I saw a 13-year-old spitting image of what I looked like when I was young. 'This is your son, Sean,' she said. 'He's known all his life that you are his father.' " Donahue says his son's mother is happily married and hasn't requested financial aid. Sean calls Troy "Dad." "The whole thing was so natural, the three of us accepted it so easily. I see him every couple of weeks now."
Although his sexual preferences have been subject to rumor, "I'm not gay," Troy says. "Once in a while people get me confused with another blond, blue-eyed actor who was around the same time, but it's no big deal. I love women. Sometimes, I guess, too much." Although in his heyday he was associated with Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens, he was never involved with them. Nowadays, he says, "I don't see Sandra, but Connie and I are often thrown together in shows like Family Feud. We're very fond of one another, but we don't like that 'aren't they cute' sort of stuff."
In certain respects Donahue can never escape his own legend. In A Chorus Line, there's the lyric, "If Troy Donahue could be a movie star, then I could be a movie star." In Donahue's Santa Monica neighborhood where he rents a one-bedroom house, kids sing that song when he passes. "I can't let things like this bother me," he says. "I know what my capabilities are, and they are more than I was ever given the opportunity of showing. I would like to forever get rid of that image of the California beachboy." He takes a drag on his cigarette and says matter-of-factly, "I'm an actor. Not an ornament."