Peter Lawford Was His Dad, Pat Kennedy His Mom, and Heroin His Undoing—Now Christopher Lawford Is Back on Track

updated 03/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

A framed poster of his Uncle Jack, dressed in white, stares down from the wall behind Christopher Lawford's desk. But Lawford, 35, isn't talking just now about his famous uncle—the late John F. Kennedy—or about sunny times in his own checkered youth. Here in his office, a converted garage next to a rented two-bedroom home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., Lawford is describing darker moments, back when he was a 12-year-old boarding school student and beginning a grim 18-year odyssey. "I never intended for drugs to wreck my life," he says solemnly. "But that's exactly what happened. They threw me up against the wall and said, 'We got you now, son.' Thank God it's over."

Five drug-free years have given Lawford, the oldest child of the late actor Peter Lawford and his wife, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, cause for wary optimism. They have also given him a shot at a career he says he "never had the guts" to pursue before: acting. Aided occasionally by the behind-the-scenes muscle of Arnold Schwarzenegger (husband of Law-ford's cousin Maria Shriver), the fledgling performer is gradually building a list of screen credits. Among them: a prominent roll in this year's Run and bit parts in such films as Impulse, The Russia House and, most recently, The Doors (in which he makes a one-line appearance as a New York Times reporter).

Apart from his Kennedy connections and the famous last name ("It's been much easier for me than for somebody else," he acknowledges), Lawford brings another advantage to Hollywood: an understanding that fame and pain sometimes travel together. Not that his early years were all bad: He still has fond memories of the days when he would head east from Santa Monica to visit his Kennedy cousins in Hyannis. Mass. "There were 30 of us running around," he says. The kids greeted tourists through the hedges outside the family compound, answering "Kennedy questions"—like "What does Jackie eat for breakfast?"—for a quarter each and selling "Kennedy sand" (actually scooped from a public beach nearby) for $1 a bag.

But a year after his uncle's assassination in 1963, Lawford's parents separated—they divorced two years later—and his life began to unravel. He was 9 at the time, and the split jolted him out of his idyllic star-child life in California. Patricia Lawford moved to New York City with her son and his three sisters, Sydney, now 34 and a Baltimore housewife; Victoria, 32, a mother of two in Washington. D.C.; and Robin, 28, who works for New York City's Kennedy Child Study Center. Three years later Patricia sent Christopher to Middlesex, a prep school in Concord, Mass.

Lawford saw little of his famous dad after the breakup. "I had a lot of resentment that I didn't have a father growing up." he says. When the two did spend time together, "we were more friends than father-son. I loved my father, but it was weird. He went out with women who were my age. Then I had my own insanity which prevented me from being there for him later on."

In time, his reliance on drugs, stemming from experimentation in prep school, grew greater ("I just used whatever worked"), although he managed to graduate from Tufts University in 1977. He enrolled at Fordham Law School in New York City but by then had developed a heroin habit that in part forced him to drop out after only a few months. After moving back to Boston, he met his future wife, Jeannie Olsson, an ad-sales assistant for New York magazine. "I couldn't help him because I had the same issues." says Jeannie. now 36. who overcame her own drug problems with Christopher in 1985. As for Lawford, he was arrested in 1980 while working in his Uncle Ted's presidential campaign, for impersonating a physician in order to buy a prescription painkiller at a pharmacy in Aspen, Colo. Charges were dropped after he completed probation. Later, despite continued drug use, he finally earned a law degree from Boston College in 1983. But. he says, "I was just not a legal beagle." After being turned down for a much-desired job and failing the bar exam, he decided to shelve his legal career.

A year later David Kennedy, 28, the cousin to whom Lawford was closest, died of a drug overdose in a Palm Beach, Fla.. hotel room. "David and I were just best buddies." he says, lapsing into silence for a few moments. "I don't really want to talk about it. It's really hard when you lose someone you care about." The death, however, helped fuel Christopher's determination to complete his own recovery, begun after enrolling in an addictive behavior course at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts.

With his mind clear for the first time in nearly two decades, Lawford decided to follow his father and try acting. At first, he feared his mother would disapprove. "Never," declares Pat Kennedy, now 66. "Our family loves it. and his father would have been very happy and excited, same as I am."

After working in Boston TV ads for two years, Lawford moved to southern California with his wife in 1988. Determined not to repeat the problems he experienced with his own father, who died of a heart attack after being hospitalized for alcohol-related liver and kidney problems in 1984. he spends most of his abundant off-camera time with son David, 3, named after his late cousin, and 1-year-old daughter Savannah Rose. "He does a lot more than a normal husband would do." says Jeannie. "That's very important to him."

Meanwhile. Lawford is hoping that bit parts will lead to bigger things and that the family name will again light up marquees. Schwarzenegger, who last year directed Lawford in a small Tales from the Crypt HBO role, says he's willing to help. "I like to work with people I know," says cousin-in-law Arnold, "and with Chris it's very easy, because he has the talent."

Still. Lawford is taking nothing for granted. "I never expected to make it to 30." he says. "I shouldn't have. I just have to stay out of my own way, because I've got this capacity to screw things up. My task is to live less in here" he says, tapping his head, "and more in here." With that, he rests his hand on his heart.

Charles E. Cohen, Tom Cunneff in Pacific Palisades

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