Robert Pastorelli (1954-2004)

updated 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Robert Pastorelli won an Emmy nomination for his performance as Eldin, the laconic live-in housepainter to Candice Bergen's newswoman on Murphy Brown, the groundbreaking sitcom that aired between 1988 and '98. Even after he left the show in 1994, the New Jersey-bred actor remained a hit with his costars. When the cast reunited in November for the CBS 75th-anniversary celebration, "Bobby looked great," says Joe Regalbuto, who played newsman Frank Fontana. "He had us laughing, like always."

The laughter wouldn't last. On March 8 Pastorelli's assistant discovered the actor, 49, dead of a possible drug overdose in his Hollywood home. (An autopsy is pending.) "I find it almost impossible to believe," says singer Chuck E. Weiss, a friend. "Bobby had been clean and sober for almost 16 years." Pastorelli's life had, however, been marked by a profound sadness. In March 1999 his girlfriend, Charemon Jonovich, accidentally shot herself in the couple's home. Still, friends thought he'd put the worst behind him, finding steady work in films (including the just-wrapped Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool) and taking joy in raising Gianna, 6, his daughter with Jonovich. Through it all, he credited his passion for living to having survived a near-fatal car accident at age 19. "I'm not afraid to die," he told the Chicago-Sun Times. "If you're afraid of death, you can never be free." Now friends wonder if those words were prophetic. "The tragedy this guy had in his life," says Regalbuto, "and then to vanish like this. It's so stunning."

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