Michael K Williams’ Death: Why Do So Many Celebrities Die From Heroin?

It’s a topic making the rounds in headlines again: heroin overdoses among the rich and famous. With the death of

Michael K Williams

It’s a topic making the rounds in headlines again: heroin overdoses among the rich and famous. With the death of beloved The Wire star, Michael K Williams, people are now talking again about the impact of drug abuse. Police have said that Williams most likely died from a heroin overdose, and it’s ignited again a public debate about abuse of the dangerous drug; especially when you’re famous enough to get away with it. How does someone as respected and beloved as Williams fall prey to such a cheap and dangerous drug? 

Stars Who Have Died From Heroin

Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Regardless of the shock of Williams’ passing, he’s not alone. Hollywood has a long and dark history with heroin, taking some of cinema’s most brilliant with it. Here are some of the biggest stars in recent memory to pass from heroin overdoses:

  • Philip Seymour Hoffman: Hoffman was both a talented actor and an accomplished director. He privately battled drug abuse for most of his life, entering rehab in 2013. Unfortunately, Hoffman was found dead in an apartment on February 2, 2014, from an acute overdose of heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine. His legacy includes film greats like Scent of a Woman, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Capote along with Death of a Salesman and Doubt. Hoffman was 46.
  • River Phoenix: Hearts everywhere still break when you talk about the death of River Phoenix. Once a child star, the eldest Phoenix brother was raised by religious fundamentalists. Eventually, the family left the religious scene and moved to California to give River and younger sister Rain a chance to ply their talent in LA. River was a big hit, with his brooding gaze and dirty blonde locks, and quickly gained fame. On Halloween, 1993, however – River would die, only 23 years old. His brother Joaquin, now a famous actor in his own right, called paramedics to try to save him but a powerful combination of heroin and cocaine was too much. River’s legacy includes Stand By Me, Dogfight, Running on Empty, and a string of broken Gen X fangirl hearts, devastated by the actor’s young death.
  • Cory Monteith: Born in Calgary, Canada, Monteith struggled with alcohol and drug abuse from a young age. He gained fame on the superhit show Glee, where he played Finn Hudson. Monteith did what so many addicts do; he got clean. And that may have been what sealed his fate. It was during a relapse after leaving rehab where Monteith overdosed and died in 2013. Cause of death was acute overdose from heroin and alcohol. It’s not uncommon for overdose deaths to happen right on the heels of rehab, when tolerance has been reset. Monteith was 31.
  • John Belushi: Belushi may have been one of the greatest talents of his era, and his death sent shock waves through his contemporaries. Belushi was unfairly talented, stealing every stage he performed on; including as one of the first performers on Saturday Night Live. Belushi was also one of the famous Blues Brothers in the beloved movie, and starred in Animal House. Belushi’s comedic timing elevated him to a legend, and when he died from a combination of cocaine and heroin in 1982, it was said he was partying with the likes of Robin Williams. Belushi was 33.

There are several things that most of these actors have in common. All of them were at the top of their game, considered talented, with promising futures. They range from ages 23-54. And most of them had more than one drug in their system. How does someone on top of their world, beyond the reach of teenaged angst, fall so deeply into addiction with what’s considered to be a cheap and dangerous street drug? 

Why Do So Many Middle-Aged Stars Fall Prey to Heroin?

Every addict has their own path, and a combination of power and wealth tends to raise the risk of those predisposed to drug problems. In the case of all of these men, they struggled with substances long before they got famous, but fame gave them the resources they need to fall deeply into addiction. 

But what is it that makes the middle-age range for men such a risky one when it comes to heroin? Heroin is often thought of as a poor, young man’s drug. Cheap on the street and often dirty and dangerous, heroin is a narcotic that provides a euphoric high. Tolerance builds over time which means a user will need to take more and more of the drug to feel high. But unfortunately, it also means that someone just try to avoid withdrawals will have to keep taking it to avoid the sickness that follows abrupt termination of the drug. No one who’s in a good head space thinks, “I’ll wake up today and get addicted to heroin!” Although, there’s probably a documentary-maker somewhere who’s done just that. 

So how does heroin addiction start? Let’s take a look at heroin abuse by the numbers, why people become addicted, and why it has such a draw for male celebrities in their 30’s and 40’s. 

  • Heroin by the numbers: According to the CDC data from 2011-2013, the image most people have of heroin as a poor man’s drug is untrue. While most heroin users (5.5 per 1,000 people) do have incomes under $20K a year, it only holds a slim majority compared to those who make $20K-49K (2.3 per 1,000 people) and $50K (1.6 per 1,000 people) combined. Most are men (3.6 per 1,000 people) as opposed to women (1.6 per 1,000 people). The highest age group of users is 18-25 (7.3 per 1,000) followed by 26+ (1.9 per 1,000). So there may be more truth to the age stereotype than the income stereotype, but it’s still not entirely accurate. And while that data gives a good overall picture, it’s nearly 10 years old and heroin use has increased since then, including among the older and wealthy.
  • So next: why are these people becoming addicted? The main “why” behind addiction also answers our last question, about why it holds such appeal for the demographic of celebrities. The reasons behind addiction are complicated; most people are predisposed due to trauma, either in childhood or young adulthood. The higher exposure someone has to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), the higher their risk for addiction. It’s usually stumbled upon as a coping mechanism that then replaces a healthy method of dealing with trauma or stress. While women are rising fastest in overdose deaths and are more likely to abuse prescription drugs, according to the University of Utah, “Men are more likely to use opioids, including heroin and illegal narcotics, than women and are more likely to die of narcotics overdoses related to illegal substances than women.” 
  • So why celebrities? Heroin allows users to escape reality, a reality that can be stressful for celebrities. No one is born knowing how to deal with the kind of fame that some celebrities live with. The kind that doesn’t let you walk in a grocery story unaccosted, or gains you stalkers, or an insane travel schedule. ABC News writes (per Dr. Jason Jerry, director of Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Joseph Strand of Harvard Medical School)”‘In certain professions where there is high stress there is a greater proclivity to people using alcohol or drugs to get rid of that kind of stress,’ Strand said. ‘Part of what may be happening in some people is there is this sense of invulnerability, they have this high profile, visible profile and other people give them all this acclaim, and there is a sense that nothing bad can ever happen to me.’ ‘Certainly there is the idea that type-A personalities gravitate toward stimulants because they feel it increases their productivity and boosts their performance, at least initially,’ said Jerry.”

Stars Who Are In Recovery

Dax Shepard

Despite the dangerous draw of heroin for celebrities, there is some hope. Because addiction is no longer kept in the shadows, those who suffer from it are more likely to get help. Here are some stars who have publicly struggled with addiction but are doing well in recovery:

  • Dax Shepard, with the help of loving wife Kristen Bell.
  • Chrissy Teigen who famously fell off the wagon after losing a child last year.
  • Demi Lovato.
  • Robert Downey Jr.
  • Charlie Sheen.
  • Nicole Ritchie. 

These celebrities suffered from a variety of addictions from heroin and cocaine to alcohol. While it’s clear that the trend of heroin once being a drug for only poor men is no longer the case, there is hope in the ongoing public dialogue about addiction. The more people come to accept that trauma breeds addiction, the more likely addicts are to receive the help they need. 

Just imagine a world where Philip Seymour Hoffman went on to direct more films, or John Belushi created hundreds of more laughs? Where Cory Monteith grew beyond Glee and River Phoenix continued to be the “vegan James Dean.” In a world where addiction is no longer swept under the rug and Hollywood faces its skeletons in the closet in the shape of heroin, cocaine, and alcohol – imagine the stars we wouldn’t have to lose.