The jokes started immediately: How could we really be sure that was him in the casket? Would hymns be lip-synched at the funeral service? Rob Pilatus, half of the disgraced pop duo Milli Vanilli, got little more respect in death than in life. On April 3, shortly after he finished yet another stint in drug rehab, Pilatus was found dead at 32 in a Frankfurt hotel room possibly the victim, former producer Frank Farian told the German media, of a combination of alcohol and prescription pills. (At press time, one unconfirmed report said that German police were treating the death as suspicious because Pilatus' body showed evidence of head injuries.) Those who knew Pilatus, however, suggest that the truly lethal cocktail was the combination of his addictive personality and one of pop history's most notorious cases of rejection.
Ironically, the erstwhile Millis seemed on the edge of a mini-resurgence. Last summer's premiere of VH1's documentary series Behind the Music was devoted to the group and became the top-rated original program in the cable network's history, drawing over 5 million viewers. Moreover, a biopic is in the works. ''The VH1 special just scratched the surface,'' says producer Mimi Polk Gitlin (Thelma & Louise), who is working on the film with Pilatus' ex-partner Fabrice Morvan, Morvan's manager Kim Marlowe, and a VH1 producer. ''We want the story to be about two young innocents who get caught in this web of deception. Rob was going to be very much a part of this, and the hope was that somewhere along the way, he would get himself sober.''
Pilatus' self-destructive streak dates back to the glory days before he and Morvan were exposed as frauds when he and his partner in mime were selling millions of records, and spending money on cocaine accordingly. Pilatus, a German-born model, and Morvan, a Parisian, had already spent a couple of years floundering as a duo, when they hooked up with Farian to form Milli Vanilli. In 1989, Farian had them lip-synch the words to ''Girl You Know It's True.'' An album of the same name went to No. 1, sold 7 million copies, and won them a Best New Artist Grammy in 1990, before the truth came out; the trophies were returned and Girl became the biggest-selling album ever to be permanently deleted from a label's catalog.
In 1991, Pilatus called the Los Angeles Times threatening suicide; he had to be retrieved from a hotel balcony by police. Two years later, the redubbed Rob & Fab went on The Arsenio Hall Show to perform a new single in their own voices, but while Morvan proved a serviceable singer, Pilatus did not. Since 1995, the two hadn't spoken; Morvan has quietly been preparing for a solo career, doing occasional dates at L.A.'s Viper Room. A recent L.A. Times review enthused: ''This time around, Fabrice Morvan is no fraud.'' (For his part, Morvan released a statement, saying in part, ''Milli Vanilli was not a disgrace. The only disgrace is how Rob died, all alone....Where were the ones that pushed us to the top, who made the millions?'')