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Grieving 'Las Vegas'

John O'Brien's bittersweet departure — ''Leaving Las Vegas'' mirrors the author's tragic life and death story

John O'Brien's bittersweet departure

When Laurence Fishburne hits the screen as Othello in December, he'll have his work cut out for him. In the realm of Hollywood tragedy this season, Shakespeare's got nothing on the real-life story of a struggling alcoholic writer named John O'Brien.

On April 10, 1994, shortly before the film version of his 1990 novel Leaving Las Vegas — starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue — began preproduction, O'Brien's tale ended when he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He left no letter, just an oddly romantic, bender-to-oblivion book that was more autobiographical than anyone had imagined. It was, in effect, a 189-page suicide note.

The irony that O'Brien, 34, never lived to witness his own distilled demons on screen is ''bittersweet,'' says Cage, who has won the best reviews of his career as O'Brien's fictional counterpart Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic who travels to the Neon Babylon to drink himself to death. ''He was going down this river and didn't bother grabbing for branches or rocks to stay afloat.'' Adds director Mike Figgis: ''I don't think that money and the rest of it mattered. He was too far gone.''

After a childhood described as ''lost'' by his younger sister, Erin, O'Brien had been on and off the wagon ever since he and his high-school-sweetheart wife, Lisa, fled their blue-collar Cleveland suburb. They followed their wanderlust to L.A., where he financed his loves for photography and drinking by working odd shifts at local restaurants. Erin discovered his problem when visiting him nine years ago: ''One night I woke up to get a glass of water and saw him drinking heartily from a bottle. I knew it wasn't just a glass of sherry to help him sleep.'' But O'Brien was sober during the year he wrote Las Vegas. Two years later, first-time producer Stuart Regan found the out-of-print novel in a secondhand bookstore. Two hours after he finally read it, he and O'Brien met to discuss turning Leaving Las Vegas into a movie.

''He didn't seem happy, just skeptical,'' recalls Regan, who said O'Brien looked like a '50s rock & roller that day. ''He seemed wary of a stranger, and he was afraid that we'd put on a happy ending.''

Regan optioned the book for $2,000 and assured O'Brien that the movie wouldn't become an up-with-people tale about 12-step salvation. Meanwhile, O'Brien continued his downward spiral, splitting from his wife (''I think he felt the end was coming and didn't want to expose her to that,'' says his sister). O'Brien started living like a vagabond, even selling his motorcycle ''because he was afraid that he'd hurt someone,'' says Regan. O'Brien's father, Bill, a machinery designer in Lakewood, Ohio, remembers the last time he saw his only son, in an L.A. hospital after John plowed his car into a telephone pole. He couldn't even recognize the banged-up young man. ''I was almost sure something would happen,'' recalls O'Brien. ''When I gave him a hug the day I left, it was goodbye.''

Once out of the hospital, O'Brien went on a non-stop binge; he killed himself three weeks later. The six-figure check he received for the film went to his family; this month, his book went back into print. ''I wish he could've seen the movie,'' says Regan. ''Not that a little cash or fame would've changed anything, but at least he would have finally had some applause.''

Originally posted Nov 10, 1995 Published in issue #300 Nov 10, 1995 Order article reprints
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