Los Angeles, California.
Was Jack Nicholson secretly “keeping tabs” on my new friend Steve? Was the “ghost” of Sharon Tate hampering my Charles Manson research into the 1969 murders? Or was it all just “synchronicity.” The term is officially defined as “the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related—but which have no discernible causal connection.” Back in 1986 I was still living in Los Angeles, when “weird things” began to transpire. They had actually begun the year before, after meeting my new friend Steve. I’d taken a clerk’s position in a seedy West Hollywood adult bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard, next door to the Pussycat Theater. On the opposing side sat a Russian-owned used refrigerator business. Steve worked there. He wandered into my shop one night during graveyard shift and just started talking. Originally from New York, Steve had been “in and out” of a string of east (and west) coast mental institutions over the years—supposedly “about 28,” by his own estimation.
He was in his mid 30s when I met him, but looked much older. For five years of his life—following a mental breakdown, he “thought he was the actor Jack Nicholson.” Or more precisely—the character Nicholson had portrayed in One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest. “It was the story of my life,” Steve told me. He said the movie caused him to relapse after he accidentally watched it in 1975 at a Times Square movie theater. Steve said when he came out of the theater afterwards, he was “Randle P. McMurphy” (and stayed that way). “I’m better now,” he was fond of saying—but only as long as he kept taking his medication. Recovered from his ordeal, Steve now sold used refrigerators. He lived in a small cubbyhole behind the appliance store, along with his large dog “Jack” (which he named after Nicholson). Steve had never met the actor, but idolized him from a far. A customer had scribbled down what he claimed was Jack’s home address. Since Steve was prohibited from owning or operating any motor vehicle, I volunteered to take him up there one day…just for a look. After all, what harm could it do? I knew we would never actually see the man himself—or even the house he lived in, since the property was most likely gated off. I later discovered I was right, it was. This trip up there occurred in 1986.
When Steve and I met that first time at the adult bookstore—in May 1985, I had just completed work on a cable network actor’s showcase. Ironically, I had been blindly assigned a scene to do from the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. It was strange, because (looking back) I performed the Nicholson role. And equally bizarre…because at that point I didn’t even know Steve (the actual taping of the showcase was done a month before—on April 17th). Even stranger—I had never even seen the original movie. So imagine my surprise the day my scene partner and I showed up for the taping and saw the original movie Carnal Knowledge being aired by the cable station at that very moment! We each noticed it playing on the station’s close-circuit lobby monitors—and at the exact point in the film where our scene occurs. “That’s odd,” I told Tracy. She agreed. Having never seen the movie either, she suggested we not watch it, as it might inadvertently affect our performance. I was still unemployed at this point and would not be hired on to work at the adult bookstore (or meet Steve) for another two or three weeks!
Back to Mulholland Drive—1986. I had Steve take a Polaroid of me standing in front of the Nicholson entrance’s three mailboxes. One box was Nicholson’s. One belonged to his actress friend Helena Kallianiotes (who then owned a private nightclub in Chinatown). And one belonged to Marlon Brando. Before I could stop him, Steve grabbed a garbage bag that hadn’t yet been collected and began ripping it open. He wanted to prove to me (and himself) that Nicholson actually “lived there.” Indeed he did. The contents confirmed it. And not just Jack, but his current girlfriend—Angelica Huston (daughter of revered Hollywood director John Huston) also lived there as well. I lucked into a job around this time, working for Walt Disney’s Imagineering facility in North Hollywood. I had been working there a little over a week, when one day I happened to glance down…and there on the floor (face up) and looking right back at me was a photo of Angelica Huston! Unbeknownst to me, she had been at the facility a couple of weeks before me—to work on the Disney short film Captain EO. This was really weird, I thought? So I mentioned it to Steve. He just laughed. “Jack had it put there,” he claimed. “He’s sending us a message…letting us know that we’re being watched.” I replied by telling Steve that he was just “being paranoid.” He then responded by just smiling back, as if to say “you’ll see.”
The garbage bag we found contained an array of miscellaneous stuff; envelopes with Angelica and Jack’s names on them, Jack’s movie studio call-sheets from the film he was currently working on—The Witches of Eastwick, his crumpled out Marlboro cigarette butts, etc. Steve smoked the cigarette butts. It was then that things began to get even more weird. When we returned to the hill a couple of weeks later, Marlon Brando happened to be driving down to check his mailbox. Steve and I were standing there in front of the three mailboxes when Brando pulled up. I thought we were “in trouble,” but then nothing happened. Brando closed his box after checking it (it was empty) and drove off down the road. He gave us each a friendly “thumbs up” sign as he departed. Within minutes, Jack Nicholson himself appeared. He drove out the same way. Steve and I were already headed back to my car when this transpired. I managed to catch up and tail Jack to the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel. A stop light caught him at the last moment. Stuck at the light, I asked Steve if he wanted me to pull up alongside Nicholson (so he could say “hi” to the actor that he so adored)? Steve panicked, hesitating until the light changed. Nicholson disappeared then into traffic. Some time later (either by a few days or a couple of weeks, I don’t remember) Steve was walking down Sunset Boulevard when he came upon a stretch-limo parked at a curb, adjacent a bank’s ATM machine. The driver was getting out money.
The limo’s rear window was down, so Steve walked up (in his bold New York way) and popped his head in through the open window “to see whether the vehicle contained any celebrities.” Only Steve had the balls enough to do this. There was a “celebrity” inside the limo—JOHN HUSTON! “How do you do, my boy?” he asked back to Steve—not angry at all. Steve didn’t have time to engage him in conversation, before being chased off by the limo’s driver. Steve mentioned the encounter later, showing me the autograph he had Huston sign. Another “Nicholson message?” I wondered. A few weeks later, however, I was starting to think that Steve wasn’t “being paranoid.” One evening, as we were out walking around we happened upon an art gallery. It was on South La Cienega Boulevard—about three miles from the point where we started. It was then we saw it—a giant framed smiling portrait of…JOHN HUSTON! It was looking back at us in an almost mocking way. Neither Steve nor I knew it to be there. We had never even passed that particular art gallery before. But there it was…as if “waiting for us” to find it.
Then there was SUSAN ATKINS. Her life began to take a dark turn after cancer claimed the life of her beloved mother. Only 15 at the time, Susan’s relationship with her father quickly deteriorated. She would eventually run away from home and later meet Manson (the rest is now history). Former trial prosecutor Stephen Kay called Atkins “the scariest of the Manson girls.” My coming to know her began in Los Angeles on a hot summer day, prompted by my finding of a mysterious VHS tape in an unexpected locale. It showed up in the bookstore where I was working as a “returned item” in a plain gray plastic video case. It had not been purchased there (I am certain) as it was not “porn-related.” Plus, I knew well that the store did not stock mainstream commercial inventory. The one word title on the tape’s face label said it all—MANSON. There was no mistaking the subject matter. It was a rare and forgotten 1972 documentary about the aftermath of the 1969 murders. My parents and I were on vacation in Mexico (our photo) at the time the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles were unfolding. Lawrence Merrick (the producer of the MANSON documentary) was later murdered himself in 1977…less than a mile from where I would eventually be living, after leaving St. Louis and moving to Hollywood in late 1978.
While “Nicholson things” kept happening to Steve, “Manson things” began happening to me. At the time my only connection to it was my once having owned the 1974 book. I remembered how “cute and innocent” Susan Atkins looked in her high school photo. Because of her marginal resemblance to Partridge Family actress Susan Dey I found myself wanting to know more about her. I had met Susan Dey the previous year—in 1973, at the Partridge Family A.C.S. Bike-a-Thon in Forest Park (St. Louis). Some months later I noticed Helter Skelter (1974) sitting on a shelf at my local bookstore and bought a copy.
I eventually watched the documentary I found on Manson a number of times (the one from the box of adult videotape returns), before I got the idea to contact Susan Atkins herself. Morbid curiosity was part of it, no doubt. But there was also a more obvious reason—a “women-in-prison” movie was being cast locally and I wanted to be in it. It was low-budgeted and only non-union, but an acting opportunity nonetheless. It’s producers were seeking young male actors to portray prison guards. Since Susan Atkins was incarcerated barely forty miles away (in Chino), I thought her experience might be beneficial—if she would want to “help me out” that is? In hindsight, it was perhaps probably naive and stupid of me to think this. She was—after all, a “savvy and hardened criminal,” a convicted murderess who was once Charles Manson’s most loyal and dangerous members. I wanted to tread carefully, to avoid making her “feel uncomfortable” or awkward about me. I didn’t want her to know (for example) that I was an actor—primarily because she had once killed an actor (i.e. Sharon Tate).
I sent two initial letters but got no response back. Shortly afterwards I happened upon a book about the murders (this in itself quite strange) in a Hollywood bookstore. I had never heard of it before? All I knew was that it was not the same one from 1974. It was a first edition copy (from 1971). So I bought it. After reading it, I thought I’d drive out to see one of the murder locations (continued morbid curiosity). The LaBianca house on Waverly Drive was closest. Since the murders the house had developed a troubling history of changing hands on a frequent basis. Perhaps it was all those “curious pesky people” stopping by all the time to look at it? Or perhaps the rumors of it “being haunted” were true after all…and too much for each of its owners to deal with?
I later discovered to my surprise (after visiting the LaBianca house) that Walt Disney had once lived there himself—the very man who had started the movie studio where I was currently employed (and where I had found that odd Captain EO photo of Nicholson girlfriend Angelica Huston laying on the floor). Not long after that I made a trip out to the Simi Valley area where the Manson family’s Spawn Movie Ranch was once located (it burned down in a 1970 wildfire, one year after the murders). Seeking its former location, I decided to take a “scenic route” and follow the train tracks which ran close to the area—where Manson had ordered the murder of ranch hand Donald “Shorty” Shea (Shea was said to have been buried near the tracks). Getting lost, I was nearly crushed by an oncoming freight train when I defiantly entered a nearly “pitch-black” dark train tunnel about a mile from my destination.
Before I entered it, I noticed on the outside wall where someone had spray-painted three large letters in red, spelling out the word “TEX” (killer Charles Watson’s nickname). Coincidence? Or had something (or someone) been trying to “warn me” of the impending danger? Shaken up greatly by the close encounter with the train—and then followed up with me being chased by an angry large German Shepherd (I accidentally trespassed on private property), I gave up on finding the ranch and returned to my apartment in Burbank. And wouldn’t you know it (as if “specifically waiting” for me), was a letter from Susan Atkins. She was pissed off that I had mistakenly referred to her as “Sadie” (her former Manson name). “My name’s SUSAN!” she stressed. After chewing me out in her letter, I shot a quick “hot-tempered” response back to her.
I thought I would not hear from her again, then a second letter arrived. She apologized for “snapping at me,” blaming the heat. She eventually invited me out to the prison. I had to go through a background check before I was allowed in. We would begin corresponding back and forth. After a series of exchanges, her letters abruptly stopped (as the 18th anniversary of the murders was approaching). Letters she had been mailing to me were getting returned to her at the prison, marked “no longer at this address.” When we finally reconnected she voiced her concern about this—suggesting someone I know “may be tampering with my mail?” As I lived alone and definitely had not moved, I could offer no logical explanation. Approximately a year and a half later I left California (Thanksgiving 1988) never to return. That was the last time I saw Susan Atkins. We corresponded occasionally up until the time I joined the Army, in late 1991. After that she faded from my life. I remember she once told me about a premonition she experienced when she was “just a little girl.” She said she “saw a movie on television about women in prison.” “Somehow I knew then,” she told me, “that one day…I too would be in prison.” And she was…until the day she died.