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Video: TV legend recalls daughter’s addiction battle

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    >>> but first, this is "today" on nbc.

    >>> we are back at 8:35. chuck barris is a television pioneer. the man behind "the dating game ," "the newlywed game " and "the gong show " has been called the forefather of reality tv . but his most real project to date may be his new memoir, barris' tragic story about life with his only child, della .

    >> it's the "the newlywed game "!

    >> reporter: tv producer chuck barris created such wild game sho shows as "the newlywed game ."

    >> where specifically will your wife say is the weirdest place she's ever gotten the urge to make whoopie.

    >> in the bathroom sink.

    >> reporter: and "the dating game ."

    >> from hollywood, the dating capital in the world. in color, it's "the dating game ."

    >> i have pierced ears. what would you like to hang on my lobe?

    >> how about a little kiss, baby?

    >> reporter: he's probably best known for the role of bumbling emcee on his spoof of talent shows called "the gong show ."

    >> ladies and gentlemen , vanessa welsh. if i could spend time in a bottle

    >> reporter: barris' life was so unusual, george clooney directed a movie about it.

    >> you've got this all wrong. i'm cooling myself trying to find good acts. we just put bad ones until then.

    >> reporter: yet behind the glamour and dazzle of barris' hollywood success, there was a darker side.

    >> and now, ladies and gentlemen , the hottest star of the show, my daddy!

    >> reporter: the tragic story of his only child, della , and their troubled, yet loving, relationship.

    >> . hey isn't she lovely isn't she wonderful

    >> reporter: della barris died of a drug overdose in 1998 at the age of 36. the candid book is called " della a memoir of my daughter." chuck barris , good morning to you. it is a very candid memoir. tough to read though. i imagine tough to write. your daughter died 12 years ago now. why did you decide now was the time that you wanted to put this story down on paper?

    >> well, i started and stopped the book four or five times over the last five years. i just couldn't do it then. but i finally did it because i think that -- i felt that i was alone in this problem, with this problem. but --

    >> you mean with a child who was addicted to --

    >> yes. to drugs. but i think there are tons of people. and i made huge mistakes and i thought that my mistakes might help others not make those same mistakes.

    >> you write in the book that, it started out sort of a storybook life for your daughter, beautiful little girl born christmas eve morning, 4:00 a.m . in the morning. then at 5 years old, when she was 5, you and your wife split up. talked about how she held on to your leg as you were trying to leave the house. that impacted her so incredibly. right after that, your ex-wife took her a switzerland and she was put in a boarding school . you say it was the beginning of this downward spiral. how so?

    >> i think you should just leave your kid in the school that they started with. i think when my wife took della to switzerland, i was glad to see them go, but i think that that was a huge mistake as far as della was concerned, because she was surrounded by people she didn't know. it made her feel inferior and i think it made her feel that way all the way through the rest of her life.

    >> it just stuck with her, those feelings that she had as a young child.

    >> yeah.

    >> and to some extent probably felt a certain amount of abandonment because you left.

    >> oh, definitely.

    >> she came back with her mom and you say in the book, you write she started drinking you think at about the age of 13. then she moved in with you and there's more trouble.

    >> oh, there was tons of trouble. i mean i made huge mistakes. this tough love stuff is just a lot of junk. i mean i think if you give a child an inheritance and tell them to leave home and not come back until they're sober or until they're drug-free, i think that is a tragic mistake.

    >> that is what happened.

    >> yes, i did that.

    >> she had said to you several times, "i want to leave home ." finally at 16 she went and did it and you let her go.

    >> well, that was another mistake. that was another huge mistake i made. i should never have let her go. i should have jumped up, given her a hug, given her kisses and prevented her from leaving our o house and just said, absolutely not. and i think those mistakes crippled her.

    >> you say that afterwards when she was in her 30s, there was some reconciliation between you and your daughter but at that point she was hiv-positive, she was obviously addicted to drugs.

    >> yes.

    >> did you try to get her help then?

    >> no -- well, she never wanted help. i took her to a psychiatrist at one time and when she was -- the psychiatrist told me, "you have a tiger by the tail." of course, i knew what it was. but she just never wanted help. so you know.

    >> but then, chuck, you say you wish you hadn't done certain things. but if she didn't want help, what could you have really done to save her?

    >> i don't know. i really don't know. there has to be answers. i mean someone should know what to do. i just got tired of doing it and when i sent her away, i was just plain tired. i was tired of the diluted eyeballs from drugs. i was tired of the late-night phone calls . i just -- to this day i get scared when a phone rings after 11:00 . so i just was tired of that stuff.

    >> yeah. you say -- you wrote this book, in part, because you wanted to know what made your daughter tick. did you figure that out at all?

    >> no, i never figured that out. i don't know -- i know della was wonderful. she was -- she had a great sense of humor. she was very excessive, just like me. she was a big ham. and -- but i don't know what she did -- what she did wrong and she died.

    >> she died alone in her apartment after this overdose of alcohol and cocaine.

    >> yes.

    >> but you do not believe that she was trying to kill herself.

    >> no, no. definitely not. i mean i know that della had a huge love of life . it was immense and she also had three little dogs that she loved. nobody -- i don't think della would ever, ever, you know, kill herself or do a suicide -- do suicide. i just think she was excessive and she just overdosed.

    >> you think you're ever going to forgive yourself?

    >> no. no. i really don't. you know, i just feel really bad about that whole thing. when i see a kid walking down -- like a 10 or 12-year-old with a little blonde ponytail, i still get really very sorrowful.

    >> it's a very powerful book, chuck. as we said, a cautionary tale for other parents who might be considering tough love based on what you experienced, not a good idea.

    >> no, definitely.

    >> thank you so much. if you'd like to read an excerpt of " della , a memoir of my daughter," logon to our website, todayshow.com. back in a moment. this is "today"

TODAY books
updated 6/1/2010 9:39:16 AM ET 2010-06-01T13:39:16

When Della Barris decided at age 16 to move out on her own, her famous father didn't object. Chuck Barris gave her a trust fund and let her go out into the world alone, a regret that he shares with readers in heartbreaking and clear-eyed detail as he chronicles Della's descent into addiction and her eventual death from an overdose at age 36. Here's an excerpt.

My daughter Della was thirty-six years old when she died. Her death certificate said she died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol.

Starting with what Della could remember, like taking her first steps into my arms in a park in Beverly Glen, California, and throughout her short life, Della saw everything as a collection of snapshots. It’s weird, but that’s how she saw it. After a while, I saw my life the same way.

I took some of those pictures of Della’s life. Judy Ducharme, Della’s companion since her early childhood, took some too. So did Della. But according to my nonreligious daughter, God was the one who took all the ones we missed, and His photos, according to her, were the best. In her mind, God stood by her side from the day she was born, snapping pictures.

Della described it this way: “He uses His big box camera; a humongous, square black thing. God’s camera takes snapshots that don’t fall into your hand like Polaroids do. They pop right into your head and stay there forever.”

The snapshot of my dead daughter on a couch in her apartment was not a good example of great photography. And wasn’t a picture God, or Della, or I took. The snapshot was taken by a police photographer.

If Della were talking about this picture, I imagine she would have said, “I look awful don’t I? I know I’m dead, but still ...”

She does look awful. Her skin is gray. Her body is bone thin. Her eyes have dark circles around them. Her cheeks are sunken. She looks like a Holocaust victim. Her hair had been dyed orange so many times it is beginning to fall out. Imagine, orange hair! Why did she dye her hair orange?

Della would have said, “Because it was my favorite color. Was I weird or was I weird? No, I was stupid. I mean, lying there dead at my age in a frigging police picture says it all, doesn’t it?”

Della’s three little dogs were probably nearby, sitting around her feet at the far end of the couch. They were alive and well. Just confused and scared to death. The dogs knew Della was dead. Dogs know those things. Della’s dogs always slept at her feet when she went to bed at night. If she took a nap on the couch they slept there too.

Tom-the-dog-walker found Della when he came to walk the dogs at eight in the morning. Tom told me no matter how wild Della was the night before, or how often she fell asleep on the couch, she always managed to open one eye in the morning and mumble a greeting to Tom. That morning, she didn’t mumble anything. Tom looked at Della closely, shook her shoulders, and when she didn’t move, Tom called the police.

In the police picture, the vodka bottle with a small amount of vodka at the bottom is still on the coffee table with all the other detritus. A little cocaine remains in the Ziploc baggie next to the vodka bottle. Della obviously didn’t use all the cocaine. Only enough to kill her.

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My mother, Della’s grandmother, thought Della committed suicide.

“Why would she do that and leave her three dogs behind?” I asked my mother. “Della loved her dogs. I’m sure Della would have thought of her dogs before she did anything like take her life, don’t you?”

“No,” answered my mother. “Suicidal people don’t think about things like who will take care of their dogs when they kill themselves. Suicides don’t give a damn about dogs, about themselves, about their parents, about anything. Della was too inconsiderate to think about anything or anyone but herself.”

The Los Angeles coroner thought Della ingested too much vodka and cocaine.

I wish the coroner would talk to my mother.

There were two men in Della’s life at the time of her death. Tom-the-dog-walker and Strickland-the-dope-peddler. Tom-the-dog-walker was a really nice guy, and a peaceful soul. Strickland-the-dope-peddler was a scumbag and had an aura of violence about him.

Neighbors told the police they could hear Strickland and Della shouting at each other two nights before the dog walker found Della dead. Strickland was a good shouter. He was also good at scoring drugs, but not much good at anything else. I would like to have thought Strickland was guilty of something regarding Della’s death, so I could have beaten him within an inch of his life, but I don’t think the idiot had anything to do with it, other than contributing drugs, which in itself was major.

After waking up Thursday morning, the day before her death, and seeing what she saw, Della cried out for help. She called Judy Ducharme. Della was sure Judy would come to her apartment and comfort her. Judy was the only “family” Della had in Los Angeles at the time. Judy Ducharme was like a mother to Della. She was someone Della could talk to, and Della needed to talk to someone. Judy would have been able to console her. Judy was good at that.

But Judy was sick and couldn’t come.

Della was gone the next morning.

Judy never forgave herself for not coming. It wasn’t Judy’s fault. She had had the flu and was unable to come. Also, Della’s immune system was so weak, Judy would have given Della her flu, and that might have killed Della. I’m sure Della’s death, and Judy’s inability to get to Della because she was sick when Della needed her, will torment Judy for the rest of her life.

I’m told by friends that Della was very depressed just before she died. Of course she was depressed. She was sick. She was broke. And she was burdened with a low-life lover who provided her with drugs that aided and abetted her depression. Della drank too much vodka, snorted too much cocaine, and died just like the death certificate said she did, from an excessive amount of everything.

I don’t think Della wanted to die. I think she made a horrible mistake.

Excerpt from "Della: A Memoir of My Daughter," by Chuck Barris. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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