Was Samuel L. Jackson an ‘Unknown Heroin Addict’ Before ‘Pulp Fiction’?

Claim

Samuel L. Jackson was an unknown actor and heroin addict before a catalyst role in the 1990s saved him from addiction.

Rating

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Reporting

In February 2019, a Facebook page shared the following biographical meme about Samuel L. Jackson, detailing a purported drug addiction that defined his life before he got clean, which was around the time he appeared in Pulp Fiction.

Alongside the meme, the page wrote: “Because he did not allow his situation to become his coffin.” The appended image featured a photograph of a laughing Jackson, stating:

samuel-l-jackson-unknown-actor

Incase you think you’re too old or it’s too late

At 43, he was an unknown actor with a heroin addiction.

His 8-year old daughter found him unconscious on the floor, so he entered rehab.

After his release, Spike Lee hired him to play a crack addict in Jungle Fever.

The role was so cathartic it became his catalyst for staying clean + led him to the role in Pulp Fiction that made him a star — finally — at age 46.

The meme told a very specific story of redemption about Jackson, a successful American actor who regularly has appeared in films for decades. According to its text, Jackson’s small part in Jungle Fever was a surprising “catalyst,” saving him from a life of heroin addiction and leading to his breakthrough role in Pulp Fiction. The meme said Jackson’s daughter Zoe was eight when she purportedly found him during an overdose. Jackson does have a daughter named Zoe, who was born in 1982, placing her at that age in approximately 1990.

Many readers found the claims believable, as many people who quite young or not yet born when Pulp Fiction was released in 1994 have no memory of Jackson before that film. So our first stop was Jackson’s IMDb page, to see if he leapt on to the Hollywood scene in the 1990s.

Jungle Fever was released in 1991, three years prior to Pulp Fiction‘s runaway successIt was somewhat accurate to say Jackson’s career picked up after Pulp Fiction became a 1990s blockbuster, but it seemed misleading to describe his 1991 role in Jungle Fever as a “catalyst” for his acting success overall.

Jackson, who was born in December 1948, is first credited on IMDb in 1973 — 21 years prior to the release of Pulp Fiction, and when Jackson was roughly 25. The actor amassed four credits between 1973 and 1978, and another 12 in the 1980s. Several of the parts did appear to be small (“Taxi Dispatcher,” “Hold-Up Man,” and simply “Black Guy”), not involving a named character.

However, before Jungle Fever, Jackson also appeared in high-profile films and television shows. Among them were Spenser: For Hire in 1986-87, Coming to America in 1988, Do the Right Thing in 1989, and Mo’ Betta Blues in 1990. Several of those parts involved named roles. Moreover, Jackson appeared in the highly-acclaimed 1990 movie Goodfellas as “Stacks Edwards,” one of the first characters of many to meet a grisly fate after the doomed Lufthansa heist went awry:

Eight years later, during the Lufthansa heist, [Thomas] DeSimone acted as one of the key gunmen who collected the money. Then, following the robbery, he also carried out the killing of Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, a criminal associate that the thieves had hired to dispose of the truck used in the heist, but who had failed to do so.

In between Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, Jackson went on to star in the interim films Patriot Games in 1992, Amos & Andrew in 1993, True Romance in 1993, and Jurassic Park in 1993. Arguably, Pulp Fiction catapulted Jackson to a new level of fame in 1994, but it also appeared that his star was simply already rising following his appearance in Goodfellas.

A June 1991 New York Times profile on Jackson’s then-newfound level of fame made no mention of a heroin-related epiphany, mentioning Zoe (who was nine at the time) and reporting accolades achieved by Jackson after his breakthrough performance in Jungle Fever:

But his anonymity is quickly coming to an end. Last month, Mr. Jackson received a special jury prize for best supporting actor at the Cannes International Film Festival for his performance in “Jungle Fever.” Critics are calling his emphatic portrayal of Gator, the crack addict with the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old, a breakthrough that could do for Mr. Jackson what Mr. Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” did for Wesley Snipes, who stars in “Jungle Fever” as Mr. Jackson’s younger brother.

Having spent the last 19 years playing cameo roles in nearly a dozen movies from “Ragtime” to “Goodfellas,” in addition to television, commercials and everything from street theater to repertory theater to developmental theater, Mr. Jackson is taking the attention and praise with a healthy grain of humor.

“I was talking to someone who had a film project, and he said he was considering me for the project but guessed I was out of that range now,” Mr. Jackson said, “and I said, ‘Whoa!’ Let’s not get crazy here. Sam is not out of anybody’s range yet.”

[…]

Mr. Jackson once harbored ambitions of becoming an architect, before stumbling into acting while attending college. He is married to LaTanya Richardson, an actress, has a 9-year-old daughter, Zoe, and lives, yes, in a Harlem brownstone. His silver and horn-rimmed glasses add a professorial touch to his lanky 6-foot-3-inch frame.

This summer, he will begin filming an NBC special, “Night Man,” in which his wife co-stars. Recalling his performance in “Jungle Fever,” Mr. Jackson said it was the first time he had ever seen his work and said to himself: “I don’t want to go back and fix it.”

The 1991 piece captured his initial discomfort with his show business ascendancy, as he recalled the novel sensation of being considered too overqualified for roles. That article’s title was “UP AND COMING; Samuel L. Jackson: Out of Lee’s ‘Jungle,’ Into the Limelight.”

A compelling aspect of Jackson’s life not mentioned by the meme was his involvement with the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Jackson was in his late teens and early twenties:

After the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson attended the funeral in Atlanta as one of the ushers. Jackson then flew to Memphis to join an equal rights protest march. In a Parade interview Jackson revealed: “I was angry about the assassination, but I wasn’t shocked by it. I knew that change was going to take something different — not sit-ins, not peaceful coexistence.”

In 1969, Jackson and several other students held members of the Morehouse College board of trustees (including a nearby Martin Luther King, Sr.) hostage on the campus, demanding reform in the school’s curriculum and governance. The college eventually agreed to change its policy, but Jackson was charged with and eventually convicted of unlawful confinement, a second-degree felony. Jackson was then suspended for two years for his criminal record and his actions. He would later return to the college to earn his Bachelor of Arts in Drama in 1972 … However, before Jackson could become involved with any significant armed confrontation, his mother sent him to Los Angeles after the FBI told her that he would die within a year if he remained with the Black Power movement.

As for the meme’s specific claims about Jackson’s drug use, a June 2016 Guardian item may have been the source for its claims. However, in that interview, Jackson described a busy career prior to a 1991 effort to stop using drugs in 1991 after his daughter came across him “zonked out” in the kitchen:

We often forget that before exploding into the public consciousness in 1994, aged 45, as Pulp Fiction’s fire-and-brimstone-spewing hitman Jules, that Jackson was a well-regarded New York stage actor. Well-regarded, that is, except for his demons and appetites. He played important roles in the first runs of a couple of August Wilson plays, but was always replaced before they moved to Broadway. He had started boozing, smoking weed and doing LSD at college in the late 60s, and has said that until he got clean in 1991 – after a crack-induced meltdown that involved his eight-year-old daughter finding him zonked out in the kitchen among his dimebags and paraphernalia – he had never set foot on stage without some kind of substance in his body.

“‘Made it’ is all relative,” he says of his supposedly late start in the movies. “I had a very good theatre reputation. Granted, I was a fucking drug addict and I was out of my mind a lot of the time, but I had a good reputation. Showed up on time, knew my lines, hit my marks. I just wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was very satisfied artistically. I was doing Pulitzer prize-winning plays. I was working with people who made me better, who challenged me. So I was doing things the right way, it was just that one thing that was in the way – my addiction. And once that was out of the way, it was – boom! The door blew wide open.”

An extensive 2019 Hollywood Reporter profile also delved into Jackson’s previous use of drugs (including LSD and heroin), and his wife’s insistence he enter rehab in 1991. Notably, the piece described Jackson as a “function[ing]” user of substances, and hardly an “unknown actor”:

It was also during the 1960s that Jackson began experimenting with drugs, a habit that clung to him for years and nearly destroyed his life. It started when a Merry Prankster-esque professor turned him on to LSD, but Jackson quickly branched out into heroin, cocaine and, by the 1980s, crack. That last one stuck, and for 15 years he maintained a mostly functional addiction, smoking crack the way some people drink Starbucks lattes.

[…]

For Jackson, rock bottom arrived when his wife and daughter discovered him lying face-down and unconscious on the kitchen floor, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. [Wife LaTanya] Richardson — who refers to this period as her “villa in hell” — insisted Jackson go to rehab, which he did. He was ready. “I’d been getting high since, shit, 15, 16 years old, and I was tired as fuck,” he says. While detoxing, he was sent a script by Spike Lee, for whom he had already done a string of smaller roles in films like Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. Lee wanted him to play Gator, the crackhead brother of Wesley Snipes’ character in the interracial romance Jungle Fever. Ironically, the first role Jackson would take as a sober actor would require him to play a crack addict. “All the people in rehab were trying to talk me out of it,” he recalls. ” ‘You’re going to be messing around with crack pipes. All your triggers will be there. Blah, blah, blah.’ I was like, ‘You know what? If for no other reason than I never want to see you motherfuckers again, I will never pick up another drug.’ ‘Cause I hated their asses.”

Jackson recalled that background for his work in Pulp Fiction, noting that producer Quentin Tarantino conceived the role of Jules Winnfield specifically for him after they first met in 1991:

Jackson did not get the part [in Reservoir Dogs of Holdaway, the cop who teaches Tim Roth’s undercover Mr. Orange the “commode story.” But he was in the Sundance audience when the film premiered the following year. “I was thinking, ‘Well, good movie.’ Then I realized that dude who I read with was the director! So I go over to him and tell him how much I liked the movie but how it would’ve been a better movie with me in it. So he said, ‘Well, I’m writing something right now for you.’ I was like, ‘Really? You remember me that well?’ And then about two weeks later, Pulp Fiction came.”

Jackson read the script twice. “I vividly remember getting to the end of it and being like, ‘Wow. Get the fuck outta here. Is this shit that good or am I just thinking, because he wrote it for me, I think it’s that good?’ So boom, I flipped it over and read it through again.” It was that good.

Another interesting bit of trivia provided by Jackson involved his discussions with co-star Bruce Willis. The actors starred in both Pulp Fiction and Die Hard With A Vengeance together in 1994-1995:

In May 1994, the pair took a break from filming Vengeance to fly to Cannes for the world premiere of Pulp Fiction. Willis wasn’t convinced there would be an audience for it. At one point in the screening, he whispered into Jackson’s ear: “This movie’s OK, but Die Hard‘s going to change your life. This movie’s not going to change your life … Willis was half right: Vengeance made Jackson an international star, but the art house crossover Pulp Fiction was heralded as an instant classic. Says Jackson, “It’s the kind of movie that every year, I gain 3, 4 million new fans because kids get old enough to see it for the first time. They think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever fuckin’ seen in their lives.”

The meme cobbled together a few biographical aspects of Jackson’s life and career to form a half-baked (and ultimately misleading) conclusion. It was true that Jackson struggled with substance abuse up until 1991 (not 1990), a turning point which involved being found passed out by his wife and daughter. It incorrectly states Jackson was offered the role upon leaving rehab, when he in fact discussed his commitment with fellow patients who urged him to drop out of Jungle Fever.

Jackson was hardly an “unknown actor” at the time, nor was he a “heroin addict.” In the 1980s through 1991, Jackson occasionally used crack cocaine — but he also won roles in massive films through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Jackson stopped using cocaine in 1991, right before he was set to appear in Jungle Fever. And his appearance in the high-profile Goodfellas occurred before he entered the program.

Further, Jackson’s performance in that Spike Lee film (again, a role he appeared to receive based on his performances while still using drugs) was cited as his breakthrough in a 1991 New York Times piece. At around the same time, Jackson met Tarantino, who created the “Jules” role specifically for him. As noted by Bruce Willis, Jackson was already acting in high-budget blockbusters like the Die Hard sequel when Pulp Fiction cemented his A-list status. Jackson himself observed that while his stint in rehab coincided with his larger level of fame, he was a well-regarded actor prior to that point.