Baby Boomers

The 27 Club of Famous Celebrities Who Died Early

The first time I heard of “The 27 Club,” referring to celebrities who died at that age, was in 1978.

I was one of the extras who were paid  $5 a day and provided a box lunch to appear in a movie being filmed in San Marcos, Texas. My role was the same as so many other students–a tourist sitting near the “Lost River.”

The river was actually Spring Lake which was part of an amusement park called Aquarina Springs, near Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State).

The movie was Roger Carmen’s Piranha.

One of the actors was Barry Brown, who played a Texas Trooper. I was able to spend some time with Barry at a couple of hangouts around town, but especially at the Holiday Inn, where some of the crew and actors spent time after hours.

“Welcome Piranha” 1978

I found Barry to be an intelligent guy and he was particularly interesting because I was a 22-year-old journalism student hoping to get interviews with some of the filmmakers.

Brown as a Trooper.

By this time in life, I had scored interviews with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, Rosalind Russell, James Earl Jones, and Lady Bird Johnson. Perhaps a bit confident, I made sure I was able to meet some of the actors including Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, and Keenan Wynn.

Dillman, Menzies,?,McCarthy.

As President of the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Press Association that year, I had previously met Guich Kook at the organization’s annual meeting during this same time period, so it was nice to see him on set with a role.

I was particularly excited to meet Kevin McCarthy because of his starring role in the classic horror sci-fi, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Barry Brown, with Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman, Cybil Sheppard.

Brown had played the role of Frederick Winterbourne in Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller with Cybil Sheppard in 1974. Bogdanovich praised Brown’s contribution to the film, describing him as “the only American actor you can believe ever read a book.”

But the problem with Barry was that he seemed to be perpetually drunk. A waitress (and classmate) at the Holiday Inn was a stand-in for Menzies and was able to get me the role and access. It was at the hotel pool one evening that the inebriated Brown jumped into the pool with his costume, a trooper uniform still on.

Brown as Trooper in Piranha, 1978.

After crew members coaxed him out, they sent him up to his room and had his clothes laundered for the next day’s film shooting on set.

I heard later that on his last day of filming in April, he wore the trooper uniform on the plane back home to Los Angeles to surprise his family.

Just a couple of months later, Brown  committed suicide with a handgun in Silver Lake, California. He was only 27.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I knew of the early deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but had never connected the fact they were all 27.

“The 27 Club has become one of the most elusive and remarkably tragic coincidences in rock & roll history,” said Rolling Stone magazine.

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