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From Strong Choices, Weak Choices: The Challenge of Change in Recovery

The Sparkling Middle Place 
of Daniel J. Travanti

by Gayle Rosellini & Mark Worden


It’s 1981. Daniel J. Travanti has been nominated for an Emmy for his role in Hill Street Blues — a new dramatic series that goes on to sweep the 1981 Emmy Awards.

Travanti and NBC publicity coordinator Brian Robinette are having salads at the Cafe Pelicano in Santa Monica.

Travanti finishes his salad and looks over to see what tidbits Brian has left. A carrot, a couple of pickle slices. A celery stick. “I have this reputation,” Travanti says. “I finish off all the leftovers.” He loves to munch on carrots. He gulps his nonalcoholic drinks.

Then why hasn’t he developed a rubber tire around his belly — why no middle-age spread? “I eat only the right things,” he explains with a smile. He looks wistfully at the homemade bread and slab of butter untouched on the plate. He shakes his head. “Great stuff, but it’s my downfall.”

Travanti also works out regularly in the gym. Walks a lot. Does some running. Climbs stairs. “People say, `Oh, I wish I could get in shape.’ There’s only one way to do it. Do it, and follow through.”

Travanti shakes his head. “People want the changes to take place effortlessly. Like magic. Well, changing your life doesn’t happen that way. It’s like recovery. You have to work at it. You have to work a program.”

Later, at his home, Travanti reflects on the tortured course he took in his own recovery from chemical dependency. “In 1973,” Travanti says, “I was a chronic malcontent. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. By every standard, I was a success, but it wasn’t enough. None of my achievements ever seemed to be enough. They didn’t make me happy.”

The work was there. Travanti had a reputation as a consummate professional actor. He always had parts — some very juicy roles. His agent was perplexed by Travanti’s dissatisfaction. “Your career is coming along very well. What more do you want?”

Egomaniac At Work

More? That’s it. More, more, more — of something. Not enough? This is Travanti you’re talking about. The Kenosha Kid. A genuine football hero from the heart of Wisconsin. High School All American Honorable Mention. Completed his undergraduate work in college in only three years. Starred in every play at the University of Wisconsin over five semesters — something that had never been done before. Phi Beta Kappa. Turned down other top scholarships to attend school on a General Motors scholarship, then attended graduate school at Yale as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, having been offered a Princeton National, Harvard National, and Albert B. Swann scholarship to Dartmouth — all the highest awards of these august institutions.

Then Mr. Perfection attends Yale School of Drama and knocks his brains out in so many scenes that the faculty try to discourage him from trying out for new parts. “Travanti’s going to burn himself out,” they fret.

What does this guy want? What is he after?

“It was total alcoholic behavior,” recalls Travanti. “I overdid everything. I was in four major productions at Yale — which had never been done before that time. Then I got to New York. All of a sudden the buildings didn’t care anything about an egomaniac from Kenosha, Wisconsin, by way of Yale, and I felt I was fizzling out. And I was, because I had pushed it so far, so fast and accomplished every young man’s dream. I had won literally every single academic honor there is to win in higher education, including Iron Cross at Wisconsin.” But nothing was ever enough. “I was never satisfied, like a demon, warring all the time.”

His agent urged him to get help. “My agent knew I was an alcoholic when I was 25. He knew an alcoholic, knew the behavior — he just didn’t label it `alcoholism.’ And of course, when he told me, I thought he was exaggerating. I kept saying to myself, I’m not that bad.”

Was Travanti that bad?

“Of course I was. Every bit that bad. Why else would he say such a thing? He had no axe to grind — he wasn’t out to get me.”

It was like this: Daniel J. drank after everyone else had gone home. Every night he drank himself to sleep. “It’s hard for me to believe this now, but I actually believed in my soul — every fiber of my being — that I could not live my life not drinking, and that I would never sleep again.”

Alcohol became a central part of Travanti’s life. But he didn’t appear to be preoccupied with drinking. That’s because Travanti’s an actor, and Travanti never looks bad. “The fact is alcohol was always on my mind, but it didn’t seem like it because I knew when I could drink and get away with it, and when I couldn’t. So I was playing my little chemical games.”

Sometimes the role slipped, the little chemical games got out of hand. Blackouts once or twice a year. Terrible hangovers, but what the hell, Travanti was still young and resilient. He was on the verge of morning drinking, on the verge of drinking at work. “On the verge of God knows what,” says Travanti. He got past the verge and went over the edge one day in Indianapolis. That’s right. Mr. Perfect cracked up.


The Crack-up

I wanted to die. This does not happen to Travanti. He does not fail like this. I mean, you don’t go from Mr. Completely Successful to a dishrag just like that.

Yes, you do. You do if you’re Daniel J. Travanti on stage in Indianapolis in January 1973, and you are an alcoholic and it’s catching up with you. Mr. Completely Successful fell apart on stage in front of the audience. The show had to be stopped. He didn’t understand it, thought it was a crazy fluke, thought it would never happen again. But it did happen again — the next night. “All the years of agony, crazy relationships, demons inside of me, terrible fears I couldn’t face — and this fine mind of mine wasn’t helping. I was petrified. I was hit in an area that really terrified me. Everyone can be reached in a particular way, and the best way to reach me was to threaten my career, my work. That got my attention fast.”

Remember: Travanti never looks bad. So here he is trembling, shaking, stumbling off the stage in tears. A dull thunderous roar rolled through his veins. His blood sounded like something indescribable — like a toilet flushing. It was horrible.

“Nothing like that had ever happened to me. I was known as Mr. Comfortable, Mr. At-Ease on the stage. But in life, off the stage, I was a wreck. So I went from Mr. Easy on stage to utter confusion and anxiety that January night in Indianapolis. I had been reduced. It was ego deflation in depth, which is exactly what I needed, exactly what had to happen to me because God was not getting my attention.”

Travanti carries an image of this time in his life. There’s a big arm coming down from the sky. God, of course. And the arm picks Daniel J. up and slams him on his back and says, “That’s enough. You’ve done it your way long enough, you big dummy. Now it’s my turn. I gave you a lot to go on. I gave you a strong, good body, talent, charm, a gift of gab, a brain. And you’ve done all right with it. To a point. But you’ve been messing up lately and it’s getting worse, and so that’s enough of that. My turn. I’m taking over.”


Putting the Pieces Back Together

As it turned out, God did not get Daniel J.’s undivided attention until a few months later. “Alcoholism makes you stupid,” reflects Travanti, thinking of this period in his life. “It makes the brightest people stupid.” Travanti believes his recovery really began one night in August. “My recovery started to happen in one fell swoop. It didn’t happen overnight, but it really began overnight on August 14, 1973.”

What happened then? Did Daniel J. see the light and put his fine mind to work with willpower, strong character, and iron resolve? “Absolutely wrong. Wrong on every count. I had no idea I was an alcoholic — didn’t understand alcoholism at all. So I really had no idea I was in such deep trouble. Except I knew from January to August that the trouble I was in was new to me and totally confusing.”

Fortunately, he had a little help from his friends. They would approach him gingerly and say, “Dan, maybe . . . well, it could be . . . You might possibly need . . . uh . . . help.”

Travanti laughs at the memory. “They needn’t have been quite so timorous, because they were no longer talking to Mr. Perfect. They were talking to Mr. Total Confusion, Mr. Churning Inside. And I listened.” But he stayed stuck.

A friend who was stoned all the time let it be known that he thought Daniel J. had a drinking problem. It was a classic irony. “This bombed out character had the gall to suggest that I — Mr. Achievement, Mr. Successful — had a drinking problem. How dare he try to help me.”

Then Daniel J. was had, because this laid-back lout quietly went out of his way to see that Daniel J. got the help he needed. “Suddenly I was had by these people who snuck into my life.”

Wasn’t Travanti just a little bit resentful? You bet. But it went away. “You see what it was? I thought I was better than my laid-back friend. That was my real problem. I’m not. I don’t think that for a split second. He was a laid-back doper who was getting along. I was an alcoholic, and I was no longer getting along. Yet, I thought he had a lot of gall to tell me I had a problem. What was he doing? Diminishing me? Demeaning me? Not at all: Merely helping me.”

So there he was. Had. Completely taken, in the perfect state for surrender. Barriers down. All control broken. Exactly what had to happen. “It’s been an incredible adventure ever since. I look back and see the difference. I just changed, day by day, moment by moment. I would say, Slow down. I went to eleven meetings a week.” And he learned what he had to do about his egomania.

What’s the biggest change an egomaniacal actor has to make? He has to stop wanting so desperately to be an actor. He has to quit living as if the letters “A-C-T-O-R” are emblazoned across his forehead.

He has to give it away.

How? How in the world does an actor give away his identity? How does a paranoid egomaniac’s stinking thinking get changed? Listen to the program, work the program. “I discovered I’m here to entertain the folks. That’s what I am, an entertainer. It’s a gift, God’s gift to me. I didn’t have anything to do with it in the first place.”

That part bothers some people, says Travanti. It makes them uncomfortable. They think it means being religious, pious, practicing a strict regimen, a ritual, a dogma. “And of course,” he notes, “it means none of that.”

What does he mean? “I talk about my God as freely as I talk about my acting career. It is a pervasive sense that I am being used and guided and helped. And that I am God’s child. A child of the universe, that’s all. All I have to do is stay in tune, know how to be in tune with circumstances and how not to take the material world too seriously, and everything comes out better than all right. It comes out happy, rich, interesting.”

Then it was all smooth sailing after August 14, 1973? Daniel J. took an inventory of his life, sifted through the debris, the humiliation, the pain, the unpleasant truths, and then lived happily ever after — was that the way it went?

“No,” Travanti says firmly. “Absolutely not. You can’t have a valve that allows only the good to come in and then keeps the good in and the bad out. In sobriety you become more sensitive to pain, just as you become more sensitive to joy. I no longer feel despair. I feel pain, but the pain is not desperate. I don’t look for excitement anymore. I feel I want the kind of joy that feels really good and doesn’t disappear in a few minutes.”

Sometimes it seems as though it takes a long time to get the good feelings in recovery — the misery just hangs on and on. But Travanti points out, “Relative to the time spent in drinking and doping, considering the time spent hungover and vomiting — the time and agony spent in recovery is nothing — four years, five years, six years. Change truly does begin immediately, but progress doesn’t always happen as fast as people would like. Like right now!”

What does a sober Travanti do? For one thing, he no longer contributes to his own demise. He’s more alert. Healthier. His doctor tells him he’s the only patient he has who gets healthier as he gets older. Travanti’s swollen liver went back to its normal size. He also quit smoking.

And there were other changes. In 1978, Daniel J. Travanti earned a master’s degree in English literature at Loyola of Merrymount in Los Angeles. “I did it for survival. It seemed the correct thing to do. It had been in the back of my mind for a long time. And also I went back because I now had all of this spare time. Suddenly every day was a sober day. It was a shock. What will I do, now that I’m actually awake all these hours I’m awake and my brain’s fertile and fervent? What will I do with it? It’s running wild in there and it needs to be fed something. Listen: After I finished off all my course work, I even audited a course in medieval lit. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be choosing to audit a course in medieval literature, I would have said you’re out of your mind. Never happen. Never.”

It happened. “I loved it.” Of course it was an escape, but a constructive one. And it allowed him to practice patience. Sometimes all those old feelings came rushing back. “I had to be perfect. I had to have every answer.” Then he’d catch himself. No, you don’t, you big neurotic idiot. You’re here to have a good time. And if you don’t know something, ask. And risk sounding like a dummy, because, well, you ARE a dummy. Just listen to the other bright young people.

What a relief! He didn’t have to know it all anymore. He could sit back and watch the younger students, listen to their dreams, see their urgencies. He felt grateful he was no longer that young, no longer oppressed by the doubts, the fears, the unknowns ahead of him. “I had nothing to prove.”

And every day Travanti experiences the freedom savored by those recovering from chemical dependency. It isn’t a constant state of bliss. It isn’t one peak experience after another. Yet it has a kind of subdued excellence.

This is how Daniel J. Travanti sees the freedom of recovery: “A friend speaks of the sparkling middle place. That’s where I like to live. In the sparkling middle place. And yet I can be as high as anybody. People think, Travanti’s got to be on something. Yep, I am. Call it life. A natural high.”

Travanti’s natural high and his sparkling middle place may sound a bit corny. But that’s okay with Daniel J. He sees it as a gift: “This is not a gift to me because I got sober. This was coming to me all along, but in order for me to be prepared to receive it, I had to get sober.”

Originally published in Alcoholism: The National Magazine

Ch. 2 :: The Challenge of Change in Recovery