By Steve Ryfle
They once had the world in the palms of their hands. Now their palms are outstretched, hoping for a handout.
Fame doesn't last forever, and for many celebrities, neither does money. Especially if you've got a dishonest accountant, a nasty divorce, high-priced lawyers, or just plain bad financial sense. A few bad breaks, and you're working a civilian job again, or selling your Oscars on eBay.
Just ask Robert Blake, who's gone from TV star to murder defendant to stable boy in just a few short years. Yes, that's right, Blake is now earning his keep as a stable boy, tending to the horses at a ranch in Malibu. The 72-year-old actor, who started out in the biz as a kid actor in the "Our Gang" comedies and later made it big as "Baretta," is contemplating bankruptcy after being ordered by a court to pay $30 million to the family of his ex-wife, whom he was acquitted of slaying last year.
But Blake isn't content to live out his days shoveling horse manure; he wants to act again. "I'd like to give my best performance," he recently told the AP. "I'd like to leave a legacy for Rosie about who I am. I'm not ready for a dog and fishing pole yet. I'd like to go to bed each night desperate to wake up each morning and create some magic."
He used to nab the bad guys on "Miami Vice" and "Nash Bridges," but in recent years it's Don Johnson who's been in hot water over a series of money-related problems. In 2004, at the height of his financial woes, Johnson filed for bankruptcy on one of his companies, in an effort to save his $10 million, 13-acre Aspen, Colorado ranch from being foreclosed. He was even sued in small claims court by an Aspen grocery store, which claimed he'd failed to pay a $5,000 food bill. About the only positive thing that happened to Johnson around that time was a money laundering investigation (he was cleared of any wrongdoing). Now the saga continues: Earlier this month, a lender claimed Johnson had defaulted on a $10 million loan, and asked a judge to put the property up for auction.
The list of celebrity debtors who've filed for bankruptcy is long and illustrious. Kim Basinger bought a town in Georgia for $20 million, but then she was sued for backing out of the movie "Boxing Helena" and went into bankruptcy, forcing her to sell her little fiefdom. MC Hammer's private jets and entourages eventually gave way to a much more modest lifestyle. Debbie Reynolds filed bankruptcy after her Vegas hotel flopped. And a series of career and personal setbacks led Burt Reynolds to declare bankruptcy in 1996, with $10 million in debts.
In 1999, long before he became the pitch-man for a chain of paycheck-cashing joints, Gary Coleman was on the financial skids. It was so bad, that the once-plucky, once-beloved kid-star icon of "Diff'rent Strokes" fame was the beneficiary of an internet charity auction. It all happened after Coleman filed for bankruptcy, citing $72,000 in personal debts. In an effort to get Coleman back on his feet, the website sold T-shirts, stickers, lighters and commemorative plates bearing his visage, and held a contest in which the grand prize was a Christmas shopping spree -- with Coleman serving as the winner's "shopping elf."
Sometimes it's the tax man that takes a star from the penthouse to poorhouse.
The closest a celebrity has come to waving one of those "will work for food signs" is probably when Willie Nelson appeared in Taco Bell commercials in the early 1990s. If the Red Headed Stranger took home a few burritos, you'd have to forgive him -- after all, the Internal Revenue Service had just slapped him with a $16.7-million bill for back taxes. Willie and Uncle Sam later agreed to a reduced amount ($9 million), and the singer swiftly sued his accounting firm and raised money to pay up by auctioning off his possessions, selling a CD called "The IRS Tapes" through an 800 number, and making the aforementioned Mexican cuisine ads.
Of course, not everyone is such an honest citizen. Last year, "Survivor" first season champ Richard Hatch was hit with a federal indictment for failing to disclose his $1 million winnings on his tax return. Hatch was also charged with omitting $300,000 in earnings from a Boston radio station from his 2001 return. Here's hoping he saved some of that cash for his mounting legal bills. Well, we know he isn't spending it on clothes...
So, whose wallet will go up in smoke next? If the rumors are correct, Michael Jackson has been teetering on the brink of a financial freefall for years. His apparent spending habits (remember that documentary where he went on a multi-million-dollar shopping spree?) surely aren't helping matters. Last year, during the singer's trial on child molestation charges, sister Janet did him a solid, lending cash to pay the salaries of Jackson's staff at Neverland ranch. More recently, the state ordered Jackson (who's now living half a globe away, in the kingdom of Bahrain) to shut down Neverland and pay hundreds of thousands of bucks in back wages, turning the ultimate playland into a ghost land.