The London Times Interview


Interview with Todd Fisher: my life with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

His mother was a Hollywood film star with a reputation for choosing the wrong men; his sister notorious for drugs and depression. Two years after Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died within 24 hours, Todd Fisher reveals the truth about an extraordinary showbusiness family. By Ben Hoyle

Todd Fisher, 60, at his production company in Las Vegas - Barry J Holmes

Todd Fisher, 60, at his production company in Las Vegas - Barry J Holmes

The head office of Todd Fisher’s production company, Hollywood Motion Picture Experience, is in a dusty business park on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The modestly sized, vaguely Twenties exterior has striped awnings, neatly clipped hedges and a single entrance. It would be easy to overlook.

But once inside, it is clear that this is somewhere unique. A sign on the front desk of the tiny waiting room says, “May The Force Be With You”. The table between the two armchairs is in the shape of the Star Wars spaceship the Millennium Falcon and has a large model of Yoda standing on it. The walls are hung with framed film posters documenting the careers of Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, and elder sister, Carrie Fisher: How the West Was WonThe Unsinkable Molly Brown (for which Reynolds received a best actress Oscar nomination); Behind the CandelabraThe Blues BrothersPostcards from the Edge (for which Carrie wrote the screenplay, based on her bestselling semi-autobiographical novel); Star Wars: the Force Awakens (dedicated by “Carrie Frances Fisher” to “my big, bad, baby brother, you’ve been like an uncle to me, and a dance partner”); Bright Lights, the Emmy-nominated 2017 documentary about the three of them that Fisher co-produced.

Today, at 60, Fisher is a producer and director as well as a businessman, an ordained minister and the author of a new book, My Girls: a Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, which relates his astonishing life with “Carrie and Debbie”, who were both mourned around the world when they died within 24 hours of each other a year and a half ago. Debbie was 84; Carrie was 60.

After four decades battling mental illness and substance abuse, Carrie suffered a heart attack aboard a plane flying into Los Angeles on December 23, 2016, and died in hospital four days later. An autopsy later found she had traces in her system of heroin, morphine and MDMA, a purified form of Ecstasy. Their grief-stricken mother, weakened by a stroke and other illnesses, died at the same hospital as her daughter on December 28. That morning she had told Fisher, “I want to be with Carrie.” She then closed her eyes, drifted off and never regained consciousness. It is “simply not true” that she died of a broken heart, he writes in My Girls. “Debbie Reynolds willed herself right off this planet to personally see to it that Carrie would never be alone.”

A joint memorial service at Carrie’s house on January 5, 2017, was hosted by her actress daughter, Billie Lourd, Billie’s father, Bryan, and Fisher. It was attended by close friends including Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Dreyfuss and Stars Wars creator George Lucas. The two women were buried together the following day, with Carrie’s ashes slipped into Debbie’s coffin inside a Prozac tablet-shaped urn.

Fisher is dressed all in black with a toothy smile and thin silver hair swept back over his head. He is by his own description “a short, half-Jewish guy”, and his conversation, full of warmth, jokes and anecdotes, feels like it might never run out. Despite the tragedies he has endured, he radiates a sense of ease in his own skin that his sister, in particular, could only dream about. In her memoir Wishful Drinking, Carrie called her adored brother the “hogger of all the sanity available in our freak family”, and it is true, he says, that life is “far easier for me” than it was for her. “I don’t have the demons.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t still feel great pain from his loss. The lightweight knitted sports jacket he’s wearing was meant to be a Christmas present to him from Carrie – she had an annual tradition of finding him a new jacket and had told him she had bought it before she boarded the fateful flight. It was found already wrapped. There’s a Salvation Army badge on its lapel because one of its bands often appears when he is at functions, he says, such as a recent dedication of a plaque to Carrie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “They play Princess Leia’s Theme [from the Star Wars films]. It’s really good. The problem is that every time it chokes me up, and then I’m expected to go out there and say something.”

Fisher takes me into a small museum space off to the side of the waiting room filled with keepsakes of his mother and sister and jaw-dropping Hollywood memorabilia. All three of them were avid collectors. In a cabinet he shows me a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and his mother’s Academy award from 2016 in recognition of her humanitarian work. They used to sit together on her mantelpiece alongside the original Maltese falcon, a Screen Actors’ Guild lifetime achievement award and a sculpture by Auguste Rodin.

Fisher flips through the typed scripts for their best-known films. The one for Revenge of the Jedi, as it was called in production, has a self-deprecating handwritten note from Lucas, whose clunky dialogue was famously tough on his actors: “To Carrie: easy-to-say lines.”

Now he is pointing out the clapperboard from the day they shot the funeral scene in a film scripted by Carrie called You’re You on April 10, 1976.

The film exposed the central conflict in Carrie’s life: how to measure up against her mother’s vast talent, accomplishments and popularity. At one point, her character has a nightmare in which she opens her wardrobe to find Reynolds in her trademark red sequined tuxedo tap dancing and singing Gotta Dance!, one of the big numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, the film that turned her into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Carrie reaches over and slams the door.

At the time she wrote that scene Carrie, still not yet 20, had no idea that she was about to become a global celebrity in her own right. Even when she did, fame failed to dispel the tension. Fisher writes that his sister believed “for a long, long time that Mom was perpetually trying to compete with her. The truth is … she was perpetually trying to compete with Mom, which created a lot of her resentment and, for many years, put Carrie in the sad position of running hard to win a race that she didn’t even realise she was running all by herself.”

Carrie’s You’re You script was both prophetic and witty. Her scathing brilliance as a comic writer – eventually seen by a wider audience in Postcards from the Edge and her pitiless memoirs – was revealed in the last line of the chorus of the theme song. It was a lyrical joke that its teenage bipolar author later had printed on a rug for her dining room: “There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”

Of course, she had needed Fisher to remind her about it. Because of the drugs and electroconvulsive shock therapy she underwent when she was older, Carrie forgot large chunks of her life. Debbie, meanwhile, had a pin-sharp memory until her final years but was prone to embroider the facts if it made for a better story. That left Fisher to set the record straight. “I was sort of the family memory bank,” he says. Both women cast a huge shadow, “but I never struggled with it. Honestly, I loved the shade.”

“My mother was the highest quality person on earth,” Fisher declares a little later. She was kind, loyal, determined, gifted, funny, hard-working and generous and she was devoted to her children.

Debbie Reynolds was already showbusiness royalty when, aged 23, she married the 27-year-old crooner Eddie Fisher in 1955. The birth of their first child, Carrie, the following year made headlines around the world. The world’s infatuation with the family only grew in 1957 when Eddie was best man at his best friend Mike Todd’s wedding to Elizabeth Taylor. Debbie, who had gone to school with Taylor, was matron of honour.

Fisher was born in February 1958 and named after Mike Todd. But when he was not quite four weeks old, Mike Todd died in a plane crash and Eddie went to comfort his widow. As Carrie later wrote, “My father flew to Elizabeth’s side, gradually making his way slowly to her front.”

The betrayal stunned the entertainment world. The divorce was finalised in 1959. Debbie would come to think of Eddie, a philandering drug addict, as the best of her three disastrous husbands.

By the time that Fisher’s memories begin, the family was living amid overwhelming modernist splendour at 813 Greenway Drive in Beverly Hills.

Seeking long-term security for herself and her children, Debbie had married Harry Karl, a businessman 18 years her senior. He owned America’s largest shoe-shop chain and would have been a billionaire in today’s money. He was extravagantly elegant and “carried on like a duke or some sort of royalty”, says Fisher. He owned dozens of suits, and he wore his monogrammed shirts once each and then threw them away.

The house itself felt, Carrie once recalled, “more like a place where you would get your passport stamped” than a home.

There was museum-grade art, giant separate bedrooms with marble en suite bathrooms for each child, his and hers exercise rooms for Debbie and Harry, a private hair salon and a projection room the size of a small theatre.

There were also three swimming pools, a five-car garage containing at least two Rolls-Royces at any one time, and a large permanent staff.

Children’s birthdays were spectacular. Every year had to be an upgrade on the previous one. At one of them, an elephant paraded around wearing a “Happy Birthday Todd” covering. The adults’ gatherings at the house were even more extraordinary, boasting a who’s who of Hollywood guests. “Everybody came to our house,” Fisher says. Groucho Marx would always sit in the same place and draw a crowd of celebrity admirers. “The guy was off-the-charts intelligent, literally mesmerising.” Fisher raced toy cars with his hero, James Garner. One of the most memorable party guests was Elizabeth Taylor who, having patched things up with Debbie, turned up with her latest husband, Richard Burton. The couple erupted into a “yelling, screaming, top-of-their lungs mutual bitch-slapping fight” that had Carrie and her brother gaping with incredulity. “This was insane, like a train wreck happening right there in our own living room,” Fisher writes. Debbie sent them upstairs to the master suite where, after several more minutes of shouting, a sudden silence descended. After another 20 minutes the now happy couple rejoined the party as if nothing had happened. That night was the first time Fisher ever heard the phrase “make-up sex”.

For a while he had a pet alligator called Stanley – a gift from a former nanny – with which he used to swim in the large aquarium they built for him. Stanley eventually bit Carrie, and Debbie decided that he had to go. She deployed Harry to convince her son of this, which he did by trying to bribe him with a couple of $100 bills from his platinum and diamond money clip. Harry proved to be a doting stepfather. “He loved Carrie and me, he really did,” Fisher says. “He was an extraordinarily generous man. He worshipped my mother.”

Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic and a gambler. He bet on anything. Fisher had begun playing golf at seven, using a set of clubs given to him by Lucille Ball. He used to hop over the fence from his home to his local course, the Los Angeles Country Club, and play an out-of-the-way few holes of it to avoid detection. (He couldn’t join because Jews were not allowed to be members.) As he got better, Harry, who liked to place side bets on games, started to bring his stepson along as a partner. One game came down to a putt on the 18th green, which Fisher sank. Unbeknown to Fisher, there was $25,000 riding on the game. To Debbie’s dismay, Harry bought the boy a genuine Second World War tank as a reward.

When Fisher was about 13, his mother, in need of money, took Carrie on the road with her to do a Broadway play together. He couldn’t have cared less. After years of being press-ganged into joining them in profitable stage shows, he had told Debbie that he didn’t enjoy performing. Their residencies in Las Vegas left him cold. The city was still run by the Mob, who bent over backwards to keep his mother happy. Did Debbie, a close friend of Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, realise the extent to which she was helping organised crime? “We knew who we were working for. My mother made no bones about it. She said, ‘I like working for these people; their cheques are good.’ ”

Once Debbie and Carrie had left the house, Fisher noticed that his stepfather was now receiving regular visits from a parade of nubile “manicurists”. He rigged up a hidden camera in the master bedroom and figured out what was really going on.

A few weeks later, the doorbell rang when he was alone in the house. It was a “manicurist” asking if Mr Karl was in. “I’m Mr Karl,” Fisher replied. I ask how he squares Harry’s adoration for his mother with these serial infidelities? “When she left, he drifted,” Fisher says. By then, although he didn’t realise it at the time, there was some doubt about whether they were even a couple. He smiles. “God knows when I would have lost my virginity if it weren’t for him.”

The Broadway run was a success, so Debbie sent for her son, who moved in with his mother and sister in a New York brownstone, where he discovered marijuana. When Tony Curtis, their neighbour, found out, he insisted that Fisher come to him to get a reliable, safe and discreet supply of the drug. One night while playing with his Colt .45 six-shooter, Fisher accidentally shot himself in the leg with a blank round while watching television with Debbie. Carrie would tell the press, “Todd wouldn’t brush his teeth, so Mom shot him.”

It was clear by now that the marriage to Harry was over. Debbie had to get out “from underneath him”, but the divorce left her in financially humbled circumstances. She inherited $2 million of his debts, lost the Greenway Drive house, sold her home in Palm Springs, refinanced her Malibu property, sold all her artwork and silver and the only really valuable item of jewellery that Harry had not pawned. She refused to sell her MGM memorabilia, which she bought in auctions. The family wasn’t poverty stricken exactly – Fisher still got a GMC Motorhome as his first car – but the era of wild extravagance was over.

Shortly before then, they went to live in the Savoy hotel in London where Debbie’s Vegas act, including Carrie in a solo singing role, had been booked for a run at the London Palladium. For the first time in their lives, Fisher and his sister found themselves pursued by paparazzi even when they weren’t with their mother. The day before opening night, Fisher stepped out of the theatre to find Bianca Jagger being mobbed by photographers. When some of them peeled off to take pictures of him, she rushed over and “pulled me into a long, passionate kiss for the tabloids to devour”. Then she invited him to join her at her husband’s birthday party that evening. It proved to be “the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll” version of a Debbie Reynolds extravaganza, with long buffet tables “overloaded with huge bowls and plates of food, pills, powders and joints. Glass trays were everywhere, covered with lines of cocaine, razor blades and straws.”

Carrie, who always suffered from paralysing stage fright, ended her singing career after the run at the Palladium and enrolled at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London to study acting. She had already shot her film debut in Shampoo, with Warren Beatty, playing a woman whose first line is, “Wanna f***?” Beatty had to promise Debbie that he would look after her daughter, and later told Fisher she said, “If you touch her, I will take out a hit on you.” Crucially, he believed her.

By then, both siblings lived separately in Los Angeles. Fisher was with the woman who would become his first wife, Donna Freberg. Carrie was growing increasingly dependent on drugs to control her mood swings. Since they were in their early teens, she and Fisher had experimented with drugs together. Looking back now, he can see that her mental illness was the problem, not addiction. “She was bipolar. The drugs were merely a method to control it,” he says. She wasn’t someone who liked to get “wasted” for fun either. “It was just, like, man, I need to turn this shit off [in her brain]. She used to say to me as a matter of fact, ‘I can’t shut it down.’ ”

“There wasn’t ever a time when Carrie and I weren’t close,” Fisher writes in My Girls, “which gave me a front-row seat to the best and worst of what was going on with her. She could be the most brilliantly fun sister in the world and my best friend, and then turn on me in the blink of an eye … I just accepted it as Carrie being Carrie.” A few weeks before the 20th Century Fox cast and crew screening of the first Star Wars, in 1977, Fisher got an urgent call from his sister’s landlord to get to her home as fast as possible. He found her motionless and face down on the floor, fully dressed, surrounded by vomit. It was a shock, “but also not a shock at all”.

Over the three decades that remained of her life, Carrie was stable for “stretches of time”, Fisher says. She tried rehab. Sometimes even “a year could go by” without problems, but she was never able to fully vanquish her illness and her mood swings became more intense. In 1997, she stayed awake for six days once and the doctors could not bring her down despite giving her enough medication “to put an elephant to sleep”.

Despite that, Carrie broadened her acting repertoire, launched her writing career and began a sideline as a sought-after Hollywood “script doctor”. She had a volatile “high-performance” relationship with Paul Simon and married him briefly, but the pairing of the two of them “was like mixing nitroglycerin”. In 1992 she gave birth to a daughter, Billie. The father, Bryan Lourd, was a talent agent who eventually left her for a man. She had armies of friends. Her one-woman confessional stage show was a riotous hit and, in 2015, the Star Wars franchise was reborn with her in a prominent role. At the time of her death, she was planning to buy a home in Chelsea and live part of the year in London.

Fisher’s life had also calmed down. After his first wife left him for one of his best friends, he spent 20 years with Christi Zabel, who had been a regular member of the congregation at the progressive church he co-founded in west Los Angeles. He raised her three children by her first husband as his own. She died of cancer in 2008 and he met his current wife, Catherine Hickland, two years later.

Eddie died in 2010, aged 82. His son “didn’t shed a tear” but Carrie, who had spent her life seeking her father’s approval, only to find it in his last years when she would sit with him as he smoked one joint after another in his wheelchair, “took it very, very hard”.

Debbie, who taught her children that “there’s no such word as can’t in our family”, had kept performing, survived a third even more catastrophic marriage to a swindler from Virginia, gone bankrupt running a hotel and casino in Las Vegas, and spent years fruitlessly pursuing the dream of building a permanent home for her MGM collection.

Eventually, over a series of auctions between 2011 and 2014, she sold it off for more than $30 million, finally achieving the financial security that she had lost with her second marriage. But in August 2015, she suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. “She couldn’t be herself any more. She couldn’t perform,” Fisher says. “She is so used to putting out so much energy and those people give it back. You don’t know what it’s like; I don’t know what it’s like. Nobody knows what it’s like unless you’re Debbie Reynolds. It was a giant piece of her life that was missing.”

Fisher found that the hardest part of the book to write was the final section, recounting the events of December 2016. “When I did the audio edition, it took me a very long time to get through the last chapter. I read that maybe a sentence at a time.” Recounting Billie’s decision to turn off Carrie’s life support on December 27 was the sort of experience that “rips your heart out”.

He is sitting forward on the edge of his chair now, hands clasped together, eye contact held for emphasis. There are consolations. One of the biggest is knowing “that we said everything that needed to be said to each other, many times. And more importantly, we showed it, we didn’t just say it.”

There is also the knowledge that “my mother would be mad at me if I were not to carry on”, Fisher says. “If I were not to live life to its fullest and have a grand old time, she would be pissed. Because she would finally say to me, and some may take this the wrong way but it’s true, she’d say, ‘You’re free.’ ”

We have wandered through into the vast studio space and soundstage area at the back of the Hollywood Motion Picture Experience, passing a bathroom with more signed film posters and a glass cabinet with a letter to Debbie from her friend Liberace.

Under a huge MGM studio lamp that Fisher says was almost certainly used onGone with the Wind and near a full-size C-3PO, Fisher poses comfortably for photographs. Off to his right, incongruously, is K.I.T.T., the intelligent black Pontiac sports car with a pulsing flash of red on its front grille from the Eighties television series Knight Rider. Fisher’s wife, Catherine Hickland, starred in the show and was once married to David Hasselhoff. “She traded him in for me: I’m what you call a safe bet,” Fisher says with a grin. “This came with the marriage.”

They live on a five-acre compound on the edge of the city with a flock of chickens. Horses, geese, swans and ducks are on the way once they sell Fisher’s ranch in central California. Las Vegas appealed largely because of Hickland’s career – she’s an actress, author, stage hypnotist and entrepreneur – but also because Fisher gets to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. In Los Angeles, “You know, I’m not Spielberg,” he says with a hint of embarrassment. “But here, I am.”

Hickland is “very much like my mom in many ways”, he adds. We are by now settled in a state-of-the-art editing bay against one of the walls, surrounded by more Star Wars merchandising and pictures that he took of his sister trying to kiss an enemy soldier on the set of Return of the Jedi. “It takes a very special person to be able to marry into our family, into the Hollywood race.”

My Girls: a Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, by Todd Fisher, is published by William Morrow (£20)