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Life in the shadow of Sam Kinison


Your brother was a drug-abusing loudmouth, irresponsible, incapable of getting through the day without at least one self-destructive act. While you, his manager, tried to make some sense of the mess of his life, he squandered millions through drug use and generally licentious living. You even took a drug rap for him.

Bill Kinison reflects now on those times with his late brother Sam and shakes his head. "Sometimes I think: 'Did that all really happen? Man, I musta been crazy.' "

It's hard not to reach that conclusion, listening to Bill Kinison talk about life with Sam, the gifted and volatile comedian whose tormented life was ended at the age of 39 in a Nevada auto accident in 1992. It's a life Bill documents in graphic detail in "Brother Sam: The Short, Spectacular Life of Sam Kinison," recently published by William Morrow.

Despite his success, Sam Kinison always felt inferior to his older brother. He thought Bill was a better athlete, more attractive and a better preacher -- a vocation that Sam tried and failed at, while Bill became a staple on the Pentecostal revival circuit. It's ironic, then, that at age 45, Bill Kinison is spending his days plugging a book about Sam and also producing record albums and videos about his brother.

"I know I'll always be identified with him," Bill says without apparent rancor.

"Brother Sam" is a curious book in some ways. Bill Kinison provides plenty of anecdotes about his brother's notorious sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll life. By Bill's estimate, Sam went through $15 million in little more than a decade as a high-grossing comedian (and died $1 million in debt -- $160,000 alone to American Express). Much of the money was spent on cocaine, which Sam used in staggering quantities. "The guy partied every night for 12 years," his brother says.

In fact, though Bill Kinison makes it clear he thought Sam led an excessive life, it's disconcerting to hear him recite some of Sam's more famous routines about drug use with such gusto and flair. Bill Kinison is a natural mimic -- so good that he often filled in for his younger brother on telephone interviews. "No one ever caught on," he says proudly. In August, he'll begin work as a radio talk show host in Southern California, where he lives. He appears to be a natural.

If Sam was a large (265 pounds packed on a 5-foot-8 frame), blustery and insecure man, Bill is dapper and self-assured. He is short -- 5-foot-4, he says -- and his silvery hair is pulled into a stylish ponytail. He speaks with the confident tones of that most confident breed -- managers of celebrities. They are equally adept at sweet-talking reluctant stage crew members and screaming in the face of a performer so drunk he cannot stand up (something he did many times with Sam).

They are the ultimate take-charge guys. Yet Bill Kinison could not, until late in his brother's life, take charge enough to lay down the law to Sam: Cut back on the drug abuse and be more responsible, or I'm gone. After years of looking away while Sam self-destructed, Bill ultimately decided to change things after he told Los Angeles police that marijuana found in Sam's luggage was his -- just so his brother wouldn't get arrested. Bill avoided jail but spent months in a rehab program.

"I'd become so absorbed in cleaning up Sam's problems, I hadn't solved my own," he writes in "Brother Sam." "In large part from coming to work for Sam, from trying to caretake his life and letting him dictate mine, I lost my marriage, my financial stability, and for a while, my good health."

"Taking the drug rap for Sam was something I've always regretted," he says somberly over breakfast last week at a Baltimore diner. "The enabling, the co-dependency -- I have to accept the responsibility.

"But you have to remember something," he goes on. "My father always told us four [Kinison brothers] growing up Peoria: It was blood. It was us against the world."

So while Sam was trying to make it as a comedian in Houston and Los Angeles, Bill, a successful preacher, sent him money every month. It was supposed to be used for the rent and food, but by the late 1970s, Sam had found more recreational uses for it.

After Sam hit it big in the mid-1980s, he coerced his brother into becoming his manager. "That was another mistake," Bill concedes now. "I had no trouble handling the business end of it -- it was a lot of fun. But my relationship with Sam -- there was always tension.

"We loved each other, but we'd drive each other nuts. It was only later on that I figured out that I was the only father figure he had. And he needed that and fought it at the same time."

The last few months of Sam's life, after he entered drug and alcohol treatment after years of pleading by his brother, "were the best we ever had together," Bill Kinison says. "He wasn't completely sober by a long shot -- he still drank some and smoked pot almost every day -- but he was much better."

While Mr. Kinison says writing "Brother Sam" was "extremely therapeutic" for him, he's not sure he'll ever understand what drove his brother. "I needed to write this book," he says, tapping at a copy on the table. "I needed to talk to Sam through it, talk about our relationship and a hundred other things. I worked out a lot of things.

"But this doesn't mean I know Sam any better," he continues, drawing up in his seat. He sounds resigned, almost puzzled. "I don't think anyone could understand Sam. I don't think he ever resolved many of the things that tormented him."

He looks out the window and points to a couple of shabbily dressed men. "You know, Sam was never successful at anything other than when he was up on stage," he says calmly. "If he hadn't been able to do comedy, he would have ended up out there in the street like those guys."

In a few minutes, Bill Kinison is gone, whisked away for another day of talking about life with a gifted and troubled man whom he tolerated -- loved -- mostly because they happened to be related. Two years after Sam is gone, he is still his brother's keeper.

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