Richard Lawson’s 5 brushes with death – actor
RICHARD Lawson knew almost immediately that this was no soap opera. For just before the ice-laden air-plane lifted off the ground, he had for the fifth time in his life a premonition of his death. And alarm turned to terror as the Fokker F-28 jet shuddered and crashed into the icy waters of Flushing Bay at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Because of a quirk of fate and a last-minute change in his seating, Lawson survived the crash that killed 27 of the 51 aboard USAir Flight 405. And in the weeks that followed–weeks filled with excruciating pain and nightmares–he recalled with relief and not a little wonder that the horrifying incident of being strapped to a seat and submerged in bone-chilling water was but the latest in five eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with death.
Interestingly and significantly, the star of the ABC-TV soap opera All My Children seemed a little dazed that the nearness of death did not affect him as it has affected others. His life did not flash before his eyes, as many in similar situations have recalled. Nor did he experience a sudden religious conversion. Perhaps, as in four previous incidents, it simply wasn’t his time.
Although he couldn’t shrug off the harrowing LaGuardia crash, he philosophically filed it away with the strange series of near-death experiences that have marked and marred his life.
The series started, in a way, in the fateful month of March when he was born prematurely on March 7, 1947, in Loma Linda, Calif., while his mother was on a trip. Brought up in the Bay Area, he attended Riverside College in Southern California. He left school to start a furniture hauling business, but aborted the venture when he was drafted during the Viet Nam War. As an Army medic, Lawson served for 21 months, earning a Purple Heart.
It was during that tour of duty–24 years ago and in the same month of the March 22 LaGuardia crash–that the TV star had his first brush with death. On March 7, 1968, his 21st birthday, the medic, fresh from the streets of Oakland, found himself in the middle of a heavy fire fight on a Vietnam battlefield.
“I didn’t want to die,” the actor recalls. “It was my birthday, my 21st birthday, and I didn’t want to celebrate it with a bullet. This particular day was memorable because we were in the middle of a heavy fire fight and although I had faced death almost every day, I was especially frightened because I didn’t want to die on my birthday. Bullets were flying all around me. I was afraid of dying. That day was the most frightening for me. I didn’t want to do anything. I was really scared.” Fortunately for him, the Lawson luck held, and the bullets passed him by.
When Lawson returned to the states in 1969, he enrolled at Chabot College, but left a year later to pursue his acting career. One of Hollywood’s few Black leading men, he won critical acclaim for his work on the the television dramas Dynasty and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and in the films Poltergeist, Coming Home and The Main Event.
An acting job for an Austrailian television series took Lawson to the land Down Under in the 1970s, where he had a second brush with death. “I was meeting some people in a pub with the producer of the show,” he said later, “and I was getting ready to cross the street. I didn’t see any cars coming, so I ran across the street. I almost got to the other side when all of a sudden I heard my producer screaming, ‘Richard! Richard!’ And you could hear in his voice that whatever he was screaming about was impending doom. Then I heard the screech from tires and the sound of a horn as a car passed within an inch of me. It was so close that I could almost feel it, as if it were passing through my clothes. His yelling made the difference.”
Lawson’s string of good fortune continued in 1980 when he suffered injuries in a car crash while tooling around Los Angeles. “I was driving my Volkswagen convertible and got hit broadside from the blindside on the driver’s side,” he recalls. “The impact bent me in half and my head hit the door. The left side of my head hit the driver’s door with the window down. If the window had been up, the side of my face would have been in the glass. The impact knocked me out of the car. I woke up in the hospital looking at a bright light and three White people with white coats on. I had only separated some ribs and had a hip injury.”
The earlier near-death experiences were freak accidents, but Lawson says his fourth brush was linked directly to his addiction to cocaine. “I am,” he says, “a recovering cocaine addict. In 1983, I almost died from a drug overdose. I thought I was having a heart attack. I went into a convulsive state. I almost couldn’t call the paramedics because I couldn’t get my hand on the phone to dial 911. But I finally did and when the paramedics came, my heart rate was up to 184 beats a minute. That was as fast as my heart could beat.”
Although that episode was a major warning for Lawson, he lapsed back into addictive cocaine use. His salvation, he says, was “the Lord within me.” He recalls that “on April 13, 1983, I was with a friend and in him I saw a place where I didn’t want to be. We were both on the same road, but he was a bit further. I didn’t want to be where he was because I saw him dying. That’s when I made a decision to get help. He died almost a year later.”
Those drug-related experiences led Lawson to read everything he could on addictive, compulsive and obsessive behavior. He soon began working as a drug counselor. For several years, he has served as a counselor and consultant to the 23 teams represented by the National Basketball Association’s Players’ Association.
In fact, he was on his way to do some work for the Cleveland Cavaliers when he booked a seat on the ill-fated Flight 405 from LaGuardia. “I decided to go to Cleveland Sunday night to beat the snowstorm,” he says. “I didn’t want to be snowed in Monday.”
Even though he had flown countless times, Lawson says he had a very bad feeling once he got on the plane.
“I knew it was going to crash,” he says. “But then I talked myself out of it before we left the gate. When they closed the door, it was like, ‘Well, I’m here.’ I didn’t have enough power to say, ‘Turn this around.'”
It was impossible to pinpoint the source of his bad vibrations, he says. But since he had felt them so many times before, it was impossible for him to dismiss them. “During the taxiing,” he recalls, “part of my brain was trying to convince the other side that I was being paranoid and foolish.”
But he wasn’t. The jetliner rolled down runway 12, but barely got 50 feet off the ground before it abruptly turned left and dived upside down into the freezing bay. “That’s when I saw an orange flash of explosion out of the window,” he says. “The plane felt like it slipped and we went into a tumble of some kind. You could hear the sound of tearing metal. And we settled. When it all settled and stopped, I was upside down in the water. I felt pinned in because there were things on top of me. It felt like a car fell on top of me. Something told me to stop struggling and just be calm and die in peace, die in peace.”
The thought of quietly acquiescing to death only lasted a moment or two. Then another, more powerful voice, told him to fight. “I undid my seat belt and began to move things off me,” he says. “Then I found myself popping to the surface gasping for air. I had swallowed a lot of jet fuel and water. A hand came down and said ‘Let me help you.’ I gave my hand and they pulled me through the hole.”
As soon as Lawson was out of the hole, the worker did a double-take and asked, “‘Aren’t you on All My Children?’ It was sort of like, ‘Welcome to the real world.'”
Although he had only been on the daytime drama for two months at the time of the accident, it was long enough for a ticket agent to recognize him and upgrade his ticket from coach to first class, a serendipitous act that proved crucial to his survival. “It was because of All My Children that I was able to change seats to first class from 6A to 1F.” At least one passenger in row six, the row to which Lawson was originally assigned, died in the fiery crash.
With the fifth life-threatening episode behind him, Lawson, the divorced father of two, is able to reflect and place his entire life in perspective. “The Lord just wasn’t ready for me yet,” he reflects. “Evidently he has work for me to do. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to go like that because that’s not the way I envisioned myself going. Ideally, I’d like to go as an old man. The Lord must want me to stay here pretty tough because he has brought me back five times.” He adds:
“I need to continue expanding on what I’m doing. I feel strength and elation from being validated by the Lord. He is looking out for me. I’m on top of the world.”
COPYRIGHT 1992 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group