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City Life is the name of a superhip L.A. "superdealer." In dope, that is. He wears his hair in a long, greasy DA, smokes three packs of Camels a day, and hates girls who don't wear bras. His personal indulgences are few: his car, 20 cups of coffee a day, 16-year-old girls, and cruising Van Nuys Boulevard on Friday nights.
He's also fictional.
But this dramatic portrait -- as described in a 1971 Warner Bros. press kit -- has somehow lived on for a quarter-century. In news articles, movie guides, and theater schedules, Billy Gray -- the actor who was "Bud" on the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best and subsequently portrayed City Life in the drug-culture docudrama Dusty and Sweets McGee -- has been named as a heroin addict.
But he's not City Life, and smack has never been Gray's thing.
"I was just playing a part. I'm an actor. That's what I do. Everybody knows actors aren't real people," protests Gray. And he's been serious about his protesting, filing a libel lawsuit against three San Francisco institutions -- the Roxie Cinema, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Examiner -- as well as other defendants.
The suit alleged that false rumors describing Gray as a heroin addict ruined a once-promising movie career. The Chron, the Ex, and the Roxie all reviewed the movie as part of a 1996 S.F. revival, and all repeated the false rumor of Gray's heroin use.
A Los Angeles judge dropped the S.F. newspapers and movie theater from the lawsuit two weeks ago, Gray's lawyer says, ruling that their assertions about his heroin use came long after Gray's career might have been ruined by the drug-use rumor.
But Gray still holds a grudge.
"They [the newspapers] refused to print a retraction. They gave us examples of stuff they saw that led them to believe it was true. They said there was a press release that was mailed to them by the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, and that it said essentially what they had said," says Gray.
The rumor's trajectory -- from apparently innocuous press-release copy to a piece of slander that wouldn't die -- is interesting because it illustrates how old press releases and clippings can build into an impenetrable media loop.
The loop apparently started with a page of a Warner Bros. press packet titled "Biography of City Life."
"Billy Gray, ex-child actor who was Bud Anderson on the 'Father Knows Best Show,' plays City Life. Gray has not worked for almost 10 years due to personal problems relative to the theme of this film," the press packet said.
Lawyers for Leonard Maltin said in court filings that he got information from the press packet for his Movie & Video Guide. The guide, however, described Gray this way: "Among real-life addicts and pushers shown is Billy Gray of TV's Father Knows Best."
Examiner staff critic Craig Marine wrote in a May 1996 review that Gray had been "struggling with his own heroin habit at the time" the docudrama was made. The paper got its information from the Roxie Cinema, says Examiner attorney Roger Myers.
Indeed, the Roxie's May-July 1996 program guide, which seems to have relied on Maltin's guide for its information, says Gray was "himself an addict."
And the day after the Examiner piece was published, the Chronicle's Mick LaSalle wrote a review that said Gray was "a heroin addict at the time the film was being made."
Warner Bros. spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti refused to vouch for the authenticity of the press packet material acquired by SF Weekly. "We don't comment on pending litigation," she said.
But the Warner Bros. description of Gray contained some grains of truth -- a necessary element for any lasting legend. Gray was busted in 1962 for possession of marijuana, a huge scandal at the time, given his character's hyper-wholesome television image. Gray did some subsequent television work, and some work in movies, but he was never again as famous as when he played Bud in Father Knows Best.
"The basis is, I got busted for grass, and they said I was a heroin addict," says Gray, 59, who now makes his living as an inventor of consumer knickknacks. "When people think you're a heroin addict, they aren't going to hire you."
Journalists understand better than most people how errors can find their way into books, newspapers, and magazines. Contorted phrases can be misconstrued by copy editors. Scrawled notes are sometimes misread. Hearsay is recalled as fact. Confused memories become hard copy.
That's why magazines have fact-checking departments, and newspapers have correction boxes. And it's also why press releases and old press accounts aren't always the best sources from which to compile news stories.
"At some point, somebody ought to have called the Screen Actors Guild and said, 'Do you have a [phone] number on Billy Gray?' -- in fact, they do -- and then call me and say, 'How's my heroin addiction doing?' There was nothing to substantiate this, except that I was in a movie that had heroin addicts in it," says Gray, whose name was given as "Billy Grey" in the Roxie, Chronicle, and Examiner reviews. "These people who were accusing me of being a heroin addict didn't even spell my name right.