The Sunday Mail (Aus), January 8, 1995
KEANU'S BITTER SECRET
by Sharon Churcher & Mike McDonough
Keanu Reeves is a superstar but he hates the father who ruined his childhood and who is now in jail on drug charges. From Sharon Churcher in Toronto and Mike McDonough in Hawaii.
PATIENTLY, police kept watch on the portly, middle-aged man in a farmhouse near the remote Hawaiian town of Hilo, waiting for the break that would send them into action.
Their prey had been under surveillance for weeks, suspected of multi-million dollar drug dealing, when the crucial tip-off suddenly came from a neighbour.
The police unit trailed him and a companion to the local airport where, in a minutely timed operation, they grabbed the pair - with a consignment of heroin and cocaine.
The man, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, is today in Halawa State Prison, just north of Pearl Harbor, serving 10 years for possession of drugs - one of the stiffest punishments ever in this normally liberal island. And while he languishes in jail, his estranged son Keanu Reeves is today Hollywood's most successful and feted new star, enjoying the adulation (and, of course, the rewards) that have come with his international success.
But the real story of this father and son is one of abandonment and bitter recriminations. Close family claim that Sam, whose life has been destroyed by drugs, is now "hated' by the shy and lonely young boy who grew up to be a film star, and whose latest movie Speed knocked Schwarzenegger off the US Number One slot.
The film has already earned nearly $10 million in Britain and $200 million worldwide. Keanu was reportedly paid a six-figure sum for playing the lead, and his performance as a cop on a booby-trapped bus has attracted immense acclaim - thus tripling the fees this 30-year-old can now command.
But unlike many stars who feed the American dream with stories of how they made it from nothing, Keanu rarely speaks of his childhood. He says nothing about his renegade father, an Hawaiian who married a young British girl in the Sixties.
His career has benefitted from the image of him as a boy born on the right side of the tracks, a middle-class rebel who has made some of the most provocative Hollywood successes of recent years. He himself has said of his background: "My mother was ahead of her time... She surrounded my two young sisters and myself with culture and art.''
The truth, though, is more complex and ultimately, much more sad. Born to a Bohemian mother and tearaway father, Keanu, whose name means "cool breeze over the mountain'', is the product of a chaotic, lonely past.
His was a childhood into which drugs and unemployment constantly intruded, a rootless, nomadic existence which his family and friends say has left its scars.
For inside Keanu Reeves, star of Bertolucci's Little Buddha and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, is still that lonely and unhappy little boy, despite his new superstardom.
He has not sustained lasting relationships with women - and has few "real buddy'' friendships with men. The shadow of his father still lies across his life - the father he cannot respect, and whose craving or drugs and a fast, easy buck has finally come before his son.
The irony is that the way Sam Reeves squandered his life may be the primary motivation for Keanu's extraordinary ambition and success. He saw how his father fell under the spell of drugs. In Hollywood, a young man of Keanu's wealth and fame has before him the best, and worst, this hedonistic town can offer.
But Keanu has said he wants none of that - to prove to his estranged father, and to himself, that he can do much, much better. Until now, the star's family have remained silent about the private torment which has shaped his career. But last week Leslie Reeves, Keanu's cousin, said at her home in Hawaii: "When he heard his father had been arrested, Keanu was angry. He said, "Who the hell needs this?' "He does not love his father. He has nothing but contempt for him. He hates him.''
Hawaiian police say Sam Reeves was in contact with a Mexican gang responsible for smuggling "black tar' heroin on to the island. Hermilo Castillo, 24, said to be a member of a Mexican crime family, put up $100,000 bail after being arrested with Sam and skipped the country. The prosecution said the star's father had made a telephone call to the "family', which operates from the Los Angeles area. His eventual jail sentence was a very public finale to a wasted life of drug abuse and emotional neglect towards his son.
Keanu was just four when Sam walked out and he saw his father only sporadically through the years. Sam's drug-taking had become too much for his wife, Patricia, who had married him in 1964.
At the time the family lived in Beirut, where both were students at the American University. Keanu was born in the city which was then a home to playboys and hippies on the way to the Far East. With a young son and two daughters, Patricia moved around the world - to Australia, New York and eventually to Canada - as she struggled to raise her family.
Shawn Aberle, who was a newspaper delivery boy with Keanu in Canada, remembers the insecure, angry child he knew. "He really resented the way he felt his father had deserted him,'' Shawn said. "In one of his films, I Love You To Death, Keanu has a line about how fathers are fathers only at the minute of conception. That was very, very true to how Keanu thought of his own father.''
Others recall a boy tortured by feelings of inadequacy, a teenager unable to make friends with people of his own age. One teacher, Donald Mason, says: "There would be times when Keanu would be around the school late in the evening, long after most kids had gone home. He would be shooting baskets on his own.''
Patricia, who was known as 'Patric', is remembered as a loving but unconventional mother; 'a hippy', according to some, who loved the theatre and amazed friends with her flamboyant style - she wore her hair in a peach-dyed buzz cut and smoked Gitanes cigarettes.
After bit-part acting roles, Reeves eventually drove from Canada to Los Angeles, where he lived for a short while with his mother's second husband, film director Paul Aaron, on Sunset Boulevard.
Despite his maverick, almost beatnik background, the family did have money and are still wealthy in the eyes of many Americans. His grandmother's second husband, Canadian Colman Abrahams, made a fortune developing children's encyclopaedias for Encyclopaedia Britannica and investing in property.
Keanu's bitterness towards his father lies partly in the fact that Sam largely squandered his inheritance on drugs. Cousin Leslie says: "There were fights about Sam's drug-taking. My aunt grew out of the hippy phase. My uncle didn't. He refused. In fact, he couldn't give up the drugs.
"Today, Sam presents an image that he doesn't give a damn about his jail sentence, but really he's a tortured man.''
Part of Keanu's appeal as an actor, especially to the millions of his women fans, is his on-screen vulnerability; he is not an action man following the style of Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.
Women have always been an overriding influence on his life. He remains close to his mother, a fierce independent spirit. As Leslie Reeves says: "Keanu was raised by powerful women. He had very little male influence on his life growing up.'' Keanu has confided that his disgust for his father's drug habit was brought home to him after the death of his good friend River Phoenix from a drugs and alcohol overdose last year. That death, on a Los Angeles pavement, opened old wounds. One friend said: "It caused him great pain.''
But it also, apparently, has now motivated him. Whatever temptations are to hand in Hollywood - the same high-octane lifestyle which killed Phoenix - Reeves has told people he will have no part of it.
The roles he has chosen for himself - relentless loners, young men removed from society by birth, as in Little Buddha, or their own sexuality, as in the gay movie My Own Private Idaho - reveal much about how Keanu perceives himself.
In Hollywood this loneliness, setting himself apart from others, is his ticket to survival. It is also his ultimate revenge against the man who left him when he was a toddler.
A man who today never sees his famous son and, from an Hawaiian jail cell, can only dream of what might have been.