Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, and 6 Celebrity Deaths From Opioids & Prescription Drugs

Updated on February 27, 2018
Timothy Anderson profile image

Tim Anderson is a freelance writer/researcher with articles published in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy magazine, TV Guide and others.

Tom Petty - another celebrity casualty of prescription drug abuse.
Tom Petty - another celebrity casualty of prescription drug abuse.

1. Tom Petty

The news of Tom Petty's death was shocking and an unexpected addition to the growing list of celebrities dying from an opioid overdose. The 66-year-old musician was found unresponsive in his Los Angeles area home and rushed to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead on October 2, 2017 just a few weeks shy of his 67th birthday.

Petty was born in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. When he was ten, he got to meet Elvis Presley who was filming his movie Follow That Dream in Florida. That’s when Petty decided he wanted to be a musician and a singer and so he began studying the guitar. Ironically, one of his guitar teachers was Don Felder who years later will join the Eagles and play lead guitar.

As he was growing, Petty held a number of different jobs in order to pay for his guitar lessons and musical needs, including working with the University of Florida grounds crew, and even a stint as a gravedigger. In 1976 he formed the group Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers where he was lead singer. Before long he became one of the best-selling music artists of all time with over 80 million records sold worldwide.

Some of the most memorable Tom Petty songs include “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (with Stevie Nicks), “Free Fallin’,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” In 1998, one-time Beatle George Harrison invited Petty to join his Traveling Wilbur’s group with included Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne. In 2001 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Petty’s death was initially reported as a heart attack, but in January 2018 the L.A. County Coroner announced his demise was due to an accidental overdose of prescription medications. The autopsy found opioids oxycodone, acetyl fentanyl, fentanyl, and despropionyl fentanyl, the antidepressant citalopram, and the sedatives alprazolam and temazepam in his system.

Sadly, Tom Petty’s name was added to the growing list of celebrities who’ve died during our nation's current opioid epidemic.

Michael Jackson -- The King of Pop.
Michael Jackson -- The King of Pop.

2. Michael Jackson

Born in Gary, Indiana in 1958 to Joe and Katherine Jackson, Michael was the eighth of ten children. In 1964, Joe organized five of his sons into a group called The Jackson Five, with Tito, Jackie, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael. The five brothers were soon topping the charts with hits like "I'll Be There," "ABC," and "I Want You Back." The family left Gary in 1969 and moved to Los Angeles where their fame continued to grow.

In the early 1970s, Michael began to morph into a teen idol and started recording solo, though occasionally appearing with his brothers. Michael Jackson songs were soon topping the charts, and two of his early hits were "Ben," and "Got To Be There." But the moonwalker dancer and singer shot to super-stardom in 1982 when he released his album Thriller and the accompanying music video. The video, narrated by horror legend Vincent Price and directed by John Landis, was shot at a cost of $500,000 making it the most expensive music video of the time.

As the pop singer's popularity grew, so did his bizarre behavior. Jackson had many cosmetic surgeries that would drastically alter his appearance. He had a childish fascination with Disneyland and Disney's movie, Peter Pan, eventually building his own small version of Disneyland near Santa Ynez, California which he called Never-Never Land.

In the last years of his life, Jackson suffered from insomnia and like Elvis, had a physician only too happy to prescribe whatever drugs he demanded. On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson's death shocked the world. He died in his rented Beverly Hills home from cardiac arrest caused by propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication. His autopsy found an incredible array of mood and anti-depressant drugs in his system, including Valium, Lorazepam, midazolam, lidocaine, propofol, and others. Jackson's personal doctor would later stand trial and be convicted for involuntary manslaughter and spend two years in prison.

Which of the following Michael Jackson songs is your favorite?

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Marilyn Monroe is considered America's greatest sex symbol ever.
Marilyn Monroe is considered America's greatest sex symbol ever.

3. Marilyn Monroe

Before she became famous as Hollywood's top sex symbol, she was California's "Artichoke Queen," having won a beauty contest in Castroville, California in 1948.

We know her today as Marilyn Monroe, but she was born Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926 in Los Angeles. After her mother began suffering from mental illness, the young beauty ended up being shuttled between various foster homes. So to escape from her unhappy situation, the 16-year-old married her first husband, James Dougherty, whom she'd met at work. But the marriage would only last four years.

Afterwards, she began doing some modeling and bit movie parts. A favorite of pin-up artists, one of her photos ended up in the first issue of Playboy magazine. Hollywood movie offers were pouring in, and she was soon starring in films on the big screen. The girl once known as Norma Jean had now become a major star and cinema's reigning sex symbol. Today, some of the more popular Marilyn Monroe movies on late night TV include Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire.

However, the acclaim and popularity came with a price, and the rising star battled depression, anxiety, and drug dependence after she began taking prescription barbiturates and other drugs. By the early 1960s she was addicted to a number of them.

On August 5, 1962, the actress was found dead in her bed. A later autopsy would suggest she been dead for several hours before being found, and would reveal she had lethal amounts of chloral hydrate and pentobarbital in her system. The Coroner declared her death a "probable suicide" and closed the investigation.

Today, almost any list of celebrity deaths from prescription drug abuse will have Marilyn Monroe's name at the top.

How well do you know Marilyn Monroe movies?

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4. Prince

His birth name really was Prince. Born in 1958 in Minneapolis, Prince Rogers Nelson loved music and playing the guitar. He was so good that he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records before he turned 18.

The public loved him and his flamboyant style and flashy costumes and over the years he would rack up eight Grammys, a Golden Globe Award, six American Music Awards, and win an Oscar for Best Original Song Score for "Purple Rain."

During his career, he sold over 100 million records worldwide, and in 2004 -- his first year of eligibility -- he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In April 2016, after feeling ill, Prince cancelled two shows in Atlanta and flew back to his home in Minneapolis in his private jet. While enroute, the jet made an emergency landing in Illinois where Prince was taken to a local hospital and administered Narcan.

After regaining consciousness, against the advice of doctors, he left the hospital and finished his flight back home. But less than a week later he was found unconscious in the elevator of his mansion and paramedics were unable to revive him. Nearly two months after his autopsy, the Anoka County Medical Examiner's Office announced Prince's death was due to an accidental overdose of fentanyl, a popular prescription pain killer.

Prince was just 57, but one of the early casualties of the opioid epidemic which was beginning to sweep through America.

How well do you know Prince songs?

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Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.

5. Elvis Presley

Other than perhaps Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson, few celebrity deaths from prescription drug overdoses were more unexpected than that of Elvis Presley.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in 1935 to Gladys and Vernon Presley in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was a twin, but his brother Jesse didn't survive and was buried in an unmarked grave. Today, the exact burial spot is unknown, lost over time.

When he was a teenager, the Presley family moved to nearby Memphis, Tennessee where the young singer and guitar player began to perfect his craft. Although he couldn't read music, he simply studied and played by ear.

In 1954, while playing with some friends at the Sun Studios, Elvis began to play a lively version of "That's All Right." They made a recording the same evening, and three days later it was playing on Memphis' radio stations, and soon Elvis Presley songs were topping the charts.

During his lifetime Elvis had ten albums that were number one in sales and eighteen singles that hit number one on US Pop charts. Elvis Presley movies were especially popular in the 1960s, however he once said the film he enjoyed doing most was 1958's King Creole. And although he was an international star, other than two concerts in Canada, Presley never performed outside the U.S., even though he'd lived in Germany for a year in the 1950s.

In the last years of his life, Elvis put on weight and relied heavily on prescription drugs his doctor was only too happy to provide. His family and friends worried about his prescription drug abuse, and warned him he was flirting with death. When he died at home in his bathroom, Elvis' autopsy revealed there were ten different drugs in his bloodstream.

Of these Elvis Presley songs, which one is your favorite?

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Heath Ledger - posthumous Academy Award winner.
Heath Ledger - posthumous Academy Award winner.

6. Heath Ledger

The actor who would win an Academy Award as "The Joker" in a Batman movie, Heath Ledger was born on April 4, 1979 in Perth, Australia. Earlier in life, he was something of a chess prodigy and when only 10 he won Western Australia's Junior Chess Championship.

Having acquired the acting bug as he grew into his teens, he headed for Los Angeles after turning 19 and soon he was starring in The Patriot with Mel Gibson, followed by A Knight's Tale and others. But his break-out role that captured international attention and acclaim was as a cowboy named Ennis Del Mar who was a closet gay and eventual lover of rodeo rider Jack Twist, a role played by Jake Gyllenhaal. At just age 26, Ledger found himself with an Academy Award nomination for the 2005 Best Actor Oscar, although he would lose to Phillip Seymour Hoffman who won for Capote.

Shortly after finishing his role as The Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight, Ledger was found unconscious by his housekeeper in his New York City apartment. When emergency technicians arrived shortly after 3:30 p.m. they pronounced the actor dead. A subsequent autopsy would find oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, doxylamine and other drugs in his system. The medical examiner will rule Heath Ledger's death an accident from prescription drug abuse.

Ironically, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death six years later would be for similar reasons.

The Dark Knight opened in theaters six months after Ledger's death and grossed more than $400 million in just 18 days. He was posthumously award both a Golden Globe, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as The Joker, one of only two actors -- Peter Finch is the other -- to win an Academy Award after their deaths.

Jimi Hendrix, the Purple Haze paratrooper.
Jimi Hendrix, the Purple Haze paratrooper.

7. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was born almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Seattle, Washington. As a kid, he often carried around a small broom and pretended he was playing a guitar, his family too poor to buy him the real thing.

Then one day an elderly neighbor lady let him have an old, busted ukulele, and the persistent lad learned to play his miniature "guitar" by ear. He especially loved Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." By the time he was 15 Jimi had his own guitar and began teaching himself to play in earnest.

As a teen, however, he had a penchant for getting into trouble and to avoid jail time he ended up joining the U.S. Army as a paratrooper. Eight months later he was an official member of the celebrated Screaming Eagles in the 101st Airborne Division. Army life, however, did not sit well with him and after less than two years in the service, he was given an early discharge.

Jimi Hendrix plays the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

In 1966, he moved to London where he soon had three top ten hits, including his signature song "Purple Haze."

The fuse for his rocketing success was lit. The following year he returned to the United States to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. His album Electrice Ladyland hit number one in the U.S. and by the time he headlined at Woodstock in 1968, Jimi Hendrix was the world's highest-paid performer.

But there was a dark side to his success: Hendrix had a drinking problem that worsened when he began experimenting with drugs. Sometimes when inebriated he would become violent and combative, fighting demons only he could see. And as his success and accolades grew, so did his drinking and drug use.

On September 17, 1980 while in London, Hendrix had dinner and a bottle of wine with lady friend Monika Dannemann. They went to bed and the next morning she woke up next to him and found him unresponsive. He was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. A subsequent autopsy determined he'd choked to death in his own vomit due to barbiturate intoxication. Dannemann would later admit that Hendrix had taken nine prescription sleeping pills called Vesparax, which were 18 times higher than the recommended dosage.

One more sad case of celebrity prescription drug abuse. Hendrix was just 27 when he died. Rolling Stone will later call him the world's greatest guitarist, and sixth greatest overall artist in history.

Judy Garland as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
Judy Garland as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

8. Judy Garland

Frances Ethel Gumm. That was the first name of the young lass who would grow up to star in one of America's most beloved movies, The Wizard of Oz.

Born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922 to parents who were in the entertainment business, the toddler they nicknamed "Baby," and two older sisters were soon singing and performing onstage in local theaters and at social events. In 1928 they all moved west to Lancaster, California and spent the next seven years perfecting their craft and moving up the ladder of success, eventually changing their name to "The Garland Sisters," with Frances using the name "Judy."

Louis B. Mayer caught their act and offered Judy a contract with MGM. It was 1935, an important year in Judy's life. Not only did the 13-year-old sign with Mayer, but The Garland Sisters broke up, and a few months later their father died at age 49 from meningitis. But she had little time to mourn or dwell on her losses; Mayer had smartly teamed her with another young actor named Mickey Rooney and the pair shot to great success in various Andy Hardy films. Judy Garland movies were making the studio a lot of money.

Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

This success, however, came with a hidden cost. Unbeknownst to the public, the studio was churning out one film after another, trying to cram as many Andy Hardy and other teen-related films as possible into each year, knowing their young stars were maturing quickly. Judy and Mickey were given amphetamines to stay awake and alert during the rigorous filming schedules. And when they weren't filming, the young actors were often shuttled from city to city to promote their current movie.

By 1938 Garland was the central figure in The Wizard of Oz cast, filming for release the following year. The Wizard of Oz book had been published in 1900 and had millions of fans, so MGM decided to bring it to the big screen.

When the filming began, Garland was just 16 and already addicted to the prescription drugs the studio demanded she take. It would begin a lifelong battle she would ultimately lose. Her final years were full of embarrassing drug-induced scandals, and in one incident she was booed onstage by the crowd and had to leave.

On June 22, 1969 her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, found his 47-year-old wife unconscious and unresponsive in the bathroom of a home they were renting in London. After an autopsy the coroner would declare her death to be caused by an accidental overdose of barbiturates. Her blood contained a lethal dose of Seconal, and two prescription bottles of the barbiturate - one half empty - were found next to her bed.

In 1997, Judy Garland was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The American Film Institute would name her song "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" the number one movie song of all time, and name her the eighth greatest female star of the golden era of film.

After The Wizard of Oz, which of the following Judy Garland films is your favorite?

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© 2017 Tim Anderson


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