NEW YORK – It was just another day on a movie set. An actor, who was struggling with alcoholism, asked a maid to bring him water. When she returned, the star's "sober companion" intervened, smelling the substance.
"The bottle had vodka in it, and he took it away," said Chris Prentiss, co-director of the swank Malibu treatment facility, Passages, which employed the "companion."
It's another "only in Hollywood" phenomenon: Babysitters hired to watch alcohol- and drug-addicted celebrities during important — and invariably expensive — projects.
Passages, a $37,500-a-month rehab, is one organization that provides the sober companions — at a cost of $2,500 a day.
"We deal primarily with the three major insurance companies; they call and say, 'Get this guy back to work,'" said Prentiss. "They want their actor or their director back to work as fast as possible."
Shutting down a film during production or canceling concerts mid-tour because of a strung-out star is a costly business. Prentiss said firms insuring the cast and crew of a movie pay about $200,000 to $300,000 a day when filming is suspended.
That's where the babysitters or "minders" come in. They stay with the celebrity 24 hours a day through the project, sleeping in the same room, accompanying the star to the bathroom, searching the person daily, checking food and drink served, and interceding whenever anyone else approaches.
"They help the person carry on with the day," Prentiss explained. "These people are very savvy. They don't embarrass the director or actor. They're not awed by celebrities."
But it isn't always easy to keep a star away from drugs or alcohol. Celebrities craving a fix will try all sorts of tactics to get it. One sober companion was offered $50,000 by an actor to look the other way while he indulged.
"Hopefully they refuse it," Prentiss said of the bribes. "Usually these people are dedicated to keeping them clean."
If there's time, Passages asks the addict to enter a 14-day intensive detox and relapse-prevention program for $42,000 before sending them back to work with a babysitter.
Some have criticized the use of sober companions as a "quick fix" with the sole purpose of protecting the film's bottom line, not the celebrity's well-being. But treatment organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous haven't publicly voiced concerns.
In some ways sober buddies, who are often ex-addicts themselves, resemble AA's sponsors — seasoned members assigned to help new ones get clean.
"A sponsor in AA is not usually a babysitter, but that isn't to say a sponsor wouldn't decide to accompany someone someplace," said Rick, a staff person at AA's general services office who asked that his last name not be used.
The difference is that sponsors aren't for hire.
"This sounds like a business transaction," he said. "Members of AA do it on a voluntary basis."
Still, the idea of needing help to kick substance abuse is in line with accepted rehabilitation philosophies.
"Conceptually, it fits with other approaches to recovery that say you can't do it alone," said Barbara McCrady, president of the addictions division of the American Psychological Association. "They're just doing it Hollywood style."
Prentiss admits that babysitters are a temporary solution, but said Passages tries to stay involved after the companion's work is done.
"We haven't had any failures at all, in terms of their using during their job," he said. "After the shoot is over, we take them into treatment long-term."
And it's not only entertainment types that hire sober companions, according to Prentiss. Sometimes a powerful executive or political figure needs one to get through an important meeting.
"In that case, the companion is dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit with a briefcase and acts like an assistant," he said. "No one knows that he or she is a babysitter."
Citing the facility's strict confidentiality rules, Prentiss declined to name any clients Passages has provided with sober companions.
AON/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Brokers is one of the companies to procure cast insurance for film studios. Senior Vice President Brian Kingman said actors get a medical exam before they're insured, but they're not always tested for drugs.
"Insurance companies do not require drug screens on every single actor in Hollywood," Kingman said. "It's only under extraordinary circumstances — when the perception of risk relating to that person is extremely high or when the actor might not be replaceable because of contractual issues."
And while hiring a sober companion is one option he considers when dealing with an addicted star, according to Kingman, "it doesn't happen that often."
Still, Prentiss said there is quite a demand for babysitters for the rich and famous.
"For these people, it's not expensive at all," he said. "What is expensive is to go along without having your addiction treated."