The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Leif Garrett

Along with the likes of Shaun and David Cassidy and the Bay City Rollers, Leif Garrett is one of those names people automatically think of when it comes to 1970s teen idols. Similar to modern-day counterparts like Justin Bieber, Garrett earned the adulation of young fans around the world thanks to his combination of boyish good looks and earworm-worthy bubblegum pop songs. Compared to the mostly sexually-charged disco acts and alcohol-fueled rock bands of the era, Garrett was ostensibly the wholesome, inoffensive alternative, not only for his fanbase largely made up of pre-teen and teenage girls, but also for their parents.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Garrett was seemingly all washed up, having fallen victim to the pitfalls that doom the adult careers of many a former child actor or teen pop heartthrob — of which he was both. By the mid-'80s, Garrett's music career was essentially over, and while he did return to acting, it was mostly in forgettable B-movies. Worse, he was also in the throes of a serious drug addiction and was dealing with guilt over his involvement in a vehicular accident that paralyzed one of his good friends. Here's a look at the tragic life and checkered career of Leif Garrett, starting from his younger days as an actor-turned-musician.

Born on November 8, 1961, in Hollywood, Leif Garrett first got involved in the entertainment industry at 5 years old, and appeared in movies such as 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and 1973's Walking Tall.

From child actor to pop star: Garrett felt his musical career was a lie

There were also television roles, including Family Affair, Gunsmoke, and Three for the Road. As noted by Biography, Garrett was in his mid-teens when he entered the music scene, and in 1977, he signed a contract with Atlantic Records, releasing his first album later that year.

Most of Garrett's early hits were covers of popular 1960s songs, including his versions of Dion's "Runaround Sue" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA." He would soon enjoy even greater success performing original material; after moving to Scotti Brothers Records, he released the album Feel the Need in 1978. That record yielded his most popular single on the charts, the No. 10 Billboard hit "I Was Made for Dancin'." However, Garrett was growing increasingly unhappy behind the scenes with a musical career he felt was largely a "lie."

In a 2020 interview with Fox News, Garrett recalled that his producers once brought in a background singer whose voice would be so prominent that on certain songs, "if you listen carefully, it's just not me at all." He also singled out "surf music" as a genre he didn't want to revisit, as he wanted to "do more original things" as a musician.

Per Biography, Leif Garrett was "on a path for self-destruction" away from the stage; he claimed to have started using drugs at the young age of 14 and was known behind the scenes as a hard-partying individual. All that came to a head on November 3, 1979.

The car accident that rendered Leif Garrett's friend paraplegic

Five days before the entertainer's 18th birthday, he and his friend Roland Winkler were involved in a serious car accident. As noted by the Los Angeles Times, both young men had allegedly consumed their share of drugs and alcohol at a party before driving off in Garrett's leased Porsche. The car rear-ended another vehicle and flew off a freeway embankment, leaving Winkler paralyzed — an especially tragic outcome for someone who made a living as a dancer. Garrett, who was behind the wheel, emerged relatively unscathed.

Following the accident, Garrett and Winkler were involved in a messy legal battle with each other for several years. But the incident had a lasting impact on Garrett that went far beyond any financial settlements he and his family's insurers had to pay, as it left him feeling guilty over his role in the car crash that rendered his friend paraplegic. The two estranged friends would tearfully reunite, however, on a 1999 episode of VH1's Behind the Music, (posted on YouTube), when Winkler said that Garrett somehow saved his life and that he wouldn't trade places with him if he had the chance to relive the night of the accident.

Sadly, Roland Winkler died on May 25, 2017, at the age of 57, having dealt with "constant physical problems from the accident which eventually led to his passing," according to his Find a Grave page.

Leif Garrett's rocky relationships with famous actresses

Given his teen-idol reputation, it's but natural to expect someone like Leif Garrett to have had his share of high-profile relationships. Unfortunately, not all of them were completely happy ones, as he revealed to Closer Weekly in 2020.

Garrett's most notable past relationship was with future Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan (pictured above). He admitted falling head-over-heels in love with the young actress soon after they met, but also told the publication that their relationship was a "very tumultuous" one. "We were both getting so much attention, and I was immature and very jealous then," he explained. "I didn't understand that you can't stop everyone from looking at your girl. She was outgoing, funny, fun, athletic — everything I wanted. When we got along, it was perfect; but when we didn't, we cleared rooms. It was that crazy — there was no in-between. The passion was insane."

Aside from Sheridan, Garrett briefly dated Tatum O'Neal, and while he declined to share much about their relationship, the singer insinuated that Tatum's rocky relationship with her father, Ryan O'Neal, "really screwed her head up." He also shared some details about the time he dated Family Ties star Justine Bateman, noting that their time together was "good until she went off the deep end" due to her own personal issues with her father.

After his music career started winding down in the early 1980s, Leif Garrett slowly returned to full-time acting.

Leif Garrett's drug problems continued well into his adult life

But outside of a minor role in 1983's The Outsiders, which also starred future Hollywood icons such as Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, and Patrick Swayze, the former teen idol mostly appeared in a slew of forgettable B-movies, as shown on his IMDb page. Apparently, he was also deep into heroin abuse as he found himself further and further removed from his glory days as a pop star.

Per Biography, Garrett revealed on his Behind the Music episode in 1999 that he had recently beaten his heroin addiction, and that, combined with the rekindling of his friendship with Roland Winkler, looked like a happy ending for the former hitmaker. That wasn't the case after all, as shortly after the episode premiered on VH1, he was arrested in Los Angeles by undercover cops posing as drug dealers.

Amid multiple failed musical projects, as well as a self-parodying role in the 2003 David Spade film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Garrett's drug problems continued, as evidenced by separate arrests in 2004 and 2006, the latter of which resulted in jail time. His most recent drug arrest was in February 2010, when officers at a Los Angeles train station found some black tar heroin in his shoe, per CNN. Later that year, he was part of the cast for season 4 of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, though he would allege in 2011 that the show's producers tried to manufacture drama by urging him to use drugs on-camera, according to Today.

Garrett documented his tragic life in his 2019 memoir

Although Leif Garrett has mostly been lying low in the decade since his last arrest, he published his memoir, Idol Truth, in November 2019, and spoke to Fox News in January 2020 to touch on some of the key points in the book. The report noted that he was, at that time, clean and sober, and willing to speak openly about his past addictions.

In that interview, Garrett suggested that he lacked proper "parental guidance" as a teen idol, as his father left the family when Leif was just 5, and his mother was too trusting of the negative people that openly did drugs around him, among other questionable actions. This, along with dissatisfaction over how his musical career was being micromanaged, supposedly helped lead him down the path of drug abuse. "I wanted to be an adult artist with longevity," he said. "And yet I was made to record these oldies. Disco was on its way out. There were so many other things I wanted to do, but they just wanted me to be this California surfer boy, the Tiger Beat cover star."

Back in 2013, Garrett also showed some long-overdue wisdom and maturity when he offered advice (also via Fox News) to Justin Bieber, who was then at the height of his troubled-teen-star phase. "Do not believe your own publicity," Garrett warned. "Sussing out who your real friends are is full-time work. Every scum bag, every drug dealer, every chicken hawk wants a piece of you."

Leif Garret wishes his music career started off differently

Leif Garrett is best remembered as a musician, landing a string of hit disco tunes and covers like "I Was Made for Dancin'," and "Surfin' USA." The music was really more of a side gig for Garrett, a way to exploit his popularity with young audiences garnered from a healthy acting career — he was all over TV in the '70s, appearing on "Gunsmoke," "Cannon," "Family Affair," and "The Odd Couple" as well as featuring in the hit "Walking Tall" movies.

Garrett regrets how he entered into a musical career, and looking back on it, wishes he'd handled it differently and taken it more seriously. "When I was a young man, I was offered this chance to have a music career. But instead of doing it the right way – training with a singing coach – my voice was processed to the point where it barely even sounded like me," Garrett told Fox News in 2020. "You hear me singing on the records, but it wasn't just me alone." Some tracks he laid down in the '70s barely feature him at all. "If you listen carefully, it's just not me at all. My vocals are mixed in there but it's just not me." Because his voice wasn't up to the rigors of professional pop recording, producers brought in a session singer named Jim Haas. Garrett even pinpoints his habitual, problem-level drug use on trying to flee the "lie of me being this musical artist."

His girlfriend Elaine Bilstad died

After his high-profile romances with well-known actors like Nicollette Sheridan and Justine Bateman wound down (per Closer Weekly), Leif Garrett entered into a relationship with Elaine Bilstad, an actor on the rise in the early 1990s who had appeared in a couple of made-for-TV movies and a few episodes of shows like "Baywatch" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

"Elaine was my best friend who I was simply in love with as a friend and became romantically, biblically, if you will, involved," Garrett told Smashing Interviews of how the romance began. Bilstad was "the person that I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with," he told Channel Guide in 2012. "That would have been the person I would have had a child with. And I haven't met anyone I feel that way about since." The couple broke up after a long relationship in the 1990s, and in 1999 at the age of 33, Bilstad died from a heart issue. According to his memoir "Idol Truth," Garrett learned his former partner had died via an offhand comment from his old drug dealer.

Leif Garret had a complicated relationship with his father

Leif Garrett was raised in a single-parent household, his mother rearing him by herself from the time that the future pop star was 5 years old. That's the age he was when his father left the family, completely disappearing from his son's life for more than a decade, resurfacing in 1977 when Garrett was a teenager and a famous entertainer. "I saw him for a half-hour when I was 16 and then I didn't see him again until my forties," Garrett told Fox News.

Then, once again, many more years passed until Garrett and his father spent a substantial period of time together. In the 2010s, the elder Garrett fell ill and his son became his primary caregiver. "It was all about that. He wasn't able to give me what I wanted," Leif Garrett explained. In late 2019, Garrett's father died, with many issues remaining unresolved. "I'm still beat up from that because I really wanted to get to know him," Garrett said. "I wanted to understand so many things I never got answers to."

He filed for bankruptcy

As a former child actor and teen idol, Leif Garrett's peak era as an entertainer has long since passed. He hasn't been an in-demand actor since the early 1980s, which is right around the time he landed on the Billboard pop chart for the last time — "Runaway Rita" hit #84 in 1981. Subsequently, the big money stopped coming in at that point, and, along with the financial costs of drug addiction, drug addiction rehabilitation, and paying out his share of a settlement after being found culpable in a car accident that paralyzed a friend in 1979 (per the Los Angeles Times), Garrett was left virtually broke. He saw almost no money from sales of his back catalog either. According to Liberty N Justice, his former label was sold to a new company, which released a Garrett greatest hits package, for which the singer was paid in the form of a few complimentary copies.

By 2001, Garrett was in dire straits. According to the Los Angeles Times, his income consisted entirely of $1,000 given to him each month by his mother. Facing more than $76,000 in debt, Garrett filed for bankruptcy, listing his assets as some clothes and home goods and $350 in cash. As of 2022, according to Celebrity Net Worth, Garrett's holdings total about $10,000.