Bill Harris is drawn to unlikely collections. Two years ago Los Angeles magazine featured his trove of personal checks written by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Charles Bronson. While his check collection offers rectangular reminders that even superstars have to pay their gas bills, Harris’s pill containers (he’s amassed 50 over three decades, 42 of which he keeps in a specially made display case) raise other issues—including human frailty. Like the checks, Harris’s vials point to the mundanities that unite us all, but they also highlight the fragility of the living. To quote another truism: Whether we’re famous or not, death gets us all in the end. What we take to cure our maladies, or merely fend them off, is proof of our temporary hold on this life. Or sometimes just our lack of tolerance for pain. Harris has a bottle that once held Natalie Wood’s prescription for Darvon.
A former host of At the Movies (he and Rex Reed took over after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert branched out on their own) and a longtime Hollywood reporter whose credits include Showtime, E!, and Entertainment Tonight, Harris has bought some of the bottles pictured on the opening spread from antique dealers. Others—like those holding decongestant capsules that the actor John Stamos handed to him, saying, “This stuff isn’t working on my nose”—were gifts. Then there was the day when “an acquaintance called from a local hotel, where he was working,” says Harris. “He said Dolph Lundgren had just checked out, leaving a pill bottle in his room—did I want it?” Harris did.
It joined his cache, along with vials from Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, and Cher. For legal reasons we can’t show you those that belonged to the illustrious who still walk the earth. In the photo on the previous pages, theirs are turned around. Others might have belonged to celebrities too obscure for most people to care about: Harris owns bottles that once held ampicillin prescribed for one of Doris Day’s dogs (it was Henry, if you must know) and a steroid for Buster Keaton’s wife, Eleanor.
Most of the containers are empty, with some exceptions. “I have lip balm that was prescribed to Kirk Douglas—there’s still some in there,” he says. “I like to take the lid off and offer it to people, though they tend to shrink away in horror. It’s kind of dried out.” Herewith, Harris explains the provenance of some of his favorite acquisitions.
The dish on those jagged little pills
Bleph-10 ophthalmic eyedrops
“I shared a manager, Milton Suchin, with Phyllis Diller. She lived on the same beautiful street as O.J. Simpson in Brentwood, and she liked to say, ‘You might not want to come out here—I live in a high-crime area.’ A great line. Anyway, I went to her house one day and showed the pill bottles to her, and she thought they were hilarious. And she gave me two: a bottle that had held pills for cholesterol and eyedrops for conjunctivitis. And I said, ‘Now I have a Phyllis Diller. I might as well keep going.’ ”
“This was one of the pill bottles I acquired early, from a dealer. So, no, Stewart didn’t give his vasodilator bottle to me. But I was the MC of an event at the Monterey Film Festival once, where it was my job to introduce him. I flew up with him on the same plane. Here he was, a retired brigadier general in the Air Force, but he was like a little boy. As we were taking off, he had his hands on an imaginary throttle, as if he were piloting the plane. When I introduced him, I asked people first to give a hand to the other star in the Stewart family: his wife, Gloria. I said, ‘Before we get to the honoree this evening, let’s call out the real star in the family. This woman has waited for 40-some years for her husband to finish a sentence.’ ”
“My favorite story is about Rosemary. I’d done an interview with one of her sons, the actor Miguel Ferrer, and he told her I had this collection. She came up to me at a private party one night—I can still see the smile and enthusiasm on her face—and said, ‘My son tells me you have a pill bottle of mine. What in the world do you have?’ I said, ‘I have your Tedral—your asthma medicine.’ She said, ‘Oh, honey, you should have come to me back in the day. I could have given you anything.’ ”
“This says, ‘Take on day of dental work.’ Ouch. I guess this antibiotic helped to keep the Gabor smile bright.”
“I did two cruises with Ann Miller on the Holland America Line. She was the celebrity and I was the interviewer, and we’d get up onstage for the amusement of the travelers onboard. That’s how we met. We were funny together and became close friends. She’s in my check collection because I loaned her money when we were in Europe. But she didn’t give me a pill bottle. She couldn’t understand what I was doing with one of her pill bottles.”
“When I went to Claremont High School just east of Los Angeles, three friends and I shared a column in the student newspaper, and we’d go and interview stars. We got people like Paul Anka, and I had the good fortune to interview Steve Allen, who was a huge television personality who helped invent the talk show—he was the first host of The Tonight Show. Many years later I got my hands on this bottle, which I’m told had medicine used to treat an enlarged prostate and high blood pressure.”
“Lucy was a class act all the way. The night the photo of us was taken [see far left], we were at the Cinegrill, and she’d shown up to introduce a performer, Gloria DeHaven, who had been her roommate in the ’30s and ’40s when they were both contract players for RKO Radio Pictures. But I didn’t get her pill bottle from her. I bought it—my first bottle ever!—from an antique store in Long Island. You’ll notice on the label of her pill bottle, the prescription for this blood pressure medicine is in her married name: Lucille Ball Morton. I have a couple of bottles like that. Cher’s pill bottle says Cher Bono. Bette Midler’s says Bette Von Haselberg.”
“I’m told this is one of the fen-fen pills [in fact it is similar to amphetamine and was used as an appetite suppressant]. How did that work out for him?”
“Jim was the voice of the nearsighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo, but he’s probably best known for playing Thurston Howell III on the ’60s sitcom Gilligan’s Island. He was a friend. And when he died in 1989, his wife, Henny—an actress and author—called me up and said, ‘Jimmy always wanted to give you one of his pill bottles. You collect them?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I mentioned it to him once.’ She said, ‘Well, he made me promise that I’d give you one. I think it’s stupid, but he thought it was very, very funny.’ When she sent over the bottle of Sinemet, which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, she sent one of her own pill bottles, too.”
“I had inter-viewed him in Las Vegas. And I became friends with him and Lisa Miller, the singer-actress who was his longtime companion after Gracie Allen died. When he gave this pill bottle to me, he said, ‘It’s heart medicine. But I’m 98, and at 98 they’re all heart medicine.’ There was another joke I loved that he liked to trot out whenever a waiter brought whipped butter to the table. ‘Do you have any hard butter?’ he’d ask. ‘At my age it’s the only thing hard in my life.’ What’s fascinating about this pill bottle is that it says the medicine expires in 1996. And he expired in 1996.”
“This one, from a Malibu pharmacy, proves that even when you have Frank Sinatra’s money, you still buy generic.”
and a few other a-listers whose vials Harris covets
“During the years I’ve been collecting, there are several big fish that have gotten away. I had an Elvis Presley pill bottle in my hand, and that was a rare one because usually his medicines didn’t have his name on them; they just had the word ‘TOUR’ and a number. This one wasn’t anonymous—it had his name on it—and it was for sale for $4,000. For a tiny piece of plastic? Too much. In total, for the whole collection I’ve spent no more than $750. But if I had an Elvis bottle, it would be a nice addition. I tried to get an Elizabeth Taylor bottle that was on the auction block, but it went too fast, too high. Same with John Wayne. And Greta Garbo—hers was out of sight.”