Can Fans Forgive? What Happens When a Pop Culture Star Falls From Grace: A Case Study

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. The pop culture scene challenges that thesis on a weekly basis.

On one level, fans can discard a favored actor or creator if they are seen as blasphemers by the faithful – compare the fan reaction from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to their comments on his decades later follow-up The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Then again, fans have no problem clamoring for the same Arnold Schwarzenegger who butchered Mr. Freeze to come back and play Conan.

Marvel Productions’ Kevin Feige and Avi Arad took a lot of heat risking the Iron Man franchise by casting Robert Downey, Jr.as shellhead, especially as Downey was coming off his third public relations disaster with drugs and alcohol. But the RDJ risk paid off big time, both for Marvel and the actor.

But it’s not just about how the stars are treated. It’s also about the guys who are on the cusp, the ones who are one breakout role away, having cut their teeth in the pop culture firmament. When these guys fall from grace, whether in reality or just in perception, they risk proving Fitzgerald right.

Take as an example, TV’s Pete Ross, Sam Jones III from Smallville. Certainly a celebrity, but not quite a star, Jones recently suffered a fall from grace that was so surreal, it shocked even him. And it’s one that finds him looking for his Iron Man moment.

Jones’ career started with featured guest roles on television with series like NYPD Blue, Judging Amy and CSI, but it really took off when he landed the series regular role of Clark Kent’s best friend Pete Ross in Smallville. The pop culture community welcomed him as he continued acting on other shows like ER, Bones and Seventh Heaven, as well as scoring another series regular role on SPIKE’S Blue Mountain State.

In 2009, however, he made a mistake that would land him in prison, with his attorneys advising him to keep mum about his role in what the government called “a criminal conspiracy to buy and sell drugs.” Having served the time sentenced him by the judge, Jones still finds it hard to believe it actually happened and is discovering how uncompromising public opinion can be.

Jones told me:

I made the mistake of allowing my loyalty to a friend trump my common sense. At the core of it, I simply loaned an old friend some money, but there’s more to it than that. I had a friend come to me in trouble. I had known him since I was 15, when I was being bussed from the inner city in Boston to a school in the suburbs. In those days, every kid who was bussed in had a ‘host family,’ and the role of that family was to take care of me when I had to stay late for basketball practice or extracurricular school activities. My friend was part of my host family, and as close to me as a brother could be during those years. He came to me in 2009 saying he was in trouble because he owed a Mexican drug cartel some money from a previous deal that went bad when authorities seized the goods, and they were going to kill him if he didn’t pay up. I was floored, because I didn’t even know he was involved with drugs at all.

After months of cajoling from his friend, Jones finally gave him $30,000 to pay off the debt. The problem was, his friend didn’t use the money to pay the debt. He used it to try to buy oxycontin that he was going to sell in order to pay the debt, except, there was no Mexican cartel. The whole thing was a set-up by undercover DEA agents looking to bust Jones’ friend, because he slipped through their fingers in the earlier bust.

In the end, his friend was arrested in the sting and prosecutors went after Jones for supplying the money for the fake deal.

The undercover agents tried to get my friend to buy drugs from them so they could close the sting, but he didn’t have any money. That’s when they started asking him about his ‘actor friend, and they actually suggested that he get the money for the new deal from me. Eventually, against my better judgment, I ignored my intuition and gave my friend the money because he was convinced he was going to be killed. So, my ex-friend goes to a fake drug deal to buy fake drugs, get’s arrested and then — in an attempt to build a little good will with the government — tells them where he got the money for the deal.

But Jones’ arrest wasn’t instantaneous. It took investigators a year, and a totally fruitless raid on his house looking for contraband before they charged Jones with conspiracy.

They waited a year to arrest me because when they are making a case against someone, they’ll watch them for a while to see if he continues to rack up more crimes, so when they arrest him, they can bury him with charges. When it became apparent that I was not a drug dealer, and all they had was me giving money to my friend, they wound up just charging me with that. So here I am — a guy who doesn’t sell or take drugs, and I wind up going to prison in a drug sting I didn’t even attend. If a producer had presented that story to me in a script, I would have passed on it, because no one would believe that story.

But Jones’ worst mistake was yet to come. Soon, the media began reporting his arrest, and shortly thereafter, Jones’ role as a figure in the pop culture scene, including convention appearances and his new gig as a series regular on Spike’s Blue Mountain State, went away. But Sam didn’t speak to the media to tell his side, because he was afraid if he did, he’d go to jail for a very long time.

My attorneys advised me not to talk to the press while they were negotiating my plea deal, so I didn’t. As a result, instead of seeing the whole picture and understanding that I never bought drugs or sold drugs, all they saw was what the court allowed them to see — that I was accepting a guilty plea. I was facing the potential of spending years in prison for basically giving my friend some money, and as much as I wanted to fight it, I had to weigh the risk. If I accepted the deal, I’d be out of prison in less than a year. If I went to trial, fought it and lost, I could have gone to prison for as many as 15 years.

Jones said the experience has taught him a few things about the relationship between celebrities, the media and the fans.

A lot of celebrities would cry that the media targeted them because they were famous. But I don’t think I was a target. I’m a celebrity, so I’m fair game. If I didn’t talk to the media or answer their questions, then I didn’t have any say in what they wrote about me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the long-term ramifications of it all, but boy, is my hindsight 20-20!

In fact, Sam’s attempting to use all the lemons he’s been handed to set up a lemonade stand. He’s making a documentary about celebrities and the media.

I have become fascinated with the symbiotic love-hate relationship between celebrities and the media,” he said. “In a big way, neither could really survive without the other. They depend on each other, but they don’t always get along. So, I’ve begun working on a documentary film to explore that relationship from both sides. I try to think about it in blue collar terms. A construction worker makes an hourly wage based on building houses. That’s his product. A member of the paparazzi makes money by selling photos of celebrities, the more candid, the better. That’s their product. And in many cases, the photographer is making a much better living than a construction worker. But what is more important to our society? A house for a family to live in, or a photo of Miley Cyrus without makeup in a see-through tank top? It’s really an interesting topic, and I think my perspective on the issue allows me to dig a little deeper than most. I’ve got a crew and I am beginning to reach out to my friends in the business for interviews. I’m really excited about it, and I think it’s going to turn out to be very controversial.