Culture

How comedian Greg Fleet survived heroin addiction

He calls me darling when I ring to introduce myself. ‘‘Thanks darling, I”ll see you on Friday.’’ The next call, he says, “Fleety here.” Showbiz intimacy, or because we’re both ex-junkies? He’s a friendly bloke. He’s a friendly bloke with an endearing gap in his teeth and a fresh bite mark on his upper arm of which he’s rather proud.

Greg Fleet is on fire. Six months off the gear and detonating creativity like a delinquent. New feature film coming out, The Day of the Broken; another in the queue after that, something with zombies. A script collaboration getting started. An old TV series he penned perhaps being resurrected. Might write another book. 

He’s met someone, pep in his step, bounce in his ounce. Back in Melbourne after months on the road; maybe he’ll move to Sydney again. “Got to make up for 30 years being asleep.”

Not long ago he walked out of the apartment where he lived, never went back. All his stuff abandoned. “I’ll have to do something about it, of course.” 

He was still on smack then. There wasn’t much to leave. Reminds him of the time he lived with his dealer who went to court one day and never came home. Five days afterwards the dealer rang Fleety from jail. Could he keep an eye on the large stash of drugs and money in his room? ‘‘Not very well,’’ Fleet had replied. “I kept an eye on it until it, er … went away.” 

His most famous show was called 10 Years in a Long-Sleeved Shirt and he was stoned then; it’s been 25 years on the gear. Now it’s avocado on toast. “I’m loving food at the moment, I’m smashing food.” 

Loving work, loving the sunshine, just walking down the street.

 “I’ve said it about 50 times in the last 50 fucking days: this is the best day of my life.”

He’s putting on weight and looking good. “I keep forgetting that I’m as old as I am.” Clipped grey hair, bald pate, skin 10 years younger than he is. His emotional age is stuck in his  20s, he believes. Confides, “I’m drawn to the tragedy and the heartbreak and the high romance.” 

It’s like this when you’re not anaesthetised any more: you glory in emotion, you brag a little bit about your sensitivity. “One thing I’ve clung to is my naiveté and my openness. If I didn’t have that, if I just closed up, I’d be fucked. It’s so much better than knowing everything.” 

He’s anxious about age difference, wary of injury, willing to try again: the wonderful dare. “And look,” he admits, “there is a degree of awesomeness about me.”

Cheerful chappy, checked shirt and bitten nails: he could be a farmer, a veterinarian, an affable prick of a mining executive. Fleet’s a writer. A pillar of the comedy scene, a working actor. A dad. Hard to imagine him fixing up. I know better, I know how it is but he’s so nice, a bit daggy, not even that harsh mouth of the long-time user. Rather, “I’m a riverboat dandy.” 

He swallows avocado happily. “That’s my new thing. Dark suit with some sort of flamboyant tie, aces up my sleeve, maybe a derringer in the pocket in case someone catches me cheating at cards. Those guys, they had lots of women, they gambled, like a Lothario: probably a little bit dangerous, like they had swords in their canes.” 

Wiping his mouth, sheepish smile. “That’s the bit I’d be shit at.”

Very macho, I observe. “Yeah, but I’m not really.” You’ve got hairy arms. He snorts, shrugs. “I’m not fighty.” There is a scene in the new film where his character, also a user, fixes up into his leg, ruthlessly digging for blood. Fleet flinched when he watched it. The analgesic of his comforting drug is gone now.

 Replaced by esprit. He’s so happy. Life now? “It’s thrilling, it’s really thrilling. Everything I thought I’d be bored by is really exciting. It’s the cliché, but you’re not giving something up, you’re getting something.” 

I want to throw him a party and also tell him to shut up, you’ll put the mockers on. “I didn’t want to be the boy who cried sober,” he says, mind reading, and looking at his character in the film. “It’s like we’re the same person but he’s in stasis. Just  … [and he puts on a steely American voice] waiting to be born.” 

It is hard, when you’re happy, and hopeful, and resolved, and brave, not to mock yourself a bit. Just in case. 

Now he’s thinking of writing another memoir. “The journey of someone moving up in the entertainment world at the same time as they disintegrate in the human world, and the crossover point.” 

After the National Institute of Dramatic Art he moved to St Kilda. “And as this scummy sewer of a place became more gentrified, this gentrified person became more scummy.” 

Oh Fleety. Do you really think you’re scummy? 

“I certainly was, I certainly was. But ultimately,” reaching for the smokes, bitten nails, bite mark, checked shirt, a guffaw, “I’m still beautiful.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "The straight man". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.