Nick Shields is sitting in a well-worn chair at the window of his two-bedroom apartment on a sleepy West Hollywood block. The 65-year-old former off-off-Broadway actor has lived here for 25 years. During that time he has had many roommates, most recently his wife of six years, Lisa Shields, née Prochilo, who passed away on February 27 after an apparent suicide.
Lisa, who suffered from alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia for two decades, was hit by a Union Pacific train while she wandered the tracks near a private eating-disorder clinic where she was being treated. The incident made the local papers, but she was AWOL at the time and had no identification on her, so the first story acknowledged her only as “an unidentified woman.”
“It’s been three months. I’ve been a wreck,” Shields says, as Jake, a colossal gray feline, settles in beside him.
I’ve known Nick, or Bob — Nick is his professional name — since 1977, when he appeared with my mother in the film Thank God It’s Friday. Shields, who has the most youthful and sincere face, played a disgruntled elevator man in a monkey suit. He befriended my mother on set and soon became an avuncular figure in my life. But I never met Lisa and hadn’t spoken to him for more than a decade, when he called last February to tell me about her death.
“I was feeling better,” he says, his wife’s ashes sitting on a bookshelf across the room. “Then came this expanding balloon of grief I can’t control. The other day, a friend offered to come over to help me go through her clothes and drop them at a homeless women’s shelter. I know [Lisa] would want me to do something like that. But I am nowhere near letting those clothes out of here,” he admits.
Like many who have lost a loved one, Shields says he feels that he has a “purer” relationship with his wife now. Her spirit, no longer confined to her body, seems somehow more accessible to him.
And yet, he says, “the person who made me feel complete is gone. I wish she were here. Lisa gave me an incredible gift. She loved that I could make her laugh, and she was the funniest person I ever met. But I don’t think I was capable of making her happy, except for moments at a time.”
During the weeks before the incidents that led to her death, Shields says, his wife, who was 21½ years his junior, “looked better than she had in a long time.
“So many people say when you make up your mind to kill yourself, you get a lot clearer. And, in the last month, she was the most lucid I had ever seen her. I thought, ‘She’s getting better.’ I didn’t see beyond the directions things were going.”
Shields met his wife 10 years ago at the Silver Spoon bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, less than a mile to the bar to play darts. He says Lisa, who was very attractive, approached him first.
“She just laid out her life,” Shields explains, with a slight smile, recalling the night. “‘I’ve got all these eating disorders. I drink.’ She talked about herself to such a degree that I just thought, ‘This is an incredibly honest person.’ [I was] drawn to her like a magnet. On the spot, I said, ‘I am gonna be your friend for life.’ I stayed with that. I really meant it. There was some part of me that said, ‘This is the person I am meant to be with.’ I knew it.”
They were together for three and a half years before they married, and during that time, she would sometimes shut him out of her life for months, later saying it was because she was “trying to protect” him from herself.
Shields says that Lisa, who was a waitress for several years at Barney’s Beanery, had attempted suicide before. When she was 20, an overdose left her in a coma. Then, two weeks prior to her death, she overdosed intentionally, this time on 90 Neurontin, 60 Valium and 7 Lexapro.
“She had gone to the doctor, and he had given her a prescription for 90 Neurontin. I thought, ‘Why do they keep giving her these zombie drugs?’ She had more medication in her than food, as far as I was concerned. She wasn’t really able to function. She would be disoriented. She would get up to go to the bathroom, fall down and hurt herself.”
The morning of her overdose, Shields says, Lisa went to an AA meeting. When she got home, she took all her pills. After he found her, Lisa, who was 5 feet 5 and weighed 88 pounds at the time, was taken to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach. She spent two weeks in the hospital’s psychiatric unit, but then was transferred to a private eating-disorder facility, with the goal of stabilizing her weight. This, doctors said, was necessary before the depression and alcoholism could be treated. She was at the eating-disorder unit less than 24 hours before she was found dead.
“I don’t want to get to one of these clichés, where ‘these motherfuckers are gonna pay,’” Shields says. “’Cause I think there are honest mistakes, but the medical profession can’t afford to be making these kind of mistakes.”
Despite his grief and the fact that he still cannot bring himself to take Lisa’s outgoing message off the voice mail, Shields says he believes “everything that goes on in your life is not all bad or all good. I am not a depressed person. My attitude toward life is that life is the reward. You will never get a better gift than life. It is your job to live it well.”
Lisa, he believes, was his fate, and was helping him to get in touch with himself and his own issues.
“I am kind of a loner. I grew up going to the movies and living a solitary life. I live in my head. I always felt like there were two me’s — me from here up, and me from here down.” He gestures from his neck up and then from his neck down.
“I mean, the one time I felt okay was when we could just lie down and I could hold her in my arms. I always knew there was someone out there for me, and when I met Lisa, I knew she was that someone. And now, with her death, I think, ‘Okay, that part of my life is complete. There will never be anyone [who] will come close to being able to fulfill that feeling.’”
Shields looks to the floor. The day’s light is fading and the room lamps have yet to be turned on. The room is shadowy.