True Story: Ali

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Ali-editI started smoking marijuana at age 11. I got into the hard stuff later, when I was 17—cocaine, LSD, speed, hash, opium. I just wanted to be part of the crowd. We were street cats, and it was fun at the time. Five days before I turned 21, it just wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t like what cocaine and the other drugs had done to me, and I didn’t want to get high on my 21st birthday. So, on September 20, 1984 I turned my life over to Phoenix House.

My mother and father didn’t know that I was starting treatment. I worked with my dad in construction, and when he asked me to start a new job with him, I said I couldn’t because I was going into rehab. I remember that my mother told me the choice to get help was: “a great, great strength that didn’t come from anywhere but within you.”

I adapted quickly at Phoenix House Academy in Westchester. I wanted to know what it would be like to watch a movie without smoking or drinking anything—I had basically been high since age 11. At the Academy, I had the option of getting a GED or taking high school classes. I chose high school, and I doubled up on the course load.

I remember during my first day at Phoenix House they gave us bologna sandwiches and asked everyone where we saw ourselves in the future. I said, “I see myself on the big screen.” The others all laughed so hard that if I was not sure of myself, I might not have given it a shot. My first acting class was at Phoenix House. I took a drama class where we read, studied and performed a play for English credit.

After I graduated, I tried what they called “crash auditions” meaning I had no agent or representation, but I would bring my headshot to a casting director if I heard about a film that needed my “type.” I never did get an agent, but I’m proud that I landed several roles with no representation! My first film was Straight out of Brooklyn directed by Matty Rich—I played a “bad guy.” Then, I was cast in Malcolm X with Denzel Washington and directed by Spike Lee. I played Denzel’s bodyguard. It did a lot for my self-esteem to be in the presence of Denzel. I felt like I wasn’t really supposed to be there. Later, I was cast in Robert de Niro’s A Bronx Tale, where I was on set for six weeks. I was so excited to work with Robert de Niro; he was one of my idols. I also had a role in Die Hard: With a Vengence with the king of cool, Bruce Willis. In total I’ve had roles in eight movies and have acted in theater as well.

I’ve been clean and sober for 29 years now. There isn’t a time when I don’t think about Phoenix House. They saved my life. One of my favorite sayings when I was in treatment was, “What I loved in ignorance, I now hate with intelligence.” Life can be unfair, but regardless of what happens you have to be good to yourself.

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