NORFOLK, MASSACHUSETTS - Mark Frechette, the one-time actor who seemed to carry into his private life much of the tortured soul he portrayed in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, is dead at age 27. He was the apparent victim of a bizarre accident in a recreation room at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, where Frechette had been serving a six- to 15-year sentence for his participation in a 1973 Boston bank robbery.
Frechette's body was discovered by a fellow inmate early on the morning of September 27th pinned beneath a 150-pound set of weights, the bar resting on his throat. An autopsy revealed he had died of asphyxiation and the official explanation is that the weights slipped from his hands while he was trying to bench press them, killing him instantly. A source in the county DA's office, which is investigating the incident, termed the circumstances "a little strange," especially since the bar left no mark on Frechette's neck. However, Frechette's lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, dismissed the possibility of foul play, maintaining that the handsome, bright and sensitive young man was well liked by other inmates, had only relatively minor hassles with guards at the medium security institution and was too strong to have been subdued without leaving some sign of a struggle.
Frechette's friends report, however, that he had been deeply depressed of late, had not been eating and had lost considerable weight. They trace his melancholy mood back to August 29th, the second anniversary of the bank robbery in which his close friend, a fellow member of Boston's Fort Hill commune, was killed. A court psychiatrist's warning that Frechette might become "increasingly depressed" in an institutional setting had gone virtually unheeded until it was too late. No one is seriously suggesting suicide, but attorney Silverglate does suggest that Frechette was "reckless" to attempt a solo workout in his weakened condition.
A French-Canadian high school dropout from Fairfield, Connecticut, Frechette wandered into Boston from New York in 1966 with his former wife and child. He spent some time panhandling around Harvard Square and did carpentry work in the Fort Hill area of Boston's black section, Roxbury. He began reading Avatar, an underground paper backed by Mel Lyman, former member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band turned self-styled guru of the 100-member Fort Hill commune. The charismatic Lyman headed perhaps the first of such Manson-style personality cults short on dogma but strong on discipline and introspection.
Frechette's first attempts to approach his new-found guru were rebuffed. It was only after he was literally "discovered" by a pair of talent scouts on a Boston street corner that Frechette gained an audience with Lyman (during which, Frechette was later to tell an interviewer, "there was this humming in my ears... I mean the whole damn room was humming").
The story is that in 1968 a bearded, down-and-out Frechette was spotted standing at a bus stop, shouting "motherfucker." Antonioni's aides, searching for a star for the film that was to be the director's American epic, interviewed Frechette and selected him for the role on the spot. "He's 20 and he hates," was their ever quotable comment. The film was a critical and financial failure, but it did bring brief fame to Frechette.
Frechette then took his costar Daria Halprin and the $60,000 he earned from Zabriskie Point and a few obscure foreign films and returned to the commune. Halprin eventually fled the reputed severity of the Lyman cult (and married actor Dennis Hopper) but Frechette stayed put, out of the public eye, until two years ago when he joined two other Lyman devotees in an impulsive bank robbery attempted within blocks of the commune. One of his accomplices was killed by police and Frechette dropped his own revolver (with, it turned out, no bullet in the chamber).
The robbery attempt was a desperate political statement. And, like most desperate acts, and maybe like Frechette's entire life, it ended in futility. "There was no way to stop what was going to happen," said Frechette in an interview following his arrest. "We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death."