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Mackenzie Phillips: How the Troubled Actress Took Life ‘One Day at a Time’ and Came Out on Top

Learn how she went from a wild child to a respected advocate for addicts

This article describes subject matter that may be disturbing or triggering to some — including sexual assault, abuse and drug use. Please read with caution.

Mackenzie Phillips might just be as famous for her tumultuous personal life as she is for her acting roles. In her 2011 memoir, High on Arrival, The 64-year-old One Day at a Time actress revealed many fascinating and disturbing details about her life and the abuse she faced growing up. 

As the first daughter of legendary rock star John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Mackenzie Phillips started her ascent to stardom at just 12 years old. By that time, she’d already experimented with hard drugs and alcohol. Her life was worthy of a movie plot, and in her memoir she described growing up in an “all-access kingdom of hippie freedom and heroin cool,” all while her own star was rising in Hollywood. 

MUST-READ: The Mamas & the Papas and the Drama That Unfolded For The Legendary Musicians

Mackenzie Phillips
Mackenzie Phillips in 1976Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Best known as Julie Cooper on the CBS sitcom One Day at a Time, Phillips’ drug use on set led to her firing and her subsequent attempts to turn a life of addiction into one of advocacy. 

Here, we share the star’s harrowing journey from drug-addicted child star to a professional who’s largely stepped away from the spotlight to help those with similar struggles. 

MUST-READ: ‘One Day at a Time’ 1975 Cast: Where Are They Now?

Mackenzie Phillips’ difficult early years 

Laura Mackenzie Phillips was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on November 10, 1959. She is the daughter of the late musician John Phillips and his first wife, Susan Stuart Adams. Mackenzie has several half-siblings, including actress Bijou Phillips and Wilson Phillips‘ singer Chynna Phillips. Their father’s rock and roll lifestyle heavily influenced her early life, exposing her to the entertainment industry and its associated challenges from a young age.

MUST-READ: Wilson Phillips: What the Talented ’90s Vocal Trio Is Up to Now

woman looking nervous
Mackenzie Phillips in American Graffiti (1973)Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Phillips began acting at 12 with a role in George Lucas’ 1973 hit film American Graffiti. Her performance as the precocious teen Carol Morrison garnered significant attention, leading to more acting opportunities.

While she seemed to be thriving amidst Hollywood’s hippie culture in a lush, jet-setting life most would only dream of, Phillips revealed in her shocking 2011 memoir that she was living a nightmare filled with incest and abuse. 

father and daughter
Mackenzie and John Phillips in 1980Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

Phillips alleged that her father drugged her repeatedly as a child, starting as early as age 11. Ten years of abuse followed, including sexual assault at the age of 19 on her wedding night, reportedly leading to a pregnancy and an abortion. The actress turned to drugs to numb the pain. 

At age 16, Phillips was cast as Julie Cooper on the popular sitcom One Day at a Time alongside Valerie Bertinelli. The show centered on a single mom raising two girls and aired from 1975 to 1984. Her character was a rebellious teenager, mirroring some aspects of her real-life struggles.

In 1977, Phillips was arrested for public drunkenness and cocaine possession. Two years later, she married rock group manager Jeffrey Sessler, and the couple divorced less than three years later. 

woman sitting smiling
Mackenzie Phillips in 1982Paul Natkin/Getty

Despite her success on the show, Phillips’ tenure was marred by her substance abuse issues, including arriving late to work and being incoherent, leading to her firing in 1980. She returned to the show but was eventually let go again due to ongoing problems on set. 

MUST-READ: The Life of Bonnie Franklin: ‘One Day at a Time’ & Beyond

Phillips was caught in a vicious cycle. As she described in an interview, “I was very much into substances, like heroin, cocaine, pills. And, of course, alcohol was always there. And during times when I wasn’t using other drugs — because alcohol is a drug — my alcohol use would ramp up. And then, when I would start using the other drugs again, I wouldn’t drink. And then, when I would put down the other drugs, I would start drinking again. They really go hand in hand.”

It looked like the rising star was headed towards a downfall, but years later, she’d finally overcome her demons.

After One Day at a Time

Unfortunately, by the early ’80s, Phillips’ biggest roles were already in the rearview mirror, due largely to her drug habit. During this time, she turned her attention from acting to music, performing with a short-lived revival of her father’s band, the New Mamas and the Papas.

In 1986, Phillips married Bruce Springsteen‘s guitarist, Shane Fontayne, and they had one child, Shane, a year later. In the late ’90s, she appeared in the Disney Channel series So Weird and the Disney movie Double Teamed and took bit parts in shows like ER, 7th Heaven and Cold Case

Phillips divorced Fontayne in 2000, and her father, John, passed away from heart failure a year later. 

MUST-READ: The Bruce Springsteen Songs That’ll Make It Feel Like the ‘Glory Days’

woman and son ; mackenzie phillips
Mackenzie Phillips and her son, Shane, in 2003Amanda Edwards/Getty

Mackenzie Phillips’ later years

The ’00s proved to be not much different from previous decades for the troubled star. Five years after her split from Fontayne, she married songwriter Keith Levenson. After being sober from the ages of 32 to 42, she sadly relapsed.

In 2008, Phillips was arrested yet again for drug possession at a Los Angeles airport. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a drug rehab program. That led to a stint on VH1’s reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew

In 2011, Phillips released her New York Times bestselling memoir, which set off a firestorm in the media and her family. Several family members (including John’s wife and ex-wife) said Mackenzie was lying about the abuse, but others (such as her sister, Chynna) backed up her claims. She shared her harrowing story on Oprah

A second chance

With streaming services rebooting and reviving many old sitcoms, a 2017 Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time gave Phillips a second chance. This time around, she played Pam, a therapist. She also appeared in the series Orange Is the New Black.

Today, Phillips’ main gig is working as Vice President of Referral Relations at the drug treatment center Breathe Live Healing Center in Los Angeles. She has also provided hands-on treatment to those struggling with drug problems as a substance abuse counselor.

In 2017, she released a second book, Hopeful Healing: Essays on Managing Recovery and Surviving Addiction and she has a podcast focused on healing from addiction, America Recovers.

woman, husband and son, posing together
Mackenzie Phillips with her husband, Keith Levenson, and son, Shane in 2005John Shearer/Getty

Phillips has also said that she forgives her dad for the abuse she endured at his hands. 

“I get a lot of criticism and a lot of trolling online for having forgiveness in my heart. Forgiveness, because forgiving is for me, not for the other person. And forgiving doesn’t mean I cosign or agree with what I’m forgiving him for. It’s very complicated, yet I am at peace,” she shared on her sister Chynna’s YouTube Channel in 2023. 

Even though Mackenzie Phillips grew up in a privileged world, her life certainly hasn’t been easy. As she’s grown up in public, she’s undergone a beautiful transformation from troubled teen to a woman who’s owned up to her mistakes and made a genuine effort to help others going through similar struggles. Nearly 50 years into her career, Phillips seems to finally be in a hard-won place of stability and peace.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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