Pop Culture

Temporary Insanity: The Strange Death of Ray Vitte

Inspiration comes from many places, but in this case, I was inspired in the identical fashion of my last offering about the eerie similarities of the suicide scene of the group Boston’s Brad Delp and a fictional suicide from the television show Twin Peaks. If you haven’t read it, give it a read as it comes highly recommended, if I do say so myself. So once again, I found myself watching Netflix to cope with the boredom of my self-imposed isolation during the Covid-19 crisis.

Desperate for something to watch, I stumbled onto one of my personal comedy favorites. Up inSmoke was Cheech & Chong’s first and unquestionably best movie. It can easily be termed a classic. Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t have to be a pot-laden stoner to find it funny. Frankly, it’s nothing short of absolutely hilarious, and it’s a member of the exalted subset of comedies that you can watch multiple times without its humor losing potency. For me, that’s the core criteria to qualify as a truly great comedy, as opposed to the merely good or even very good ones. Trivia tidbit: it was to be the directorial debut of famed record producer Lou Adler, better known to most of you as the guy you always see sitting with Jack Nicholson at Lakers games. He was also once married to the lovely Shelly Fabares for sixteen years and has been wed to Daryl Hannah’s sister for almost thirty, but I’m really digressing now. I would also like to stipulate that this isn’t a review of a 42 year old film, nor did you tune in to my article to see me gush about its comedic chops or wax nostalgic.

Returning to the man in question, let it be said that Ray Vitte is far from a household name. In all honesty, he could aptly be described as a C-list actor at best who landed a few parts, primarily in the 1970s. Nevertheless, he does have 33 acting credits according to IMDB, and the most notable of his film roles would include Car Wash9 to 5,Thank God It’s Friday,Cruising,and of course, the aforementioned Up in Smoke. He also had several episodic televisionappearances and even a couple of recurring roles. Cheech & Chong had him cast as James, thebass player in their band, whose intentionally goofy name is only revealed toward the end of themovie as “Alice Bowie”. His role is a minor one, but he has a few lines. Actually, I think it’s fairto say that you see him more than you hear him, but that’s neither here nor there. Incidentally,just for a scintilla of background information, I will include that he was a New York city nativeborn in 1949, who moved to Pasadena, CA as a child. He went on to study broadcasting at hislocal community college.

Let’s jump ahead to February 20, 1983. This was to be Mr. Vitte’s last day on Earth, having turned just 33 exactly four months prior. I’ve executed a perfunctory internet search on his demise, and there’s surprisingly little information about it. His Wikipedia page is astoundinglybrief. It is literally all of three sentences long except for his filmography. Even that doesn’t include his television appearances, which is highly unusual for an actor’s page. The scant few details that I could locate start with the fact that the Los Angeles Police Department was called by his neighbors who were understandably concerned with what was described as “incessant religious chanting”, which purportedly lasted for a grueling twelve-hour stint before their patience was exhausted. When two police officers arrived, Vitte was clad in nothing but undershorts and a shirt. Apparently, upon spotting the officers through a rear window outside his Studio City apartment, he vocally placed a “curse” on them while ordering them to leave. This was followed by his running out the back door to confront them. While making an unsuccessful attempt to grab one of the officers, that aggression was returned with a singular strike of the baton which succeeded in making contact with Vitte, who then ran back into his domicile through the same back door only to exit the front door and run around right back to where he was in the rear. During this second altercation, the other officer employed both tear gas and additional blows from his baton. Despite this two-pronged approach, Vitte exhibited no signs of having been subdued, at least not until moments later when he ran from them only to immediately and inexplicably fall to the ground adjacent to the common area swimming pool.

Officers seized this opportunity to place handcuffs on Vitte. Although cuffed, his determination to be uncooperative persisted, as evidenced by his refusal to simply walk from the point at which he became arrested. He was then physically carried to the police cruiser, screaming like a banshee all the way. His original destination was to be the mental diagnostic ward of the Valley View Hospital, however while in transit, police observed an abrupt cessation of Vitte’s breathing, so he was quickly re-routed to the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital whereupon an official pronouncement of his death transpired. An autopsy spokesman categorically denied that the injuries he received during the altercation were nothing more than “superficial” and “consistent with a struggle”. He went on to emphatically deny that such injuries could have been a cause of death, and while no toxicology report is known to me, I can say that he made an additional point by saying that no needle marks could be located on Vitte’s body. Lastly, he added that no evidence existed of an application of the infamous chokehold, which at that time was deemed to be an accepted police practice. This policy was later reversed after it was shown to be a very dangerous methodology of subjugation. I can find no official determination for a cause of death anywhere in my cursory research.

In the weeks leading up to this event, Vitte suffered from a chronic fever which ran as high as 104 degrees (F). This symptom eventually induced him to have tests run eight days prior to his  demise on February 12. Despite these tests, I am similarly unable to ascertain an underlying cause for the fever. So, with neither an official cause of death nor the preceding sickness, Ray Vitte’s premature departure from life at the tender age of 33, remains a mystery, for the most part.

The aftermath included a press conference. Among the participants, were various clergymen, an NAACP spokesman, actress Sheila Frazier, and most famously, the undisputed queen of disco, the now departed Donna Summer. Frazier attempted to explain away his religious chanting as a manifestation of the Pentacostal practice of “speaking in tongues”. Feel free to indulge in an eye-roll at that one. I’ll wait. Predictably, and in virtual unison, they cast blame on the police, despite the lack of severity of Vitte’s injuries.  Summer attempted to characterize his aberrant behavior as nothing more than “making noise”, and made disparaging comments about the reporting neighbor, as if to imply that his complaint was wholly unnecessary and even over-reactive. To the contrary, it seems that the neighbors exercised great restraint in not calling sooner, but twelve hours of screaming is more than enough to test even the most patient among us. All accounts indicate that Vitte’s demeanor was much more bizarre and unusual than some garden variety disturbance-of-the-peace. No, it’s safe to say that Ray Vitte exhibited nothing less than an acute psychosis whose origins remain as mysterious as his high grade fever and subsequent death.

Grant Strauss grew up in Southern California and in his teens and twenties was a well-known fixture in the Sunset Strip music scene. Although he was merely a self-described “dabbler” in musicianship himself, he managed to have personal friends and acquaintances in almost every band to come out of Hollywood during that era including Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Steeler, Poison and Guns ‘n’ Roses, to name a few. He now resides in Las Vegas dividing his professional life between his Automobile Dealership (Value Motors, Inc.) and playing profitable poker. He can be contacted at [email protected]