One of the many hearses that ply Hollywood Boulevard is different from all the others. The long gray Cadillac sports a sunroof, air-conditioning, and a cargo of live bodies, not dead ones. The vehicle is the flagship of Grave Line Tours, and every day its driver leads his seven passengers, each with a window seat, on what is most emphatically not the standard movieland excursion.

The company caters to those willing to pay $30 to view the places where various stars died in nasty ways. The demand appears heavy. One must make reservations, but if someone doesn’t show, they accept “standby” passengers at $25. Today’s group includes four Chicagoans, two locals, and your reporter. The driver explains that the other tour companies scorn their outfit. And the Westwood Memorial Park has gone so far as to ban Grave Lines from its sacred precincts. But we are not visiting any cemeteries today. This tour goes right on location.

The driver explains that every item on his “death sheet” has been researched and verified. We won’t be seeing any memorabilia of the recently departed. They maintain a strict five-year “cooling off’ period. “We don’t want any necrophiliacs crowding in,” our guide explains.

First stop is just around the corner, at a rather shabby motel where Janis Joplin “said goodbye to Bobby McGee for the last time.” How did this happen? The singer “zilched out” on an overdose of heroin.

I should explain that this commentary comes in the bleedin nysel tweng of Australian guide Gary Menna, a pleasant chap, a good driver, and a fathomless vault of information about Hollywood. For example, we learn that the Wilcoxes, the city’s founders, intended the place to be a religious retreat. Gary came here on holiday and never looked back. When he is not extemporizing on illustrious deaths, he plays a prerecorded sound track of hymns and various songs popularized by the departed loved ones.

Next comes the abode of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, once the First Family of American television. Ozzie took a two-mile swim in the ocean every day and “that’s probably what killed him.” Actually, Gary adds, it was cancer. We leave the Nelsons and cruise by the home of Peter Lorre, who “once submitted to bloodletting by leeches.” The actor thought this would lower his blood pressure. It didn’t.

Now it’s on to more recent stuff, the Chateau Marmont, where the “bloated” John Belushi received his fatal dmg overdose at the’ hands of a friend. “There’s where they brought the body out,” Gary says, adding that the blues brother and his buddies tore up the bungalow where they were staying. We also see a liquor store where the famous junkie once threw a tantrum.

In the distance we see the dark, castle-like dwelling of Bela Lugosi, where the actor began his morphine addiction. He was reportedly buried in his Dracula cape. Not so lucky was neighbor Jack Cassidy, who liked to smoke in bed. He wound up burned beyond recognition, to the point that, in Gary’s opinion, “they should have given him a discount” on the subsequent cremation.

The guide deftly recreates the scene in which Sal Mineo, then 37, was stabbed to death, the victim of an apparent robbery. The place where the blood flowed is now marked by a blotch of oil.

Gary points out an apartment where on October 4, 1969, the daughter of celebrity Art Linkletter took LSD and jumped to her death from a high balcony. Here the guide shows his light, nuanced approach. He quips that the mashed corpse may have provided a local restaurateur with “inspiration for his pizza.”

On the other hand, the death of actor Jack Webb, who played Joe Friday in the crime series Dragnet, so inspired the local chief of police that he ordered flags flown at half mast. I believe it was this same official who in 1979 suggested that his boys be sent to vanquish the Ayatollah and free the hostages.

The venerable Beverly Hills Hotel soon looms before us. It was here in 1977 where, not long after his magnificent performance in Network, Peter Finch keeled over for good. It happened right in the lobby. Not far away, a narcoticized Richard Dreyfuss once smashed up his new Mercedes-Benz. His agent said he never touched the stuffy, but our guide gives all the details, as if to say, “j’accuse!”

We next see the very telephone pole into which Montgomery Clift smashed his car. Elizabeth Taylor, whom he had just left, apparently rushed to the scene and scooped the broken teeth from his throat so he could breathe. Clift survived but went on to become “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”

Things get heavy up on Cielo Drive, where Charlie Manson’s gang did their helter-skelter routine. Our guide shows his scrupulous attention to detail by passing around a copy of Sharon Tate’s death certificate. The “cause of death” section reads: “multiple stab wounds to chest and back.” The document adds, somewhat mysteriously, “page one of two.” But the coroner wouldn’t give out page two. Gary thinks that Manson’s folks did some very nasty things to the child Tate was carrying. He has also learned that the owner of the house sent the cleaning bill to the victim’s parents. The owner was doubtless a flower child, one of the beautiful people. He had 35 offers to buy the place after the massacre and recently sold it for a tidy sum. The average house price in the area is five million dollars.

And then there was Superman, AKA George Reeves. We see the room where he “supposedly blew his brains out” with a “warm Luger.” Gary is having none of it, however. There were no powder burns on Reeves’ nude body, and he thinks the death was a “studio-arranged hit” followed by a massive cover-up in which the police collaborated. Remember, everything on this tour has been verified.

Less mysterious is the site where Lana Turner’s daughter plunged a knife into Johnny Stompanato, who “bled to death in five minutes.” We also see the armored door of mobster Bugsy Siegel’s estate. Unfortunately, Mr. Siegel was sitting by the window one evening when a hail of bullets from unknown assailants “nearly tore his head from his body.”

Sustaining a slightly less serious head injury was singer-surfer Jan Barry of Jan and Dean fame. When Barry wrecked his sports car he didn’t die but joined the “brussels sprout brigade.” That Gary, I swear he’s a million laughs.

And then there was Peg Entwistle, a British stage actress who, like many, sought fame on the screen. Also like many, she failed to attain stardom. When her contract was not renewed, she climbed up on the letter H of the famous Hollywood sign and cast her fate to the wind.

We see the house where the Christian Scientist mother of Jean Harlow kept her ailing daughter in a room, away from doctors. But we don’t linger outside one of the Gershwin residences, because a senior family member has threatened to call the cops. Some people nearing the age of 100 apparently don’t like to see a hearse waiting in the wings, especially one with “Grave Line Tours” emblazoned on the side.

My favorite locale is the mansion where Lupe Velez, the then-pregnant fiancee of Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller, gulped a fistful of barbiturates. As legend has it, she penned a suicide sonnet, decked her bed in roses, administered the hemlock, laid herself down, and slipped gently into that good night like a true screen goddess. Not so, says Gary. The maid found her in the bathroom, head in the toilet, where she had gone to vomit but passed out. Death came by drowning. Here, I think, is a piece of fearful symmetry for Hollywood: the guilded image camouflaging the ugly reality; the flowery legend hiding the squalid truth. It is thesis and antithesis, with no synthesis in sight.

That is likely why the other tours so despise the Grave Line crowd. Gary and his boss may be upstarts, but they know what this town is all about. Tourists come here to see monuments and bodies, not actual people. Hollywood is a vast necropolis, camouflaged with makeup, hype, and of course money.

At one point, we pass the massive dwelling of Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, which served as a comfy departure point for Truman Capote. “I, am a homosexual, a drug addict and a genius,” was how the late novelist described himself, probably in the correct order. He also said: “Living in Southern California is like living in Forest Lawn.” The man does have a point.