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'Lennon' Probes Murderer's Mind

February 09, 1988|BILL STEIGERWALD

In less responsible hands, "The Man Who Shot John Lennon" could be a travesty of sensationalism.

But though tonight's chilling installment of "Frontline" is as dramatic as any Geraldo Rivera-type ratings-grabber, it is above all an intelligent investigation into the disturbed mind of Mark David Chapman. (The documentary airs at 9 p.m. on Channel 15 and at 10 p.m. on Channels 28, 50.)

Why did Chapman pump five hollow-tipped bullets into Lennon outside the Dakota Apartments in New York City on Dec. 8, 1980? Was it some insane effort to steal the former Beatle's fame for himself?

It was not quite so simple. As the documentary shows and as Chapman himself says in taped interviews that he had with police after he was arrested, the idea to kill Lennon was inspired in great part by the novel "The Catcher in the Rye."

Chapman, now serving a life term in Attica State Prison, was obsessed by J. D. Salinger's popular story about Holden Caulfield, an adolescent who rejects the phoniness and hypocrisy of the adult world in favor of the innocence of childhood. "Unless you know me and know the book," Chapman says on tape in a dreamy but lucid voice, "you can't understand it."

He killed Lennon, he says, because the singer-songwriter had forsaken his ideals and had become "one of the biggest phonies of our time."

Producer Kevin Sim, who helps us understand both the power of the book and its power over Chapman, smoothly mixes information from court records with interviews with Chapman's friends to painstakingly retrace his emotionally troubled life.

A big druggie and Beatles fan during his high school days in a suburb near Atlanta, Chapman later became a born-again Christian who loved to work with children as a camp counselor. Often sullen, withdrawn and depressed, he moved to Hawaii in the late '70s and, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, got married. After reading a book by Lennon, Chapman decided he was going to kill him.

Chapman, on tape, alternately expresses horror at what he had done and takes a perverse pride in his act. The Beatles "changed the world as we know it," he says. "And I changed them. . . . It's the last nail in the coffin of the '60s. . . . I am indeed the 'Catcher in the Rye' of this generation."

Sim interviews Chapman's former co-workers, who worried about his moods, and, with some irony, the man who taught him how to shoot a pistol. In tears, Chapman's first girlfriend describes him as a "kind and gentle person." She says, "It wasn't Mark who killed Lennon; he wasn't in his right mind when he did it."

There are, however, no interviews with any of Chapman's relatives--not even his wife--and there is no fresh interview with Chapman, who's now 33. But it is testimony to Sim's skills that he is still able to tell us a great deal about his subject.

Sim delivers no sweeping psycho-sociological conclusions about the kind of society that produces a Chapman. He puts the responsibility where it belongs: not on Holden Caulfield or "The Catcher in the Rye," but on Chapman, a celebrity stalker who deliberately chose to do what he did.

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