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Laughing on the Inside, Also

June 27, 1993|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He's officially known as heart transplant No. 96 by the UCLA Medical Center. That's a far cry from what was no doubt the most famous title he ever had: Bozo the Clown. James Chapin, who played the famous clown for five years, combines his love of fun and the experience of surviving that operation by writing a comedic book about life before and after heart surgery.

Like the character he played, he is unfailingly upbeat.

"I've always jumped in with both feet," he said. "Many times I've been sorry--like a few business investments I've made. But you get over it.

"The pains in my chest I couldn't get over. Six years ago, when I was told the only way I would live would be to have a heart transplant, and that 20,000 other people were in the same spot, I never worried.

"My pastor, Father Kevin Taylor, and I prayed ourselves into a transplant. I'm a survivor, and I have spent most of my life laughing at adversity. I'm here, and I'm not broke--that's pretty terrific," he said.

The 66-year-old Chapin plays water polo and took up surfing after the surgery. He has been writing "Laughter, Love and Luck: A Tale of Survival" for four years.

"The book is about overcoming the emotional drain and physical enervation of a terminal disease and about facing up to a predicted date with death--which, of course, I did not keep. My prescription was love when possible and to laugh as much as possible," he said.

The idea for the book came from his wife, Jenny, and the doctors and technicians who continue to monitor his progress. Chapin's biggest fans, though, are the people who have listened to and laughed at his talks on "Organ Donor Awareness." Chapin volunteers his time to talk to groups and hospital personnel.

"I was going to die, and I didn't. I owed a debt. And I wanted to tell people, especially the spouses of people with catastrophic illnesses, that they can cope with it. Carl Menninger said that attitudes are better than facts. I'm not a great guy. I just think when you're here, do the best you can and make the most of what you have," he said.

Chapin was born in Springfield, Mass. He graduated from high school as the class actor and wit. Taking that seriously, he moved to New York City in 1950 to pursue a career in acting and singing. He did some radio soap operas and made appearances on early television programs, including Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle's shows and some children's programs.

"I had been on shows like 'Captain Video' and 'The Magic Cottage,' and my agent called me and asked if I could do a clown routine," Chapin said. "The original Bozo drank a bit too much, and Capitol Records wanted someone who liked children.

"I was interviewed and sent home with a stack of Bozo albums. I called the executive back the next day and imitated Bozo's voice, and he hired me on the spot," he said.

Even on the day of his surgery, Chapin was in the spotlight, he recalled. "When they took me into the operating room it was a theater and I could see students assembling in the balcony. I said in the loudest voice I could muster, 'Would you announce to the balcony this transplant is being sponsored by an insurance company?'

"That was the most dedicated house I ever played to. When it was all over I couldn't think, couldn't talk. It was such a major insult to my body. Twenty-four hours later I thought I'm different now--not that it was someone else's heart working, but that I had a heart that was 100% and not 15%," he said.

One year later he was cheering others on, taking care of his wife, who had developed muscular dystrophy, and learning how to hang 10.

Chapin's book is finished. It's a lighthearted 300 pages. But Chapin has a serious side, too. He said he doesn't let a day go by that he doesn't pray for the donor.

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