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'Larry': Lessons of the Father, Son : Television: The documentary--airing on KOCE--on homelessness and mental illness is a family project.

March 29, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his shambling gait, disheveled appearance and distracted air, Larry Gladwin Harding is like many of the homeless men we pass daily on the sidewalks or in our cars.

But this particular man is the subject of a half-hour documentary titled "Larry" (tonight at 9 on KOCE-TV Channel 50), a program that helps reduce the distance we put between ourselves and the mentally ill and puts a personal face on an issue too often reduced to abstracts.

That "Larry" was produced and directed by Harding's son, William Harding, adds to its power and poignancy.

After suffering an emotional crisis of his own following high school, the younger Harding had cut himself off from his father and did not see him for six years as he went to work as a journalist and filmmaker in Eastern Europe.

"It was a personal project," William Harding, 28, said in a telephone interview from his home in Boulder, Colo. "I had been away from my father for a long time, and I wanted to get to know him again."

*

Larry Harding was intermittently homeless in Boulder, between spells living with various family members. With an old Super 8 movie camera that he bought in a thrift store for $2.50, William shot scenes of his father's life.

In "Larry," these grainy black-and-white scenes are interwoven with home movies from happier times. Through it all, we hear Larry Harding's voice describing his life. A respected research psychologist, first in the civil service and later in the private sector, Larry Harding was brought down by severe manic-depressive illness.

He is able to describe his own illness cogently in the film. "It was quite a point in my life when I had to face that fact that I was mentally ill," he says calmly. Later he adds: "I have been reduced to living day by day. I don't think about the future, and I don't reminisce too much about the past."

He feels, he says, what most people feel, "except my highs are really high, and my lows are damn low."

*

In the same tone, he describes how he constantly interprets the "signs" around him--everything from license plates to traffic signals to the arrangement of soda cans in a convenience store--as part of an elaborate communication system. The CIA and Mafia, he believes, have conspired against him.

He writes elaborately coded postcards to friends and family, laboring over them for hours. And, as the film shows, he sits on street corners and flashes hand signals to passersby.

During the film, only Larry Harding's voice is heard. William Harding says it was his goal to let his father "tell his own story."

"Most of what I see in the media seems to be very judgmental of the mentally ill, putting them on stage as some sort of freaks," he said. During the eight months he was seeing his father regularly while making the film, William Harding, said he was able to let go of his expectations of the father he wanted Larry to be. That allowed him to better appreciate his father on his own terms.

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Larry Harding, now 58, is living with his mother in Memphis, Tenn., his son said.

Since it was released last year, "Larry" has become popular with mental health workers, who use it largely as a tool for working with families of the mentally ill. It has also been shown on PBS stations around the country.

William Harding has written a fictional screenplay based on a character "like my father" and may also produce other documentaries about mental illness and homelessness.

* "Larry" airs tonight at 9 on Orange County public television station KOCE-TV Channel 50.

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