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For Real 'Patch' Adams, Trying to Be Funny Isn't Easy

Movies: Despite financial and personal problems, the doctor who makes patients laugh hopes to build the first ha-ha hospital.

January 01, 1999|RITA KEMPLEY | WASHINGTON POST

Hunter "Patch" Adams, the world's funniest physician, is doing his laundry, a mountain of gaudy clown pants that he scoops from the kitchen table and shoves into the washer. Let other doctors wear white coats and a somber demeanor. Give Adams a pair of baggy britches and a goofy smile and lead him to a children's hospital, an old-folks' home, a shopping mall, wherever people are suffering.

If you ask the 53-year-old longhair, that's just about everywhere these days.

Adams, who bears only a cursory resemblance to Robin Williams' character in the movie, believes that the actor manages to convey what's important about his view of the world.

"We celebrate pain. Very rarely does a movie about love or compassion get a good review. There's not a daily newspaper in history devoted to good news, and more good news happens than bad news. . . . I think the most revolutionary act a person can commit in today's society is to be publicly happy. Instead of 82 million prescriptions for Xanax and 46 million for Prozac, how about trying life?"

There are more holistic antidotes for this malaise, says Adams, who is not one to underestimate the curative powers of a rubber chicken. To that end, he's spent the last 28 years raising money under the auspices of an amorphous entity called the Gesundheit! Institute.

His goal: to build the world's first ha-ha-hospital on a 310-acre tract in the wilds of West Virginia. Patients will be treated free by doctors who don't carry malpractice insurance and who won't accept third-party payments. Along with pills and plasters, the hospital will provide love and lots and lots of laughter. He says doctors from all over are already clamoring to work at the facility, the only place on Earth, they say, where they can practice humanitarian medicine.

The movie suggests that the hospital is currently under construction and everything is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. In truth, there are only outbuildings, including a three-story workshop, a couple of yurts and a five-person dwelling on the Gesundheit! tract near Droop Mountain in Pocahontas County.

Adams has been quoted as saying he's raised a million dollars for the project. Linda Edquist, who was married to Adams for 26 years and who is definitely bitter about their divorce last summer, says a lot of the money raised by the foundation goes to pay Adams' salary and the rent on his modest Arlington, Va., townhouse. Adams, on the other hand, says that all he has to show for his efforts is $5,000.

"I've totally failed at fund-raising. I'm 0-for-1,400 in foundation grants," he says with a groan. His hope is that the movie will generate $50 million for the institute.

Whatever the case, there will be more money coming in. After the film tested through the roof, Universal donated $500,000 in seed money, with the stipulation that it be devoted exclusively to building the hospital.

Bob Gilbert, who lived on a commune with Adams and Edquist in the early '70s, suggests that Adams' "true passion has been the pursuit of the dream, not the dream itself. Patch believes [that] to live life fully, you have to live your dreams."

Adams, who stopped seeing patients 15 years ago, nevertheless still views himself as a healer. "I've never made a penny being a doctor, so that makes it not a job. My sense of a doctor is that one is a presence caring for health. So I'm never not a doctor. People call me from all over the world who are hurting, and I care for them. Chatting is what more people want than anything."

Just a chat, that's all it takes?

"Let's drop 'just.' 'Cause that will only imply that giving them, say, Prozac or surgery is more important than the talking. My initial interviews with patients are three or four hours long. And I listen to them."

He says he has made 14 trips to Russia to entertain at orphanages and recently expanded his visits to include refugee camps in Bosnia. He traveled to Trinidad to clown for murderers who were hanged three days later. When not clowning, Adams lectures at medical schools, corporations and community groups, for which he regularly earns fees of up to $20,000.

"We're involved in over 40 countries. I'm building relationships, I'm building connections with people. And there are now clowns in hospitals in many, many countries and that all grew out of our work," he says.

"Patch Adams," an account of the daffy doc's early assault on the funny bone, is based on Adams' autobiography, "Gesundheit!," for which he was paid $100,000 (he asked for $10 million). The movie, a comedy of bedside mannerisms directed by Tom Shadyac ("Ace Ventura," "The Nutty Professor"), strays from the facts of his life, but not his optimistic philosophy.

"The point was not to be Patch, OK," says Adams, who huddled with Williams before and during the shoot. "I think Robin is compassionate, generous and funny, so the movie is going to put that message out there."

Of course, the movie is also about pleasing a mainstream crowd with a myth befitting the Christmas season. And to that end, director Shadyac and Williams all but sanctify this complex, conflicted man. On film, he's St. Bozo.

The story opens factually enough in a mental hospital, where Adams is inspired to become a doctor while undergoing treatment for depression. After his release, he sets out for the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond where he risks his career by defying the medical establishment.

In real life, he and Edquist founded a free clinic after graduation. But she's not included in the film and the breakup has been a source of sorrow.

Still, old friend Gilbert says, Adam's has "led a wonderful life. He has all kinds of friends from all over the world, hippies, grandmothers, doctors, intellectuals. He is out there and the message is strong."

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