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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

His Passion for Education on This Disease Is Heartfelt

May 30, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

Charles Morrell has been a college football player (he still holds the school record for longest run from scrimmage at Washington State). He has been a film director and an actor. He met Elizabeth Taylor and speaks often to Kevin Dobson, best known as Michele Lee's husband on "Knots Landing."

These days, though, Morrell, 62, lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach. The only evidence of Hollywood is some pictures on the wall of Morrell and Dobson, Morrell and Taylor. The only evidence of his athletic career is some tapes hidden behind the television.

Morrell's life now is not about fame or fortune, though it is very much about using whatever fame he might have to raise a small fortune. Instead of trophies, Morrell will hand you a neatly bound folder filled with names.

"Jon Ausby. Maryland. Age, 17. Sex, M. Race, B. Sport, Basketball. Level, HS. Activity at Time of Death, Collapsed at halftime in locker room."

"Allison Becht. Indiana. Age, 16. Sex, F. Race, W. Sport, Swimming. Level, HS. Activity at Time of Death, Stopped after 25m of 200m freestyle."

There are 48 such listings.

Morrell, who had small parts in movies such as "The Sting" and "The Battle of Midway" and who produced a 1988 movie starring Linda Blair and Tab Hunter called "Grotesque" ("an unfortunate title," Morrell says), explains that his life now is solely about these people and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease that thickens the walls of the heart and can cause the sudden death of anyone, not only athletes.

This is something Morrell can tell you about too. These other people.

People such as Charles' twin brother Gary. Gary, who had been a color commentator on King and Pittsburgh Penguin hockey broadcasts as well as a sports announcer on several Southern California radio stations, died of HCM in 1991. Gary's sons Kyle, 12, and Mitchell, 14, died unexpectedly within a year of each other in the mid-1970s of HCM. Gary's daughter Desiree, now 34, collapsed of the same disease but survived. Her 13-year-old son has HCM.

So does Charles. He had a heart transplant in 1995, and when he gets too excited or speaks too quickly, as happened on a weekday afternoon in his apartment when he was telling his story, Charles gets short of breath. "Talking too fast again," he says. "But I don't want to waste time."

It is Morrell's most desperate hope to be able to put together an hour documentary on HCM. He says he has contacts that would enable him to get the documentary on TV. He has spent the nearly four years since his transplant researching the disease. He is on a first-name basis with doctors around the country who specialize in it.

What Morrell says he needs is financing. He estimates that $200,000 would get the job done, get the film made and marketed and distributed. Morrell doesn't want to make any money. All he wants, Morrell says, "is for parents to see it and maybe recognize the symptoms, maybe see their own son or daughter and get them to a doctor."

Morrell is particularly distressed to see stories such as the one about John Stewart, the 7-foot Indiana high school star who had signed to play at Kentucky next season and who died during a regional championship game from complications of HCM.

"Makes you wonder," Morrell says, "if this kid ever complained he was tired or short of breath or dizzy or faint. Those are the symptoms, but kids tell their mom or their coach and someone tells them to get more sleep or eat better or it's just part of growing too fast. And then they drop dead."

That's what happened to Kyle Morrell. He was 12, he was playing in the yard, he dropped dead. As a result, the rest of the family was evaluated and it was found that Charles, Gary and both of Gary's other children had the disease though Charles' two children, Eric and Holly, did not. There is no cure. There are medications and a device that can be implanted into the heart to help it keep beating regularly, but knowledge and medication didn't save Gary or Mitchell.

And Morrell is particularly frightened for athletes because, he says, "The athletes are the most vulnerable. . . . These kids don't know anything is wrong. Their hearts get weaker and weaker and one sudden burst of activity kills them."

For a few moments, Morrell is happy to talk about how he and Gary were known as the "Touchdown Twins" when they starred at Downey High and Long Beach State for a year before they went off to Washington State. Morrell can tell Hollywood stories forever, and he will if it will help him raise money. He is trying to sell a screenplay for a TV movie of his story and the story of his sister-in-law, Anita, who works as a nurse at a Huntington Beach hospital.

"You know, I don't feel like I have all the time in the world left," he says. "Getting this documentary done, it's the thing I care about. I'm in a hurry. I have to be."

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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