Thursday, January 8, 2009

Question to dying man: How do you feel? Dying man: With my hands.

I can only imagine what the paramedics thought when they rushed into the warehouse to find a half-naked man in a wheelchair wearing a bearskin and Shirley Temple wig who had tumbled off a platform and hit his head while filming a movie with Crispin "Back to the Future" Glover.

They probably shared a reaction similar to that of some of the people I talked to about this story.

At first, for reasons I'll discuss later, I wasn't sure I could tell it on TV. But I figured I had to. Click here to watch the story.

Everybody has dreams. Some dreams are a little different than others. But everybody has dreams.

Even the man in the Shirley Temple wig.

Steven C. Stewart was born in 1937 with a severe case of cerebral palsy, a condition that left him without a lot of control of his muscles. He couldn't walk. His arms flailed about involuntarily. And his speech was very hard to understand.

We're featuring Stewart on a Fresh Look on Life Sunday, March 18, on Two News at 10pm. Watch KUTV's 1977 profile of Stewart here.

No doubt many people who saw Stewart thrashing around and pushing himself backwards down the sidewalk -- that was how he got around -- and heard him trying to speak, thought he was mentally handicapped. But he was not.

"When (people) first talk to me, when I answer, they can't understand. A few listen carefully. They're my friends."

His good friend, Roger Brown, calls him "the most enthusiastic, energetic, inspiring person I've ever known."

Stewart, among other things, lobbied for rights for the disabled (The first curb was cut in Salt Lake City because of Stewart.), wrote radio commercial copy, produced a radio show, once conducted the Utah Youth Symphony, ran for the Utah legislature, worked in public relations, wrote two books and appeared in two movies, one of which he wrote. (We'll get into that later.)

Brown says Stewart believed if he wanted to do something, he could.

"I think a lot of people think that fate or destiny plays a part in their lives and they don't have any choice, but those are people who never met Steve Stewart."

He didn't like to hang out with other people with handicaps, Brown says.

He didn't like their attitude.

He got his attitude came from his mom.

"She (instilled) in Steve the drive and desire. That he was a normal human being," his friend David Brothers says.

He was the first handicapped child in Davis County schools. Thanks to his mom.

"The teacher thought I had no right to be there," Stewart told Two News. "So every year my parents had to fight to keep me in school."

He said he always knew he was different, but it didn't hit him until he got out of high school.

"All my friends were getting married, having children. I felt alone."

He lived at home until his mother died when he was 29.

And then he moved into a nursing home. He had to. That was the only way he could get government assistance.

That was where former KUTV producer (and later news director) Diane Orr and the late C. Larry Roberts interviewed him for a profile for the station news magazine "Extra" 30 years ago.

He was writing letters, spending two to four hours to type each one, to elected officials to complain about the way the system treats the disabled.

Stewart told Larry Roberts that he had an idea for a movie. Roberts introduced Stewart to his friend, photographer and set designer David Brothers. And Stewart convinced Brothers to help him write his script.

Stewart slowly dictated the words and Brothers typed them.

"And the story just got weirder and weirder," David Brothers says.

And Brothers couldn't get it out of his head.

He introduced a his friend of his, actor Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future," "Williard"), to Stewart and three of them decided then, 27 years ago, that they were going to make Steve Stewart's movie.

Fast forward to the year 2000.

Stewart was in his 60's and his health had deteriorated.

His lung had collapsed. Because of lack of muscle coordination and the danger of asphyxiation, he could no longer take solid food by mouth.

From a nursing home, he contacted Brothers and Glover and told them it was now or never.

"Well I did think he said, we should make this before I kick the bucket," Glover recalls. "You kinda say, don't kick the bucket yet, jokingly, but ultimately it was true. He kept himself alive to make the movie."

Stewart had appeared in Glover's previous movie, the aptly-named, "What Is It?" It was an avante guard piece involving a cast of people with Down Syndrome, nude porn stars wearing animal heads, swastikas, snails and Steve Stewart.

That was when the paramedics showed up and thought who knows what.

Glover and Stewart were playing "dueling demigod auteurs" when Stewart tumbled off a platform and onto his head.

"I'm so glad that we didn't kill him," Glover says.

Stewart rolled away from the incident with a half-dozen stitches in his head.

"He was a tough monkey," Brothers says.

Glover and Brothers started making plans to shoot Stewart's movie.

Glover took a lucrative job, playing the creepy Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels," in part, so he could pay for the production, which cost him 150 to 200 thousand dollars.

Over the course of a year, in a non-descript Salt Lake City warehouse, in between Stewart's hospitalizations, they made "It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE."

The film (which I have not seen) is a dark fantasy. A man in a wheelchair seduces beautiful women and then kills them.

And Steve Stewart played the leading man.

There are no subtitles. In Stewart's cinematic world, everyone understands what he says.

And he gets the girl.

Something that usually didn't happen in real life.

But not because he didn't try.

Brown says Stewart would convince strangers to push him inside ZCMI so he could try to chat up the women behind the perfume counter.

"That woman. I've gotta go meet that woman," Brothers recalls. "He was fearless. He really was fearless."

No doubt he knew his chances were slim, but "if you're raised with that attitude of anything's possible, you keep trying because maybe somewhere in there, there's someone that would go for it."

The 1977 footage shows Stewart on the dance floor with an able-bodied woman.

"I've loved two girls," he said, "but they couldn't accept me. I want to love, to have sex. I have the same emotions as anyone else."

Stewart was married for 15 years, but divorced.

"Mentally," David Brothers says, "she wasn't up to the challenges of Steve."

Now here he was starring with a cast of beautiful women. Often naked beautiful women. (Because of the explicit nudity I debated whether I could put this story on TV. Even much of the movie trailers wasn't fit for broadcast. In the end I decided that the story was much bigger than the film. It was about Steve Stewart.)

Glover hired, among others, Margit Carstensen, a favorite of German director Rainer Fassbinder, and Jami Ferrell, Playboy's Miss January 1997.

"Tragically, he was a romantic without a means to express it, except for this film," Brothers says. "Steve was exceptionally romantic because he never had a chance to express it, to a real person."

Part of the message of the film, Brothers said, is the man who couldn't walk, couldn't feed himself and could barely talk, was a human being with a full range of emotions.

"I said, 'Steve, you're portraying an unfavorable handicapped man.' He said, 'I don't care. I have that right.'"

"Even though you're disabled," Brown explains, "you may have the darkest, blackest thoughts of anybody out there. So don't feel terribly sorry for me because I have the same black thoughts that someone has who has a normal life."

The film action, at one point, switches from the warehouse movie sets, to a real nursing home. And the audience realizes this isn't a piece of fiction. This is a real man living out his fantasies.

"This movie," Stewart wrote in his script, "is not really about sex or even a serial killer...This movie tends to look inside the heart and mind of a severely handicapped young man.....This movie is to show that these people can have feelings, too. Feelings of good and ill."

"I have never killed anyone," he wrote, "and never intend to."

Brothers remembers the smile Steve Stewart had on his face every day he came to work.

These were the happiest days of his life, he Stewart told Brothers.

"I said, "Oh, Steve, you'll have happier days."

"No!" Brothers imitates Stewart's shout and emphatic flail. "These...are...the happiest...days...of my life!"

Though while living out this fantasy, while filming a nude love scene, Brothers believes, Stewart had an epiphany.

"Is that all there is? Is that all there was?"

The best part of the production, Brothers guesses Stewart realized, wasn't the nude scenes.

"I don't think this is what I really wanted. What I wanted was hanging out with the actresses, but over in makeup and wardrobe."

Stewart relished all the down time on the set. Just sitting around and talking. Forming relationships.

Brown and Brothers say Stewart did fall in love with a 20-year-old actress on the set. But, just as his film character finds the woman of his dreams and is rejected, the love was unrequited.

"A certain sadness (overcame him)," Brothers says, "when he realized he wasn't going to get what he expected. And only he knew what that was."

"Ultimately I think he was a tragic figure because he had no way to express himself, except for though this film. I think that explains the anger in the film."

After the filming was over, Stewart asked Brothers and Glover if they needed him anymore.

"(He) asked us if we had enough footage," Glover says, "and I was very sad to say 'yes.'"

Stewart was asking permission to die.

The doctors wanted to scrap his lungs again, a procedure he did not want to endure again. He wanted to remove himself from life support.

"Steve, of course, we're not done, you can't die," Brothers told him. "I realized that was selfish."

Now Stewart was lying in a hospital bed. He was dying.

Make-up artist and friend Gyll Huff was at his side.

Brothers recalls the conversation.

"How do you feel, Steve?"

Stewart mumbled.

There was five minutes of failed communication. The Huff was able to understand what Stewart was trying to say.

"With my hands."

"That took it to this whole new level of absurdity."

A month after the production wrapped, Steven C. Stewart died. He left his share of the film, which, because of the limited commercial appeal, Brothers admits will never turn a profit, to that 20 year old actress. But in Stewart's mind, Brothers says, it was worth something.

In his final few days, Brown says, the crew brought some of the "dailies" to the hospital for Stewart to watch.

He had had no food for ten days and was very weak.

But, Brown says, he sat up in his bed. His eyes lit up.

"He was thrilled beyond imagination," Brown says.

Here was a movie that he wrote and starred in.

"I think at that time, he said, 'OK, I've done all. I've done it all.'"

"It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Crispin Glover says he will now tour the country with the film.

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