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Los Angeles TimesThe Universal movie soon to be released as "Patch Adams" starring Robin Williams was born as a book called "Gesundheit!" published by a small Vermont house and written by a doctor who dresses as a clown, doesn't charge his patients and told the architect designing his new health center in West Virginia to "make it silly," with trap doors, eyeball-shaped exam rooms and chandeliers to swing on. How did such a project find its way to print? And how did it get to Universal?
According to publisher Ehud Sperling, who started Inner Traditions 23 years ago and is just now enjoying his first Hollywood sale, "Gesundheit!" was written at the suggestion of one Josh Mailman of the philanthropic Mailman family from New York, who met Patch Adams at an ersatz-hippie celebration called the Rainbow Gathering. Mailman thought people would want to read about this 6-foot, 5-inch ponytailed man who called himself "a pie in the face of the American medical establishment"—his goal is free medical care for all—and how he came to hold his unorthodox views. Mailman introduced Adams to Sperling, who found him a coauthor, Maureen Mylander, and a book was born. That was in 1983.
The movie deal took place at least 10 years later, at a meeting of the hip entrepreneur invitation-only Social Ventures Network, where Sperling and Mailman met up by chance with "M*A*S*H" co-star Mike Farrell, who had heard of Patch Adams at the time of "Gesundheit!'s" publication. Farrell wanted to produce the project. He optioned the book via Al Zuckerman's Writer's House for what Zuckerman characterizes now as a steal, made a pitch to Universal and secured the interest of comedy director Mike Shadyac ("Liar, Liar"). "Everyone wanted Williams," reports Sperling, "because it was an ideal vehicle for him, but no one wanted to get their hopes up."
But the clown in Adams appealed to Williams. What about the height discrepancy? "Williams is shorter, but he's very funny," Sperling says. There has been talk at Universal of donating a portion of the box office to Patch Adam's Gesundheit Institute, which is more than $4 million short of the $5 million needed to finish work on the grounds and building, but according to Sperling, nothing has happened yet on that front.