2003: Dr. Harry Wilmer, interviewed by Craig Fees

 

Craig Fees, “DR. HARRY WILMER interviewed by Craig Fees in London 7th September, 1999 [(T)CF296]”, Joint Newsletter 7 (2003), p. 56

“This is a big point, and it involves psychoanalysis. I had written a huge book on the Naval therapeutic community, maybe 800 pages, half of which was narrative, and half of which was the statistical analysis, with graphs and charts and diagrams, and sociological diagrams and the like, which was unique in psychiatry. It certainly would be unique in therapeutic communities. When Tom Main was at Bethesda, he convinced me against my inner judgement – since he was a Freudian analyst, and I was – that this statistical stuff wasn’t important. What was important was the story of how the schizophrenics, and how they – the psychological treatment, medical psychology was the point really. So I divided the book in two, and the Navy published the statistical analysis, which never got much circulation, and the other part, a book called Social Psychiatry in Action, was published by Charles Thomas in 1958. I’ve always regretted very much that I didn’t keep it all in one book, because it would have been absolutely unique. That is, somebody really doing careful statistics of who comes and how long they come, and what other inter – current events that are going on in their life and in the world, and there was a very sophisticated amount of data.

“A psychologist in Hollywood read the book and got in touch with ABC Network, their Public Affairs, and wanted to convince them they should do a documentary of this, of the book, and they bought the rights to the film. Somebody at Review Studios, which is part of Universal Studios, which is a big motion picture studio, who were about to produce Fred Astaire’s “Premier Theater”, wanted to open it with this. And they had a large budget, and they wanted to do this film with the title, “People Need People”, from my article. And they got Lee Marvin as the star, he was the sergeant, Fred Astaire was the Narrator there, and Broadway actor Arthur Kennedy, who was a Broadway actor, to play me. And I was on the set all the time during the filming, together with Admiral Gaede from the Navy Department. And we had – the Navy agreed to help them, provided they gave us a final censorship of anything that got screwy. And so we did. We had a wonderful director, Alex Segal, a famous Broadway director, and every time he got an unacceptable wild idea I said, “You can’t do that, I wouldn’t do that.” For example, he wanted me to take out one of the nurses to Chinatown and have dinner with her, and then a race back with a police escort to the hospital, and some guy threatening to kill himself. And I said I wouldn’t take – I wouldn’t do that. So they gave that up. They wanted a psychotic patient to take his fist and put it through the screen of a – television screen, and I said we didn’t have television screens on a level where he could have reached it. And he said, “Oh, that doesn’t matter.” In the end they abided by what we were doing. Admiral Nimitz’s deep interest in our work gave us leverage and prestige, and he had written the part he was going to have in the film, but he got sick and couldn’t come down to Hollywood, so they said they’d have to send a camera crew to Berkeley. It was a very nice little speech, because he visited my ward, he got very interested at Oakland Naval Hospital, which was important to him from World War II. But the studios wouldn’t spend the money to send a camera crew to Berkeley, so that part never got in the film. The film was a huge success. It got five EMMY nominations. The BBC London played it here to rave reviews – I don’t remember one bad review. It was very decent and very intense – so difficult for me to watch it. It was just so real. Max always wanted to have a Hollywood production of his work, and was always trying to get me to get somebody in Hollywood that would do this, because naturally his work was just as exciting as mine. But we never could find anybody that wanted to do it, which bothered him.”

One thought on “2003: Dr. Harry Wilmer, interviewed by Craig Fees

  1. I just stumbled upon your wonderful interview with my late father from 1999. I do not recall seeing this story befor, and I enjoyed your unique insights and comments about the story of ‘People Need People’. I have fond memories as an eight year old visiting the set at Review studios in Hollywood during production and meeting so many famous (and soon to be famous) actors and production people. Thank you for this visit down memory lane.

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