April 21, 2008
New film tells the real story of an unlikely UI hero
Twenty-five years ago, Iowa City and the University of Iowa lost an unlikely hero who changed how people think about disability. Now a group of friends and a local filmmaker are keeping his story alive.
A new feature-length documentary, “A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story,” recounts how Sackter went from 44-year resident of a Minnesota institution for the mentally disabled to proprietor of a small UI coffee shop to a guest at the White House, the Golden Globe Awards, and events across the country.
The documentary will debut with a June 7 world premiere at Hancher Auditorium on the UI campus. Iowa City native Lane Wyrick directed and edited the film, with original music by Peter Bloesch.
"I'd like to see Bill's story become part of culture and folklore in the disability community, the Iowa City community and far beyond," says Tom Walz, UI professor emeritus of social work, whose Extend the Dream Foundation helped organize funding for the documentary.
It's not the first time Sackter's story has been told, but it's a truer-to-life version than the TV movies "Bill" and "Bill on His Own" starring Mickey Rooney. Constructed from archival material and interviews, the new film introduces viewers to the real Bill Sackter, whom Walz describes as "a man without any dark side, whose warmth and support infected us all."
Born in 1913, Sackter was labeled a slow learner and institutionalized at age 7. Released to a halfway house decades later, he met Barry Morrow, a Minneapolis college student who eventually became Sackter's guardian. When Morrow accepted a job at the UI School of Social Work, he brought Sackter to Iowa City along with Morrow's wife, Bev, and their two small children.
Then director of the social work program, Walz initially hired Sackter as a handyman. But Sackter found his calling once he started making and selling coffee to students and faculty, often treating them to tunes on his prized harmonica. The enterprise became known as Wild Bill's Coffeehouse.
In 1976, Sackter was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year, and his story began to spread. President Jimmy Carter invited him to Washington, D.C., in 1979, and the TV movies -- based on stories by Morrow, who went on to work as an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and producer -- soon followed. Sackter died in his sleep in 1983.
"I never met Bill, but I got to know him working on this film," says Wyrick, who began researching and raising funds for project in 2001. He'd seen the original "Bill" movie, but discovered that Rooney's portrayal didn't represent the real man.
Wyrick met Morrow while screening his film "The Nazi Drawings" -- which examines works by the artist and UI professor emeritus Mauricio Lasansky -- in Los Angeles. Morrow had long hoped to see a documentary about Sackter, and he encouraged Wyrick to take on the project.
In fact, Morrow had approached Wyrick's father, Darrell Wyrick, then president of the University of Iowa Foundation, about funding a Sackter documentary in the 1970s. The project instead became the "Bill" movies, leaving Morrow's collection of Sackter film footage, video and audiotape, and still photographs largely unseen.
This material comprises much of "A Friend Indeed," which also features recollections from Morrow, Walz and others, including Jeffrey Portman, rabbi of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City. The resulting story is at once funny and moving, nostalgic and timeless, local and universal.
Sackter's work lives on in Wild Bill's Coffeeshop and Uptown Bill's Small Mall, a small business and community center staffed by people with disabilities. Walz hopes the documentary furthers the Sackter legacy by introducing new generations to a unique man who never realized his ability to inspire others.
"Bill was a remarkably spiritually developed human being, totally unassuming, totally unaware of it, which made it beautiful," Walz says.
Tickets for the premiere of "A Friend Indeed" are $10 and may be purchased from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Box office business hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER.
People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology. Tickets also may be ordered online at http://www.hancher.uiowa.edu.
For more information about the film "A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story," visit http://www.billsackter.com. Publicity photos are available from Lan Wyrick, Xap Interactive Inc., 319-351-9379, firstname.lastname@example.org
STORY SOURCE: Office of University Relations, the University of Iowa, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 370, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACTS: Tom Walz, Extend the Dream Foundation/Uptown Bill's Small Mall, 319-339-0401, email@example.com; Lane Wyrick, Xap Interactive Inc., 319-351-9379, firstname.lastname@example.org; Writer: Lin Larson.