Hollywood actor Ben Mittleman has turned the camera on himself in the real-life documentary Dying to Live. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the filmmaker about illness, loss and grieving, and what they have taught him.
In 1999, Ben Mittleman's doctor told him he needed surgery to correct a faulty heart valve. The news shook the actor-turned-documentary filmmaker.
"It was something that I had witnessed with my dad when I was boy, and I had to have the same heart surgery that he was going to have," he recalled. "And I thought it was going to be a six-week story, literally, that I would have the heart surgery and it would be overcoming that. And there's that saying that man makes plans and God laughs, and that's exactly what happened."
Mittleman has played in many films and television shows, appearing in Cheers, Frasier, and LA Law. He says that his best acting has involved stories that relate to his own life, and he realized that he was about to experience something profound. So he recorded his experience on a handheld digital camera.
Family problems kept him from completing the film for a number of years.
His mother had recurring cancer. His aunt, with whom he was close, was in failing health. His girlfriend and later wife, a woman named Valerie, was ill with lung cancer. Her longtime employee and friend succumbed to dementia and cancer.
Mittleman decided to weave the stories together, blending home movies and photos with the footage surrounding his heart surgery. The result is a film about illness, life, death and grieving.
"These are the inevitable issues of life," he added. "And nobody really likes to talk about them. Nobody likes to discuss loss, and their own mortality, and the difficulties and the challenges of end-of-life circumstances."
He says the film strikes a chord with the generation of baby boomers, people born after World War II, who are now in their 50s and early 60s. He says they are dealing with aging parents, as he did in the film.
"And also, I didn't realize there was as big an audience with seniors," he explained. "But seniors have seen the film and I was amazed to hear them say, we related so strongly to your mother and to your aunt, and you have to realize, we have children your age. And we don't understand the challenges that they're going through in their lives as well."
The documentary looks at one man and the people close to him in their distinct circumstances, but Mittleman says it speaks to others in different situations. A friend brought her 16-year-old daughter to a Los Angeles screening. In a panel discussion afterwards, the girl said the film moved her. She later told her mother just how much.
"The next day, I got a phone call from her mother, who said that when they got out of the screening, her daughter threw her arms around her, and she said, you know mom, you can always count on me," he recalled. "I'm always going to be there for you. I love you so much."
Mittleman says he has come to realize that people need the same kind of nurturing at the end of their lives that they got at the beginning.
"When babies are brought into the world, we give mothers and fathers maternity leave to help, to be there so they can bond with their children at that time," he explained. "And at the end of life as well, I think we need to have time to be with our loved ones as they make their transitions out of the world. No one should be afraid at the end of their life."
He says at some points in the film, the images are stark and the emotions are raw, but the film has a positive theme and shows the vibrancy and humor of the people around him.