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Reliving Scenes of a Tormented Past : Mental illness: In creating TV spots about the problems of the homeless, actors draw on personal experience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bearded man appeared distraught and mentally ill as he paced near the downtown street corner. His legs trembled noticeably and as he scuffed the concrete with his worn tennis shoes, he suddenly clutched his hair and stared mournfully at the sky.

The passers-by walking warily past in downtown Los Angeles could only look puzzled as a movie camera across the street captured the performance. But this was no role-playing actor.

“An actor acts out the part,” said Roger MacNair after taking a break Friday from shooting the street scene. “But we relive the part.”

MacNair, a former lifeguard who now lives in a Westside board-and-care home, was making his television debut as a member of a group called the Project Return Players--an improvisational troupe of men and women who are recovering from mental illness, ranging from major depression to schizophrenia.

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Drawing on their own experiences, the players were portraying on film what they say they all have been: mentally ill people trying to cope in a world that sometimes ignores them and often is hostile to them.

“There is a public out there who still (believes) the myth of the mentally ill, that we are going to hurt you,” said Gail Green, who has been with Project Return for eight years. “People are either very scared of you or people don’t want to touch you because they think mental illness might be catching.”

It was in an effort to allay some of those fears that the Mental Health Assn. in Los Angeles County--which sponsors the Project Return Players--joined forces with the advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding, the public relations firm of Laufer Associates and Riverrun Films to produce the public service announcements that were being filmed Friday.

The television ads claim that 1 million mentally ill people across the country have been forced to live on the streets, in part because of a lack of public funding for clinics and other resources.

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The 30-second television spots, which are scheduled to begin airing nationwide in May, were shot on downtown streets and alleys and in Pershing Square, a favorite resting place for some of Los Angeles County’s estimated 50,000 homeless, a third of whom are thought to be mentally ill.

“If you have diabetes, people don’t walk around you on the street, but if you’re mentally ill, people think you’re a failure and if you had willpower you would hold it together. But it is a disease,” said Larry Kopald, executive vice-president of Foote, Cone & Belding.

The public relations effort is intended not only to educate the public at large about the plight of the homeless mentally ill but to sway politicians who are in a position to steer more state or local dollars into mental health programs.

As he waited for his own scene, one of the actors, David Miller, empathized with some of the onlookers on the street nearby.

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“I used to walk through Pershing Square--homeless, looking at people,” he said, “and now here I am, the homeless are looking at me.”


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