William H. Compton Jr., 61; was an advocate for the mentally ill

Times Staff Writer

The stage was a street in Los Angeles and William H. Compton Jr. was just one of a cast of many homeless people whose lives were twisted and marred by mental illness -- until he rewrote his script.

In the revised version, schizophrenia was not a deep abyss from which there was no return. Compton, an avid theater lover before the illness, fought for recovery and went on to become a nationally renowned advocate for those with mental illness.

Compton died of liver cancer Monday at a hospital in Anaheim. He was 61.


The philosophy he helped promote -- that mentally ill people must be active players in efforts to assist them -- has influenced public policy and aided thousands in their bids to make the kind of turnaround he made.

“Above all, he was a marvelous ambassador to the public, vividly demonstrating the humanity of people with mental illness; his life of advocacy and service admirably exemplified the very triumph of resilience and recovery,” Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola said in a resolution released by Mental Health America, a nonprofit group that promotes mental wellness and on whose board Compton sat.

In 1994 Compton became director of Project Return: The Next Step, the same Los Angeles County-based self-help program that aided him with his recovery. The organization, which is run by and for people with mental illness, provides social services and support needed to rebuild lives. As director, Compton built the organization from a network of 30 peer-support groups to more than 100, said Richard Van Horn of the National Mental Health Assn. of Greater Los Angeles.

“He was supremely effective as an advocate because he did care deeply and he had been through hell,” Van Horn said.

Because Compton loved theater, he regularly organized trips to productions with clients and colleagues. In 2005, Compton’s love of the stage and advocacy for the mentally ill intersected. He wrote and performed a moving one-man play, “Stuck Out There or The Week That I Went Crazy,” which he performed at conferences and schools, said Jaque Lynn Colton, an actress who directed Compton in the production.

“It was funny, sad and frightening,” Colton said. “And people just went through the whole experience with him.”


Born Oct. 6, 1945, in Rockford, Ill., Compton spent his teenage years at a military boarding school in West Virginia. During the 1960s he became a vocal antiwar activist. But theater was his passion.

Compton earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at the University of Akron in 1969. In the years that followed, his passion took him to New York, Boston and eventually Los Angeles. He tried his hand at acting, producing plays and entrepreneurship -- in Boston in the 1970s he ran a then-innovative business that allowed theater-goers to purchase tickets by phone using a credit card, said his brother Jeffrey Compton, who survives him.

Compton is also survived by his father, William H. Compton of Cleveland; adopted son Edward Ellis Compton of Los Angeles; and a cousin, Barbara Leland of San Dimas.

In 1986 Compton earned a master’s degree in theater arts from the University of Akron. By 1989 Compton was in his early 40s, living in Los Angeles and working as a ticket salesman for a local theater. During one tough spell, Compton began using crystal methamphetamine, which may have contributed to the late onset of mental illness, Jeffrey Compton said.

The family tried to assist by having Compton placed in a conservatorship, to ensure treatment, and hospitalizing him. But Compton walked away from the help and spent nine months living on the streets. In the early 1990s he eventually made his way to a hospital waiting room, the first step on the road to recovery.

“From the day we got that phone call, my brother took care of his own recovery, ran his own finances, put his life back together and included his family in the victories,” Jeffrey Compton said. “Basically that was his show. . . . I was just amazed at the change.”

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 at First Congregational Church of Long Beach, 241 Cedar Ave., Long Beach.