January 21, 1997 in Features

Presidential Passion Clinton Was More Than Willing To Take Part In Movie About Family’s Struggle With Terminal Illness

Susan King Los Angeles Times
 

The executive producer of the CBS movie “A Child’s Wish” reports that President Clinton was “nearly flawless” while shooting his scenes for the film, which airs tonight at 9.

“The reason is that he cared deeply about the issue,” Lawrence Horowitz says. “This is a re-enactment of something that happened. So if you believe in something and you lived it, it’s not really acting. He was quite extraordinary. We did three separate camera setups and a total of eight takes. He didn’t make a flub.”

“A Child’s Wish,” which stars John Ritter, Tess Harper and Anna Chlumsky, is inspired by two real families whose lives were affected by the Family and Medical Leave Act - the first law signed by Clinton during his first term, in February 1993.

The law requires companies with more than 50 employees to give workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for family illness, childbirth or adoption while continuing their insurance benefits and guaranteeing to give them their jobs back.

In the film, Chlumsky plays Missy, a bright high school student who is battling cancer. Ritter portrays her father, Ed, who is fired from his job as a car salesman because his boss thinks he’s taking too much time off to help care for Missy. When a senator learns of the family’s predicament, Ed testifies to help persuade Congress to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Unfortunately, Missy’s condition becomes terminal. Ed contacts the Make-a-Wish Foundation to see if it can help Missy achieve her ultimate dream: to meet the president of the United States.

For Kenny Weaver, who lives south of Houston with his wife and two young daughters, watching “A Child’s Wish” was a “pretty emotional type of deal.” His is one of the families on which the film was based.

Weaver’s daughter Melissa died of cancer three years ago, but before the 11-year-old lost her fight with the disease, she got to meet Clinton through the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“It was the last week in September 1993,” says Weaver, who works as an instrument electrical supervisor at a chemical plant.

“She was going downhill fast,” Weaver says softly. “It was pretty much (a case of) nothing else they could do. The Make-a-Wish people from Houston had come down and said they had arranged a trip to Washington, but it was still kind of iffy if she was able to meet the president because of his schedule.”

But on the final day of their visit, Melissa and her parents were invited to the White House. “It was pretty neat,” Weaver recalls. “He had been out jogging and he was still in his jogging shorts and red-faced. He came down the hall and was a highly compassionate person, believe me. He just knelt down and took her hand and said, ‘I am really glad you’ve come to see me.’

“That was the last time she ever smiled. She was in so much pain. She died the following Saturday.”

Horowitz and his producing partner, Michael O’Hara, had no difficulty enlisting the president to participate in the film version. In fact, during a fund-raising dinner in 1995, members of Clinton’s administration brought up the idea of making a movie based on the dramatic stories they heard while taking testimony for the proposed Family and Medical Leave Act.

“I said, ‘I will be happy to look at (the stories) and make the movie if you can get the president to play the actual role he played in the lives of the people you are talking about,” Horowitz recalls. “They did, and we did. I’m not a historian, but they tell us this is the first time any feature has been allowed to film in the real Oval Office as opposed to a stage somewhere.”

The producers waited five months for the president and his office to become available for the shoot. “We had to have the Oval Office for enough hours to light it, film it, disassemble everything and disappear,” Horowitz says.

“We had to do everything through the Secret Service … get everything checked and cleared. We needed a six-hour block of the Oval Office’s time and, quite appropriately, we were not on the top of the list. We were very patient.”

The producers were also very patient for “A Child’s Wish” to air. Though it was shot last spring, CBS chose not to broadcast it until after the November elections because it would have called for granting equal air time to Clinton’s Republican opponent, Bob Dole. Horowitz says it was the network’s decision to premiere the film the same week as Clinton’s inauguration.

Unlike the father in the movie, Weaver didn’t lose his job during his daughter’s illness; that was based on another family’s experience. “The people I worked for were great,” Weaver says. “They were just real cooperative.”

But he did use the Family Leave and Medical Act to take five weeks off from work when Melissa’s condition turned worse. “It’s all I ever used out of it,” he says. “I took a week off after she died to kind of get my act together.”

He says he hopes the movie sheds light on what “families do have to go through during a time like that. A lot of people take stuff for granted. And the part about the Family and Medical Leave Act - it’s there for everybody to use in a time like that, and then the thing about Make-a-Wish, that’s a great organization. They did a wonderful job.”

Horowitz acknowledges that a lot of employers are still not thrilled with the legislation’s financial burden, which President Bush also cited when he vetoed the act.

“But in terms of public satisfaction with the legislation, you saw how Clinton used this in the campaign as one of his proudest achievements,” he says. “It has been in effect now and it has not undermined our economy. All the arguments that the sky is falling - the sky is still up there and it looks pretty blue.”


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