In 1998, Alice Elliott received a disturbing call from Larry Selman, the remarkable man with developmental disabilities she was profiling in her Oscar-nominated short documentary, "The Collector of Bedford Street."
Selman had lived near the poverty level in a tiny apartment across the street from Elliott's Greenwich Village row house. Yet over the years, he had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for others in need, trundling down Bedford street with his dog, Happy, while soliciting for causes such as muscular dystrophy.
"I'm a collector," he'd say, looking jaunty in his red suspenders.
"He'd talk about doing mitzvahs," Elliot told the Journal. "There was a tradition of service in his family that was part of their Jewish value system."
But as the director began shooting her film in 1996, she realized Selman's situation was dire. His only caretaker, his uncle, Murray Schaul, 81, was growing more frail and forgetful. And Selman had already clashed with his co-op board over another kind of collecting: "I took the homeless people in because I was lonely," he says in the film.
Then came the distraught message he left on Elliot's answering machine in 1998. Selman -- who suffered from depression -- suggested he was tired of being a burden, so he was going off to live under the Coney Island boardwalk. An alarmed Elliot immediately phoned her neighbors for help.
Her nuanced, sensitively wrought film captures how the neighbors banded together to help Selman, raising approximately $30,000 to establish a community trust administered by United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York. An advocate assigned by the trust promptly secured him in-home care and suggested a singles group where he met his developmentally disabled girlfriend, Ellie.
Elliott says her film was partly inspired by Ira Wohl's 1980 Oscar-winner "Best Boy," another intimate portrait of a developmentally disabled man and his Jewish family in crisis.
"'The Collector of Bedford Street' is the work of a mature person and filmmaker," Wohl told the Journal. "It's a nonvoyeuristic look at an empathetic main character and a community coming together to protect him. It's very pertinent at a time when there's so little of that going on. It's an example of the filmmaker as crusader."
Selman, now 61, has been a crusader in his own way since childhood. He learned about tzedakah while growing up in a Reform Jewish home in Brooklyn, when he accompanied his developmentally disabled father to solicit funds for charities such as the Police Athletic League. He was still living with his parents in the late 1960s when he returned home one day to find his father, dead, from complications of diabetes. Four months later, his mother died of a heart attack.
On his own for the first time in his life, Selman moved to Coney Island, but was soon traumatized by the neighbors who robbed him and tricked him into giving up his dog.
"I had a nervous breakdown because I was alone," he said.
He wound up in a mental institution, where he languished for months until his Uncle Murray witnessed the Dickensian conditions and signed him out. Around 1971, Schaul moved Selman into his new apartment in Greenwich Village, where the disabled man quickly befriended everyone and became known as the "Mayor of Bedford Street."
Elliot had equally protective feelings about Selman when she began shooting her 34-minute documentary in 1996.
"Sometimes I even questioned my ability to make the film," she said. "I wondered if I was tough enough, if I'd gone after the hard questions, to get Larry to say the things that needed to be said, however dark or unappealing. There were moments when I was crying while holding the camera."
In the film, a tearful Selman places a rock on his father's tombstone -- a Jewish custom -- while a rabbi chants "El Malei Rachamim." When the ailing Happy is put to sleep, he visits his synagogue and lights a yartzeit candle.
Since the establishment of the trust and "Collector's" 2003 Oscar nomination, Selman feels less alone. He was thrilled to accompany Elliot to the Academy Awards ceremony in March. While the movie didn't win the Oscar, the attention has boosted his self-esteem.
"Now Larry knows that people all over the world will see the film and they'll value him," she says.
"The Collector of Bedford Street" airs May 14 and 27 on Cinemax and opens May 24 as part of Laemmle Theatres' "Bagels and Docs: New Jewish Documentaries" series, (310) 478-1041.