March 30, 2020

Films: Director examines healing from surgery, grief

Seated at his office in Beverly Hills, Ben Mittleman, 57, doesn’t have a trace of gray in his sandy-brown hair. He says his mother used to kid him that he must have had a “facelift or something,” but despite the fact that this veteran TV actor turned director-producer looks 10 years younger than his age, he underwent heart surgery in 2001.

That experience is the subject of “Dying to Live,” along with his response to the cancers that later took the lives of both his mother and his wife, Valerie. The film premieres Thursday, March 13, at Laemmle’s Music Hall, where it will screen for two weeks.

The twin cancer diagnoses occurred right around the time that Mittleman had his heart surgery, forcing him to endure almost unbearable grief, and he worked through the experience through this film, not unlike Joan Didion, who wrote the prize-winning book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” to help her to make sense of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. He died from a sudden heart attack, as their daughter was in the hospital in a coma.

Just as Didion’s marriage to Dunne was famously close, Mittleman shows in “Dying to Live” just how sublime his romance was with Valerie, whose lithe dancing in the film illustrates the free spirit he loved.

“Dying to Live” is Mittleman’s second directorial effort, following a 2004 video, “The Youngest Guns,” about L.A. Clipper players Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles. In this new documentary, Mittleman turns the camera on himself and reveals extremely private moments, including sessions with his doctors and even his therapist.

After Valerie dies, Mittleman honors her by scattering her ashes in Los Angeles, England and in Israel at the Mount of Olives. The once-hulking, 6-foot-2, 200-pound former athlete, whose TV credits include appearances on “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “Dynasty,” cries often in the documentary.

Mittleman became a stage actor in the early 1970s, shortly after his father’s death from heart disease. On the stage, he says, he learned that “theater could be a vehicle for social change, “which resonated with him, particularly because his mother, “a prefeminist feminist,” as he says in the film, had always been an activist. Later in 1988, Mittleman founded an organization called Action for Kids, dedicated to creating educational programming for children.

In a corner of his office, Mittleman has a poster of Captain America, whom he portrayed in a drug abuse program he produced in conjunction with the FBI. Mittleman also developed programs with the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations, to raise awareness about the environment and to foster racial tolerance.

Mittleman, who often drops Hebrew words into conversation, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, and Jewish influences infuse his film. He begins “Dying to Live” by singing “Letichala Riba,” a Chasidic niggun (tune) that he says is about soaring over adversity. Then he shows photos and home movies of his family at Jones Beach and Rockaway.

Later in the film, he visits the grave of his father, bowing and praying while robed in a tallit and kippah. A scene of him wrapping tefillin mirrors hospital scenes in which he has tubes coiling out of his body.

Mittleman says he never told his mother about his surgery for fear it would have consumed her. Near the end of the film, she tells him that the secrets to life lie in music and humor and from giving and receiving love. Mittleman’s father, a violinist, played professionally and constantly entertained his family at home. As an homage to his father, Mittleman says, he included the music of Jascha Heifetz and Pablo Casals and other classical musicians in the film.

Although he has not acted since his operation, Mittleman says that he would like to perform Shakespeare again. He played Barnardo and Marcellus, two guards in the opening scene in “Hamlet,” but never played the Danish prince.

“You always see yourself as Hamlet,” he says, smiling, and in the film he recites one of Hamlet’s soliloquies while standing on a rooftop, just days before his surgery.

Mittleman says he has an idea about doing a documentary in Europe. He stands up from his desk and picks up framed photos of Valerie, his mother and Catherine, the new woman in his life, a Belgian expatriate living in Paris.

Although he often cites the adage, “Man makes plans, and God laughs,” Mittleman says he is thinking of moving to France to be with her. He is likely to do so, one can gather not only from “Dying to Live” but also from a note on a board in the office adjoining Mittleman’s. Written in magic marker, it reads, “Capture your precious moments now.”

“Dying to Live” will open at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Thursday, March 13, where it will screen for two weeks. For more information, visit