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04/21/1990 NEW DTSTRM y

"The abuse eventually was exposed by The Tampa Tribune, and then-Gov. Farris Bryant ordered an investigation that led to reforms in the early 1960s."

Have Former mental patient's story portrayed in movie Chris Calhoun, outside the hospital's main building, says the movie is 60 percent true.

BILL KACZOR Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE -- Chattahoochee, a new movie based on Chris Calhoun's efforts to reform inhumane and brutal conditions at Florida State Hospital, is helping the former mental patient fulfill a goal he set when released 28 years ago.

``I promised those who were left behind that I would let the world know what happened there,'' Calhoun said Friday.

The film, named for the Florida Panhandle town where the hospital is located, about 40 miles northwest of here, opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York and is scheduled to begin appearing in theaters nationwide May 11.

Although fictionalized, it is based on the real-life experiences of Calhoun, a Korean War veteran from Opa-locka who was suffering from what now is known as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Calhoun, 56, was committed in 1956 after he shot himself in a failed suicide attempt, and was released in 1962 after an investigation spurred by letters he wrote that were slipped out of the institution by visitors and friendly staffers.

Getting a motion picture made and a book published have been his life's goals since his release, Calhoun said in a telephone interview from Sacramento, Calif. He was there to make a fund-raising appearance for a proposed memorial and retreat he wants to build for mental patients in Farmington, Mo.

He had returned to the Panhandle on Wednesday to speak at a meeting of the Florida Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Coalition in Tallahassee and visit the hospital to have publicity pictures taken for the film.

At the coalition meeting, Calhoun urged that the aging hospital be shut down, arguing the cost of upkeep is draining dollars that could be used to build new, smaller, community based facilities around the state that he believes could provide better care.

``It's too much of a prison atmosphere,'' Calhoun said of the hospital during the interview Friday. He added that he remains in contact with some of the workers who are still at the hospital and they tell him the biggest problem now is that patients are being over medicated.

Calhoun moved to Los Angeles after his release. He did maintenance work for a theater chain in hopes he would be able to meet film industry people who would assist him in his movie and book goals.

He persuaded screenwriter James Hicks to write a script. It was turned down by several major studios before being accepted by Hemdale Flim Corp., a small British-owned, Los Angeles-based company that also produced Platoon, Hoosiers, The Last Emporer and Salvador.

Chattahoochee stars Dennis Hopper and Gary Oldman, who plays Emmitt Foley, a fictional character based on Calhoun.

``I think it's terrific,'' said Calhoun, who has seen the movie three times. ``I'd say it's 60 percent accurate, and I think that's kind of good.''

Calhoun said that while at Chattahoochee he had been raped by other patients and that staffers would encourage patients to fight with one another and then subdue them by choking them. At least seven patients died, some from the choking, while he was there, he contended.

The choking wasn't depicted in the movie, Calhoun said, adding that it probably would be too grusome for flim audiences.

The abuse eventually was exposed by The Tampa Tribune, and then-Gov. Farris Bryant ordered an investigation that led to reforms in the early 1960s.

Calhoun said only about 20 percent of the hospital's staff had been involved in the abuse and that he only recently learned conditions at Chattahoochee had been much less severe than in some other states.

He said Florida should be proud it was a leader in reforming mental institutions and that he would like to return to the state once his book is published later this year.