The Real Story Behind 'The Soloist' The friendship between Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician, has inspired newspaper columns, a book and now a movie. In 2008, Lopez joined Fresh Air to describe his friendship with Ayers.
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The Real Story Behind 'The Soloist'

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The Real Story Behind 'The Soloist'

The Real Story Behind 'The Soloist'

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From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Nathaniel Ayers was a homeless man, playing a violin with two strings when Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez first encountered him. Turned out Ayers was a student at the Julliard school years ago, before schizophrenia wrecked his promising music career.

Lopez wrote about Ayers in his column and in his book, "The Soloist," which has been adapted into a new film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. It opens today.

On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with Steve Lopez about his life-changing friendship with Ayers and his efforts to understand his illness and get him off the streets and into treatment, and film critic David Edelstein reviews "Tyson," the new documentary about former world boxing champ Mike Tyson by James Toback. That's all coming up on FRESH AIR. First the news.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

The film, "The Soloist," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx opens today. It's based on a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about his relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a man whose schizophrenia cost him a promising music career and left him homeless for years.

Lopez' encounter with Ayers on a Los Angeles street, led not just to a column, but a life-changing friendship as Lopez struggled to understand Ayers' mental illness and get him into treatment and off the streets.

In this scene from the film, Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., is arguing with a social worker, played by Nelsan Ellis, about how to help Nathaniel Ayers.

(Soundbite of film, "The Soloist")

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (As Steve Lopez) I want you to help him because he's sick, and he needs medication, and you have a team of doctors here. Tell him to sit down with them. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?

Mr. NELSAN ELLIS (Actor): (As David) Look, even if I did want to co-horse Nathaniel into psychiatry…

Mr. DOWNEY: Coerce.

Mr. ELLIS: Whatever.

Mr. DOWNEY: Coerce.

Mr. ELLIS: If I wanted to do that, which I don't, I couldn't force him to take medication. The law is the law. Unless he's an imminent danger to himself or someone else…

Mr. DOWNEY: What if someone said he was? What if someone dialed 911, saying that (unintelligible), they'd put him in a psychiatric hospital?

Mr. ELLIS: I know you're not thinking about…

Mr. DOWNEY: Wouldn't they? And then he would be in a 14-day psychiatric hold. They'd put him on meds, straightaway. What if that's all it took for him to be well? What if two weeks of meds, a two-week window into what his life could be, changed his life, saved his life? Why wouldn't you want to be part of that?

Mr. ELLIS: Nathaniel has one thing going for him right now, a friend. If you betray that friendship, you destroy the only thing he has in this world.

Mr. DOWNEY: I don't want to be his only thing.

DAVIES: Steve Lopez has written three novels and award-winning pieces for four newspapers and several national magazines. In his Points West column in the LA Times, Lopez regularly eviscerates politicians, tells stories of ordinary Los Angelinos and illuminates trends and issues in Southern California.

I spoke to Steve Lopez last April, when the book "The Soloist" was first published and while the movie, which opens today, was still in production.

So Steve Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, as a columnist in Los Angeles, I mean, I'm sure you've met lots of homeless people. What made Nathaniel Ayers particularly interesting to you?

Mr. STEVE LOPEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): I was walking through downtown Los Angeles, actually looking for something else, and spotted this gentleman, you know, a little over 50 years old, playing a violin. And it's the violin, first of all, that made me turn my head. And then I noticed that he was wearing rags, and there was a shopping cart next to him.

And as I got closer, I realized a couple of things. First of all, that the music was really pretty good and suggested there had been some formal training. And the other thing I noticed is that the violin had only two strings.

So the natural first question is: Hey, Mister, that sounds pretty good, but are you aware that a violin has four strings? And I had to wait for him to break. He was very much involved in the piece that he was playing. I'm not sure what it was, and I knew very little about classical music. But what I heard I thought was quite beautiful - a little scratchy and maybe a little bit broken up - but the whole thing was just intriguing, and I wanted to know more, and I was thinking maybe there's a column in this guy's story, whatever it might be.

So that's how it began. And I waited for that break, and I introduced myself, and I said it sounded pretty good. And he jumped back, frightened, and I tried to calm him a bit, but he was very skeptical - and what were my motives, and he didn't want to talk too much.

And I just told him in that first encounter, that I thought it sounded good, and maybe I'd come back and talk to him about it another time. It was clear that he was not comfortable with me.

So I left, and I went back, and I kept it in mind as a possible column to return to - but that was the first contact.

DAVIES: And at some point, you went, and you noticed some names he had scrawled on the pavement next to where he was standing. And that's a fascinating little nugget, isn't it? Don't(ph) tell us the names, and what they meant.

Mr. LOPEZ: Okay, well this was maybe the fourth, fifth, sixth visit, I can't remember. He had moved to another location. Another thing that intrigued me about that first location, though, I asked him, when he warmed up a bit, why do you practice right here, and he pointed across the street, and he said because of that - because of the Beethoven statue.

And I didn't - I had never recognized the Beethoven statue in the middle of Pershing Square, which is a little park in the center of downtown Los Angeles. And I said that's Beethoven. And he said yes. Somebody put it here. I don't know who did, but it was brilliant. It was inspired. And I come here to play near him so that I can keep an eye on him for inspiration.

So then I spot him, I don't know if it's a couple weeks later, maybe three weeks later, playing a few blocks from there. And by this time, he was not startled when I arrived on the scene. And he was down on his knees, scrawling names on the sidewalk, I had noticed. And I asked, who are these names? It's you know, Betty, and John, and Sally, and Robert - whatever the names were, and he said, oh those were my classmates at Julliard.

It just stopped me. And I said Julliard, you mean The Julliard School for the Performing Arts in New York City? And he said, yeah, in a very nonchalant way. And I said, you were a student there? And he said, oh yeah, that was a long time ago.

And I asked him a little bit about it, and he was, you know, quite modest about it, and it didn't seem like it was such a big deal to him. To me it was. I ran back to my office, and I got on the phone to call Julliard and see if indeed this guy playing a two-stringed violin in downtown Los Angeles had been a student there.

And I got a call from Julliard the next day, saying they did have a Nathaniel Anthony Ayers as a student at Julliard in the late '60s and early '70s.

DAVIES: Maybe to give us a little bit more of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers was like, because here's a guy who clearly had enormous musical talent and had been at the Julliard School, and had gone on a long, difficult journey since, and obviously was lucid in some respects…

There's a moment at which you describe some of the monologues that he would, you know, he would deliver. Could you - maybe you could read a little bit of that for us.

Mr. LOPEZ: Sure, and to give you a picture, Nathaniel, you know, his clothes are kind of soiled and rumpled, but there's some order to it - as if he's conscious of his appearance and is concerned about it. He would comb his hair and part it neatly.

So he was trying to maintain some dignity, it seemed. And you know, I didn't know what to make of what was going on in his head, but every once in a while, he would say something that I'd just stand back and say, oh wow - and you know, here's one of the passages that might help illustrate that.

Los Angeles is sloped downhill like a valley. Santa Monica Mountains, downtown Los Angeles, Honolulu. I haven't seen the ocean in Los Angeles. There's supposed to be an ocean, the Pacific, but this is not ocean terrain in the downtown area.

You don't see the military statues like you have in Cleveland, where those are the leaders of the city, and they have their army all over town, with lots of horses.

Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams - those are armies, too, military regimentation, experimentation. With Mr. Roman Gabriel, the quarterback, Roman, Romans, Roman Empire, Colonel Sanders - Mr. Roman Gabriel designing a play in his dreams.

Look, there go all the wide receivers, down the street. This little guy here is the quarterback of the orchestra. This violin, which I purchased some years back at Motter's Music in Cleveland, Ohio. A cello can back this guy up with the same moves, but the cello is not the concert master.

It's this youngster here that leads the way - Itzhak Perlman, Jascha Heifetz. They're like gods to me. I wish I had that talent. But if I practice for the next 10,000 years, I could never be that good. In Cleveland, you cannot play music in winter because of the snow and ice, and that's why I prefer Los Angeles, the Beethoven city, where you have this sunshine, and if it rains, you can go into the tunnel and play to your heart's content.

I am absolutely flabbergasted by that statue. It knocks me out that someone as great as Beethoven is the leader of Los Angeles. Do you have any idea who put him there?

DAVIES: So there's a little bit of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers, the man who played the violin on two strings, sounded like at moments.

So you wrote this column and got enormous reader reaction. Now, you've gotten enormous reader reaction before, and it could have been a story that ended there. Why didn't it?

Mr. LOPEZ: Along with the reaction, I had the donation of instruments. I believe there were six violins donated after the first column. There was a cello donated. Later came another cello donation. A woman donated a piano, and I eagerly rushed out the street to deliver some of them to Nathaniel, who could not believe this.

I'm not sure that he really understood what was up. I mean, he connects in some ways and in other ways isn't sure what's going on. So I'm delivering these instruments to him, and he is gladly taking them off my hands, and I am struck by the problem I have created for myself.

Here's a guy who lives on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, and as far as I could gather at that point, wandered over several blocks at night to sleep on Skid Row, which is an unbelievable place where a few thousand people, at that time, bedded down on the pavement every night. And there were some sick people, and some scared people, and some predators - and I was now handing over three violins and a cello to this guy.

And I thought, he is going to get killed. So that's what got me beyond the first column, thinking, I've got to not just write about this guy, I've got to try to solve his problem. I've got to get him off the streets or he's going to be beaten up for these instruments.

So I tried to negotiate a deal in which I kept the instruments and delivered to him by day so that he could play with them, and he just was not happy with that. And very early on, I got hold of a mental-health agency, and they had come out, and they took a look at him, and they said it's hard to talk somebody in who's resistant and has been out there this long.

And I said, well how about if you guys keep the instruments, and I'll tell him that if he wants to play the cello or the violin, he's got to go over to LAMP Community on Skid Row, and maybe that'll be a way to make the connection that gets him started going there, and maybe he can get the help that he needs.

DAVIES: And he eventually showed up and played them there, but I gather managed to sneak away with them and then take them back with him to his life on the streets.

Mr. LOPEZ: I thought he would never go, and I was just so frustrated, and I thought well, maybe I've done all I can do for this guy. And then I got a call one day from somebody at lamp, saying guess what? Guess who's giving a free concert in the courtyard at LAMP Community on San Julian Street.

And I said oh my God, is he still there? I have to see this. And I raced over, and indeed there he was, and he had a little audience, and he was playing. And it just felt so good to see that he was in a safe place where there were professionals who might give him some help. And I watched, and then I left.

And I heard back later, that when he left, he tried to steal the instruments. He tried to walk away with them and somebody caught him. And the next time he went back, he pulled it off. He went, he played the instruments, and when nobody was looking, he left with - I think it was a violin and a cello. And now I really had a problem.

I had a guy out on Skid Row with a brand new violin and a brand new cello, and this is a place where the sirens never stop. It's one of the highest crime areas in the city of Los Angeles, and there are some desperate people, and there are some sick people, and I was just worried sick.

When my phone rang at night at home, I thought surely it was the police calling or the hospital, saying there's some guy here who's beaten up pretty badly, and he says he knows you.

DAVIES: LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: My guest is LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. His friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic street musician, is told in his book, "The Soloist," which is now a movie, opening today.

One of the interesting things that you did was to go and spend a night with him where he slept, which is not the tunnel where he played. Describe that experience.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes, in the evening, he moved off of sort of the business district of downtown Los Angeles to Skid Row, and he stayed at a place that was very near a shelter, where if you needed to use the bathroom or get a meal, he could go in there.

And I thought, you know, I know him in a safe place by day, and I wonder what his life is like at night, and I need to spend a night with him. He thought this was the strangest thing that he'd ever heard, that this guy, this columnist, wanted to go and spend a night on the pavement with him.

And what I saw that night was extraordinary. He first of all cleared a space on a street that had, as I recall, a few dozen people were going to camp out there for the night.

And one of the interesting things that I was writing about here, as I did follow-up columns, is that this is about three blocks from city hall in Los Angeles. It's about four or five blocks from a glittering skyline that looks like a profit chart, and here are all of these people, as if they've been shoved off into this human landfill like a modern-day leper colony or something. And here I go to spend the night with him, and he begins by going to his spot. You know, some people with schizophrenia can be creatures of habit, and this was his spot, and this was his world, and he was sticking with it. And he would begin by crunching with his heel, all of the cockroaches, and scattering them, kicking them off into the curb.

And then he would go through his shopping cart, which was just packed with all of these things, including the instruments. And I would often try to help him, either load or unload the basket, and he would always tell me - please don't, I know where everything goes.

I later learned - because I consulted with a psychiatrist by the name of Mark Regan(ph) throughout this entire thing - that a schizophrenic can't control much. They're bombarded, constantly, with images - audio and visual. They control what they can, and a shopping cart is something he could control.

He can compartmentalize his life. And that's what he had, everything set up the way he wanted, with him in control on that cart. So he takes out the cardboard. He puts it down on the pavement. He brings out the blankets, the pillows, and is setting up his bedding; and gets his violin case, puts a blanket over that, that's going to be his pillow; and stands up on the curb and begins reciting Shakespeare.

I had never heard this from him before, although with every visit, I was surprised all over again by this man. He's reciting the Hamlet soliloquy.

DAVIES: And how did his fellow Skid Row residents react?

Mr. LOPEZ: They looked and, you know, you see a little bit of everything on Skid Row, and they kind of shrugged it off, and gee, he must be crazy. And it was this perfect - it sounded like Richard Burton had gotten up from this cardboard bed and is standing there with a great Shakespearean accent and then gets back down on his bedding and looks up in the window and says Mr. Lopez, do you think about writers the way I think about musicians?

And I said I do, Nathaniel. I do think about writers. I don't think that I'm as good a writer as you are a musician, and I like hearing you talk about it. And he looks up into a window and sees people living in these nearby buildings, and he said, you know, Beethoven was up in a window like that and Mozart - they lived and breathed as we do. And he said I'm just inspired to know that they created what they did. Do you find inspiration in that?

He would say things to me like this, that I - my jaw would drop, and the grace of this man and the humility. And one of the things that struck me was that there was never any expression of any regret.

This was a man whose career was ascendant. He was 20, 21, and through no fault of his own was struck down by this unlucky blow, and his career went off a cliff. And here he was, happy each day to find some time to play, and content to be out here, bedding down where he could look up into the windows and imagine a Beethoven symphony as he was falling asleep.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I know that you did was you managed to introduce him to some musicians from the Los Angeles Symphony. I mean, initially at a rehearsal, right? Was that a critical step for him?

Mr. LOPEZ: It was indeed. You know, I had - people were rooting for Nathaniel, and they were rooting for me to be able to help him and to figure out what I needed to do. And through this series of columns, people were staying, you know, on top of the story, and I'd hear from them: What's the latest?

Well, the latest was that somebody up at Disney Hall, the big concert hall in downtown Los Angeles, said why don't you bring him to a concert? But I don't know about this. I don't know about bringing him, in his condition, into a concert hall. I still am not sure what I'm going to get when I'm with him and what kind of behavior we can expect.

So when I went to get Nathaniel on the big day, I thought maybe if I work through the music, that's the way to get to his mind and his soul. That's his passion.

So on the day when I went to get him on Skid Row, my heart fell. He was in a foul mood. He was arguing and bickering. He was foul and belligerent, and he said he didn't want to go.

And at this point, we're six months into this, and to be honest, I'm pretty tired, and the ups and downs are endless. And I said, Nathaniel, I think this is a great opportunity, but if you don't want to do it for yourself, will you do me a favor? I've invested a lot of time. Will you do this for me?

And he looked at me, and he said okay, let's go. On the way up the hill to Disney Hall - this is a trip of about 10 or 12 blocks - when Disney Hall comes into view, he begins to calm down. And I said you know, now that you've gotten me interest in classical music, and you've been giving me an education, I'm going to be going in a couple weeks to see Itzhak Perlman with the National Symphony.

And he says oh my God, Itzhak Perlman. He's molten lava on violin. And this is the man who, 10 minutes earlier, had been talking about cockroaches and greyhounds and using slurs and belligerent language, and now he's calming down.

And we get up to Disney Hall, and he runs his hand across the performance board, and he looks at names like Beethoven and Mozart, and he looks like he's just in awe.

And we go in and meet Adam Crane, the publicist, and I still don't know what to expect. And Mr. Ayers, when he stepped into that hall, he said he probably hadn't been in a music hall for 10,000 years, but it felt good to be back in one.

And he immediately struck up a conversation with Adam about composers, about conductors, about music. It was all way over my head, and I just kind of stood back like a proud parent. And Mr. Crane, the publicist, introduced him to a couple of musicians.

One was a cellist by the name of Peter Snyder. Another was a cellist named Ben Hong. And Mr. Ayers spoke to them about music and about common acquaintances, and things going all the way back to his days at Julliard. And they were just delighted by this man, and they thought he's so charming, and he's so witty, and look at him. I mean, he clearly was a man of the streets.

He said he had injured his right hand in a fight, and it was wrapped in a rag. And so here was this raggedy guy who brought such refinement up to the hall, and they were all fascinated by him. And when they were done with the rehearsal, I realized that Nathaniel had had his violin with him the whole time, and it was so common that I didn't even take notice.

And when the orchestra left the stage, Mr. Ayers opened the violin, and we walked up there behind the performance area, and he pulled it out, and he started to play.

That moment, that moment was just one of the great moments of my career, of my life, to see this man who was back home.

DAVIES: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. He'll be back in the second half of the show. "The Soloist," the film based on his book about Nathaniel Ayers, opens today. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

We're listening to my interview recorded last year with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. His book "The Soloist" about his friendship with a street musician suffering from schizophrenia is now a film, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. The film opens today. Moving this - the story forward a bit, I mean you, his re-acquaintance with music through your introducing him to musicians progressed, and eventually he saw a full concert and you introduced him to Yo-Yo Ma.

And he had the thrill of being among musicians again. And you managed to get an apartment for him at this facility - the Lamp Community. But he wouldn't stay there for a long time, right?

Mr. LOPEZ: Well he was willing to. It was hard to get him in there and again I used little tricks. Peter Snyder, that cellist from the orchestra, agreed to give him lessons. And I said Nathaniel thus we've got Mr. Snyder who wants to give you lessons. Here is a great opportunity. And by this point, LAMP Community's mental health folks thought that he was advanced enough that he could move into an apartment. And this is an apartment in what's called permanent supportive housing.

All of the services you needed there - psychiatric counseling and job training, and you get hooked up with your social security and all of that. And Nathaniel was resisting, didn't want a place to stay. And I said well, here's the deal. Mr. Snyder needs a quiet place to conduct this lesson. And there's no room up at Disney Hall for him to do this. And he's asked if we could do this in your apartment. And he said I don't have an apartment. And I said yes, you have - you have this space that they're holding for you.

So that was how we got him in there, finally. And we held the - we held the first lesson there. And Mr. Snyder was great, and he looked at him and heard him play, and said, oh my God, this guy - he said I know of musicians who - who - who play that well but not without years of training. And Nathaniel, when he was done with the lesson, said okay that's great, but I'm not staying in here. I prefer being in the tunnels. And Mr. Snyder said well, why don't you think of this as your new tunnel.

And Nathaniel just wasn't buying it. So it was still quite a while after that, and we got to where I was really concerned about - his behavior seemed to be a problem, and he was taunting people and I was worried that he was going to get into some trouble out there. And one night I couldn't find him in his regular spot on the street. And I was desperate. I went out and drove around, looking all over downtown for him, and had a fitful night sleep and woke up the next day, and called LAMP to see if anybody had seen or heard from him.

And Stewart Robinson - one of the directors there - said yeah, he's right here. And I said, oh my God what a relief. Do you know - do you happen to know where he spent a night because he was not out on the street? And he said yeah, I do know. He slept in the apartment. And I went down to see him and he said yeah, it was - it was fine. He said, you know, I really worried when I spent my first night there, that I wouldn't be able to hear any noise. But he said, you know, I could hear the sirens all the night. I could hear the helicopters and the faucet was dripping. It was great.

DAVIES: And that was comforting to him, yeah. At one point one of the other residents in this LAMP Community, people who had, you know, many of them schizophrenia and many of them who had been homeless, came to you and said in a very tough and challenging way, when are you going to tell the real story? When are you going to write the real story about your friend Nathaniel? What did he mean?

Mr. LOPEZ: What he meant was that Nathaniel was not always, as I - as I have said, the refined genteel man of music and poetry. There's - there was always, lurking just beneath the surface, this other guy who lives inside of him. And it's an angry, resentful, paranoid guy who thinks that people are stealing things from him; and who thinks that they're out to get him; and that he's got to defend himself. And it can be very intimidating.

DAVIES: And you had one terrible experience with him yourself, and this was when, you know, you got to know his family a bit. His sister, you - you connected with, and there came to be a legal issue, right, where you wanted to have her have some legal authority. And he regarded this with the sort of paranoid rage that you had seen in others. And you had this really disturbing exchange, if you could describe that?

Mr. LOPEZ: His sister, Jennifer, from Atlanta, was coming to Los Angeles for a court hearing, at which she was going to be named his conservator, to handle his, his financial matters. And I had to notify him that there was a court appearance scheduled, and he said okay. And the next time I went to see him, to tell him that Jennifer was about ready to arrive in Los Angeles. I went to the courtyard, the very place where he first played music, and Nathaniel ignored me when I got there. And I called out to him. He was playing a trumpet, I'd bought him a trumpet that I bought on Craigslist.

He told me he needed to try out the horn. And he started to walk down those stairs, and he looked at me - we were maybe 20 feet away - and he shook the trumpet at me and it came up in him again, this rage. And he started screaming at me, saying that he wasn't going to court, nobody was going to make him go to court, and he was not going to be locked up again. And I said you don't have to go to court, nobody is going to lock you up, this is not about that. But he's being locked up. He has been in, he has been in handcuffs.

He has been in jail. He has had a shock treatment. And part of the resistance to medical attention now, is that he fears that he is being duped and that's what we're going to do with him. We're going to put him in a straight jacket and, you know, put the - do the shock therapy again or whatever, or zap him with Thorazine. And I said no, no, it's not like that Mr. Ayers, we are not going to force you to do anything. She's just coming to town to help out. She's coming so that you don't have to worry about looking at contracts or any of these other stuffs. She is going to manager her affairs.

And he wasn't, he wasn't buying it. He thought that this whole thing had been a plot for me to get him arrested and dragged off to a hospital or a jail. And he shook that trumpet at me and threatened me. He threatened my life. He said that if he ever saw me again that I would be reduced to a pool of blood. He screamed at me, he told me to please leave. He yelled as I walked away and he told me that he never wanted to see me again. That was about the worst that it ever was. We have had a few of these, that was the worst.

DAVIES: You looked in Nathaniel Ayers background and he grew up in Cleveland and was obviously a gifted musician. He came from a broken home, but his psychotic break when he made it to New York to study at Juilliard. As best you can tell, what happened?

Mr. LOPEZ: In his second year in Juilliard. He began to have trouble focusing. As I looked back it is transcripts, he did best in classes where he was expected to perform. In other words in the orchestra class he got As and his judges said that he was, you know, a promising, brilliant young musician. If he had to sit and listen to something about music theory, the grades went from Bs to Cs to Ds to incompletes. And nobody knew at the time, what was going on, and he just struggled a bit. And when he went back for the start of his third year at Juilliard it all just came apart.

He was hearing voices. He was having more difficulty getting by in class. Amazingly, he still performed extremely well when he had the instrument in his hands. But one night he was in the apartment of a colleague, another student, and began taking his clothes off. And the student said - the classmate said what are you doing? And Nathaniel didn't have a coherent answer and didn't seem to know what he was doing. His classmate called #911 and they took him away to Bellevue. He…

DAVIES: It's the public hospital in New York.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes, he snapped, and he was soon thereafter diagnosed with, with schizophrenia and dropped out of school, went back home, spent many years in treatment. He lived with his mother who was the real saint in this story. She took him and dealt with all of the difficult times, kept taking him back in, even when he would get aggressive and violent. And she had him seeing a doctor. He's had some treatment. He was in shock therapy, he was on medication. He always, though, fell off and would end up wandering. And when she died he moved to Los Angeles.

He got on a bus and he came west, knowing that his father had lived here. Unfortunately, when he got here, his father was already gone - had moved to Las Vegas. So Nathaniel stayed with a relative a while and then began wondering the streets. Sometime, I'm not sure, I can't tell - 2001-2002 somewhere around there - and had been pretty much hanging out on the streets of downtown L.A. until that day I met him.

DAVIES: L.A. Times columnist, Steve Lopez. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: My guest is L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez. His friendship with Nathaniel Ayers - the street musician suffering from schizophrenia - is told in his book "The Soloist," which is now a movie, opening today. I spoke to Lopez last April when the book had just been published and the film "The Soloist" was in production. As - as you finished the book, Nathaniel Ayers was still refusing medication and wouldn't really see doctors about his schizophrenia. Is that where he is still? Do you ever see him seeking treatment for his - his mental illness?

Mr. LOPEZ: I hope. I have hopes that he will. There are still these signs of slow steady progress. Recovery, as I learned, is not linear. You've good days and bad. But he does have a little music studio, and he likes to go in there and play music. He called me this morning. It's - it's the 7 a.m. call that I get. And he said that, you know, Mr. Lopez, Mr. Crane up at the L.A. Philharmonic said that maybe we could do a recording session. He's got Robert Gupta, a violinist, and the orchestra is a friend of his.

And a pianist thought that may be they could play together. And, you know, these are - we go to ball games, we got a concerts and he goes to his music studio. And his goal, he says, is to be a music therapist, to use music to help other folks. He's not there yet. He's got ways to go. I do - I do have this hope, this dream, that one day he gets well enough to give medication a try. I do know, however, that's not - that's no panacea - that it's difficult to find the right medication and even if you do, with this new generation of anti-psychotic meds, it's - it's not necessarily the answer.

He might get so well that he says hey, I'm feeling fine, I don't need these. And you're right back where you started. I - the thing that I tell myself though is that he has - he is in better shape than he was when I met him and so am I. I was so inspired by him and by the work that's being done on skid row, that I thought about getting out of my dying newspaper business and trying to start a second career. He inspired that. Just because of his courage, because of his - his patience, I thought I'm going to do this. I - I was prepared to - to take another job. What I decided in the end, is that one of the many gifts I've gotten from Nathaniel - and this has always been a two-way street - it's not just me doing for him. You know, there's this humility - there's this good feeling I have from - from giving something. I was never the big brother type. And now, here I am with this relationship where I've really meant something to him, and he has to me. And thinking about his passion made me realize that it was that music that got him through all of these troubles, you know, the world is always spinning wildly for him but the music has not moved. The notes are in the same place on the page. They've been there for - for two centuries.

And he loves that music. He loves that how it balances him, and I thought for me the passion is words. The passion is the privilege of writing about people like him. And he has re-sparked my interest in what I do for a living. I cannot leave this. That's one of Nathaniel's gifts to me. I'm recommitted to what I do for a living, and I might be the last one out of the building even as the, you know, the whole thing is going under.

DAVIES: You mentioned a moment ago that he called you at 7:00 a.m. Does he call you everyday?

Mr. LOPEZ: Most days I get a 7:00 a.m. call and I get a 6:00 p.m. call. And it's begins good morning Mr. Lopez, how is Alison, Mrs. Lopez? How are Jeffrey and Andrew Lopez? How is Caroline Lopez? I had a breakthrough last night Mr. Lopez. You are not going to believe what happened on the Elgar Cello Concerto. I don't know how it came to me. There must have been a spirit in the room. I was practicing and all of a sudden the music made sense and Jacqueline Du Pre, and Janos Starker, and even Yo-Yo Ma are going to have to step aside.

These are the kinds of conversations we have. And Mr. Lopez, are we going to the dodger game this Tuesday or was that next Thursday? Yeah everyday we're in contact and see each other a couple of times a week.

DAVIES: What's - what's it like to see yourself portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.? It must be a - it must be weird.

Mr. LOPEZ: It's a little bit strange. He - I've joked with him that he doesn't look like a Lopez…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOPEZ: …since people don't know me I have to explain that my - my parents are one side Italian and one side Spanish. But he's a, you know, he is a much cooler looking columnist than I am. I'm not that exciting a guy and he's just got this presence.

DAVIES: You know, I know your work because you wrote in Philadelphia for many years before you went to Time Magazine and eventually to Los Angeles. And I know that columnists like you have, in some respects, an intimate relationship with the readers. But they know your words and your columns. They don't know what you look like. Are you little worried that people will see this movie and think that's Steve Lopez? I mean, are you going to have to live up to that image?

Mr. LOPEZ: There's no way I could be that cool. So it's just - that part is not going to happen. But, you know, what concerns me a little bit, you know, that I really like what these guys have done and they have been very sensitive to the major themes here and I think they're doing a great story. But they had to change some things. I mean, it is Hollywood, and, for instance, in the movie, I'm divorced. This was not an easy development to explain to my wife, the day I had to go home and say that she didn't have a character in the movie.

DAVIES: You're out of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOPEZ: Actually, she does. Catherine Keener plays my wife, but we're divorced and Catherine Keener is my editor. That would be just hell, let me tell you, if, you know, you have a spouse - an ex-spouse was your editor, it just would not work. But it works in the movie. It gave it some dramatic tension as Joe Wright, the director - this is the guy from "Atonement." He said when he made that change along with Susannah Grant, the screenwriter, it just came alive.

There's this - it adds this kind of drama and sexual conflict and tension. And so, you know, that seems to work. But it's got to be strange, yeah, to, you know, have people think, well, this is Steve Lopez. And, you know, why is he wearing a fedora? And we didn't know that he left Alison. What's going on? So it's going to take some getting used to.

DAVIES: Your book "The Soloist" is now a movie in production, with Jamie Foxx playing Nathaniel Ayers. Does Mr. Ayers, does he have any role here?

Mr. LOPEZ: He's very much aware, and he's not particularly interested in my book, although he's read it. And he said, hey, congratulations. I hope you win an award for it. But the movie, he's interested more in the fact that the people associated with the movie, from Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey to the crew, are curios about him and like seeing him and like hearing him play. So for him, this is an opportunity to have a new audience, and he's been invited over to play for the crew on occasion, and that part he likes. A couple of weeks ago, we shot the scene - they shot the scene at Disney Hall, which was our first visit.

And I said Mr. Ayers, we got to go. It's going to be Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey sitting in the very seats that we sat in. And the LA Philharmonic plays itself in this movie. And he's got - you know, he knows half the orchestra now and has friends there and teachers there. And I thought this would be such a great day for him to drop by the set of the film, which is almost done, as I speak. And he said I'll meet you there. So I get to Disney Hall. He is set up across the street. He's got a brown folding chair. He is sitting on that. He's got his cello out, and he's playing.

And I go there and I say, Mr. Ayers - we address each other Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers. He once yelled at me for calling him Nathaniel, while always referred to me as Mr. Lopez. And ever since then, I've called him Mr. Ayers. It sounds strange to people, Mr. Ayers, Mr. Lopez. But I said they're doing the scene, the big scene. Come on, we've got to go inside and watch this. And he said - well, you know, and he looked up at the sky, beautiful blue sky, nice day, sunny. He said I just started playing this thing, and it's really going well, and, yeah, I think I'd rather play. And I said Mr. Ayers, this is the big scene.

This was our breakthrough day. This was - they're shooting our first day in Disney Hall. Don't you want to see that? He said, yeah, well, you know, I do, but I've really got some going here. I think I'm going to stay and play this just a little bit longer. So I crossed the street, climbed the stairs of Disney Hall. I look across, and there he is sawing away, as he calls it. And inside this building, maybe 300 people, the LA Philharmonic, the cast, the crew are shooting a film about his life. And I said to the producer, Gary Foster, you know what, Gary? We picked the right name for this thing, "The Soloist." There he is.

DAVIES: Well, Steve Lopez thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, recorded last April. The movie based on his book "The Soloist" opens across the country today. We asked Steve for an update on the Nathaniel Ayers. He reports that Nathaniel is still in the same apartment, has a girlfriend and is doing reasonably well. He's been going to concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic on his own. Nathaniel's family flew in for Monday's premiere of the movie, and Nathaniel decided to attend despite his fear of two-dimensional images.

He doesn't usually watch TV or movies. He didn't want to miss the party, though, especially since many mentally ill members of LAMP, where he lives, are in the movie and were at the premiere. Lopez writes that Nathaniel seemed to enjoy himself for the most part, and once again struck everyone with his growing ability to accept and developed insights into his condition. Many challenges remain, Lopez writes, but he gives us hope. One final detail: Nathaniel is now playing the flute.

Coming up: David Edelstein on the new documentary about Mike Tyson. This is FRESH AIR.

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