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Bill W. documentary at CIFF
The life of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

Mark Urycki
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A documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival this week will garner some local interest because part of it is set in Akron. But it will have a much deeper connection to another group of people from all over the world – alcoholics.

“Bill W” is the story of one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson.  WKSU’s Mark Urycki reports that his story didn’t end when he stopped drinking.

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Film makers Dan Carracino (L) and Kevin Hanlon with actor Blake Evans, who portrays Bill Wilson in reenactment scenes.
Stan Hywet gate house where Henrietta Seiberling held first meeting of Dr. Bob and Bill W.
Dr. Bob (L) and Bill W.
Dr Bob Smith's house on Ardmore Ave in Akron
Bill and Lois Wilson
Mayflower Hotel where Bill Wilson made his call for help to Henrietta Seiberling
Bill Wilson in 1955

Drinking was a burden for Bill Wilson. But when he quit, he took up a new burden.

That’s the story that directors Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino tell in their film “Bill W.” They didn’t set out to tell this story; they just wanted to make a film. But as Hanlon happened to be reading the history of Alcoholics Anonymous he realized there was a good story to tell.

The two AA founders were Dr. Bob Smith of Akron and Bill Wilson, a businessman in New York. The filmmakers decided to focus on Wilson, and they had hundreds of tape recordings of his speeches to use.

Wilson had done well on Wall Street by investigating companies and selling information to brokers. But he was a drunk, and even with the loyal support of his wife Lois, he could not get off the bottle. The stock market crash of 1929 knocked him down but it was his addiction that kept him down.  On a business trip to Akron a deal fell through and he was on the edge of reaching for a drink.

Wilson famously began making phone calls, hoping to find a fellow alcoholic to help him.  He was put in touch with Henrietta Seiberling who invited him to her house – the gate house at Stan Hywet. And that became the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous on Mother’s Day 1935.  She introduced him to her friend Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic who needed help even more than Bill W.  The two men formed the organization and wrote its guiding principles.

Many, if not most, of the people in the documentary are alcoholics themselves. Their identity is hidden --  their stories, personal. 

AA member:  "They'd come pick me up and take me to a meeting and I'd walk out the back door.  I wouldnt stay for the meeting I was just trying to get a ride across town. I'd try to get money off of them. They'd make me take a shower because apparently I stunk too bad to go to a meeting... And every day they'd pick me up. They'd act like that was the first time I was going to get sober. They never got sick of me; they never acted like I was wearing them out."

Bill W. spent the rest of his life leading AA even though he'd like to have simply gone back to a life in business. The responsibilities and the lack of took its toll on him and the lack of adequate pay took a toll on him.  For his selfless service to the cause Wilson was adored by AA members.

The documentary, “Bill W.,” is showing at the Cleveland International Film Festival. 


Related Links & Resources
Bill W. the documentary

Bill W. and Dr Bob - the play

The site at Stan Hywet

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