Written by Dale Thielker and Tom Montalbano Friday, 06 November 2009 00:00Syosset-Woodbury has had its share of show business success stories in recent years: Natalie Portman, Judd Apatow, Idina Menzel, and Adam Paschal being some names that immediately come to mind. However, long before any of the above made their mark, there was Billy Schulman, a 13-year-old Woodbury resident who starred alongside David McCallum and Ossie Davis in Teacher, Teacher, a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that debuted on NBC in February of 1969.
Teacher, Teacher told the fictional story of Freddie Putnam, a mentally-challenged 13-year-old who was struggling to learn to read and write. In an historic piece of casting, Billy, like the fictional character he portrayed, was also mentally-challenged and had just learned to read the year before. The essence of the story is that a mentally-challenged person, through opportunity, patience, love, and understanding, can be taught to lead a useful life.
Billy grew up in Woodbury and attended special classes at Harry B. Thompson Jr. High School. He was one of approximately 40 youngsters recommended to the producers of Teacher, Teacher by the National Association for Retarded Children. Although Billy’s mental limitations were more pronounced than some of the other applicants, the producers discovered that he could register his emotions, would react appropriately happy or sad when told Freddie’s story, and understood very well that he was going to be pretending to be Freddie.
Billy enthusiastically accepted the challenge of becoming an actor. His mom, Sandra Schulman, rehearsed his lines with him every evening and again the next morning to help him with his retention. He even learned how to use a trampoline, a major plot device, although he had never been on one before and was terrified of the apparatus when he first saw it.
Teacher, Teacher was an outstanding success when it was broadcast on February 5, 1969. The critics cheered Billy’s “breathtaking” and “almost unbearably-moving performance.” Billy was awarded a special Emmy and Teacher, Teacher won the Emmy for Best Dramatic Show. After his triumph, Billy returned to his normal life at home in Woodbury, where his parents put a star on his bedroom door to remind him of his achievement.
Teacher, Teacher is revered for having had a profound effect on many people, including Dale Thielker of St. Louis, Missouri, the author of this article. Thielker was a junior in high school when he first saw the film in 1969. Inspired by the relationship between Freddie and a handyman (Davis) who falls into the role of his “teacher,” Thielker almost immediately decided to become an educator. This rich and rewarding career lasted 30 years.
In February of 2009, the now-retired Thielker decided to watch an old video tape of Teacher, Teacher he had recorded off cable TV in 1987 but had never actually viewed. Forty years later, the film still had the same impact on him; however, an epilogue at the end of the re-released version stopped him in his tracks: “Dedicated to the memory of Billy Schulman, who was killed in a tragic accident while crossing the street on his way to work.”
Dale Thielker immediately began searching for any information regarding Billy’s untimely end. Ultimately, he came across a 1986 news article from the Florida Sun Sentinel reporting the circumstances of Billy’s death. This led Thielker to Sandra Schulman, Billy’s mother, who was now living in Florida. Mrs. Schulman filled in the rest of the details.
Billy had moved to Florida with his family in 1973. There, the 18 year-old thrived, going to school, making friends, developing an interest in sports, and taking a special interest in current events. He stayed in school until he was 21, and then went to work for Goodwill, taking two buses each day to get to Goodwill’s office. After nine years at Goodwill, Billy was making great strides toward independence. Then, one morning in October of 1986, Billy was struck by two vehicles as he tried to cross Route 7 in Lauderhill, Florida. The 31-year-old died at a nearby hospital later that morning. Hundreds attended his funeral.
One year later, Goodwill introduced the “Billy Schulman Award” and, in 1996, unveiled “Billy’s House,” a home where disabled people learn life skills to help them achieve independence. Teacher, Teacher has never been released on video or DVD, but the film continues to attract a following on YouTube and other Internet video sites. Forty years later, Woodbury’s Billy Schulman is still touching lives.