Jerry Levin has come out of retirement. The former Time Warner CEO has teamed with his wife, the CAA agent-turned-psychologist Laurie Ann Levin, to form The Levin Center For Parkinson’s Transformational Health. It is an enterprise dedicated to removing the stigma and working on the emotional well-being of Parkinson’s sufferers.
Since I began writing Deadline articles several years ago with Levin, he has revealed more of himself on this site than any mogul I can think of. In questioning the wisdom of Rupert Murdoch’s pursuit of Time Warner, he addressed the decision behind the misstep to merge with AOL; and Levin relived the tragedy of his son’s shooting death in calling on Hollywood to lead a movement toward sensible gun laws after the shooting death in a Louisiana movie theater. After Robin Williams’ suicide, when the comic’s wife said he suffered from depression and the onset of Parkinson’s, Levin revealed his own closely held secret: that he too had quietly suffered from the effects of the degenerative disease and hoped that revealing it could somehow help Williams’ memory be a lightning rod for awareness of the disease. Now, Levin is determined to help see that through.
“I stepped down from Time Warner in 2002,” Levin told me. “This is my first entrepreneurial start-up. I joined Time Inc for the startup of HBO, but that was done under a corporate umbrella as were other entrepreneurial plays we made. At age 76, without any entrepreneurial start-up experience, I am now engaged in a start-up. I’ve done interviews about business, about making movies, cable, streaming, and I would always get conflicting reactions. That [Deadline article] was the first time that uniformly the reaction was I’d done something important, speaking about what it’s like internally to deal with Parkinson’s, and using Robin’s legacy as a way to illustrate how people should not be embarrassed. I have realized this is the only bully pulpit I have. I’m a citizen with a past title, but I have a platform, and it is Parkinson’s, and aging. Yes, I have Parkinson’s, and yes, I have tremors, my voice is not what it used to be, and it’s hard for me to walk. But I am determined to help people. If you help others, you help yourself.”
Stepping up to that pulpit, and forming a business enterprise to help sufferers, is something Levin came to slowly.
“You never know how you’re going to be motivated to effectively come out of retirement, and want to do something under the shadow of this life altering diagnosis,” he said. “What happened was rather interesting because none of it was predictable. I felt compelled to be public about it more than a year ago, because I was touched deeply by Robin’s death. I deeply and personally how Parkinson’s takes away your identity. It’s a comprehensive denial of your humanity; to speak, to be spontaneous, to capture emotion, to just move around. That was integral not just to Robin’s public persona, but to his own self-image.
“I’d said in that interview that maybe there could be Robin Williams’ clinics but mostly, I was comforted by the fact I was able to describe what this all felt like, inside,” he said. “Sure enough, the way the world works, a couple months later, I was walking in Washington with my wife and suddenly I lost my balance. I fell, and could not get up. Some kind person came and helped me up. It was extremely embarrassing and while my wife said let’s go to the hospital, my reaction was to think I could just power through this. We went into a drug store to get something over the counter, and I couldn’t even move my arm to get my wallet out. So we went to the hospital; I had a very bad break in my left elbow down to my wrist that was going to require several months of staying inactive and indoors.
“What surprised me was the doctors cared less about my broken bone, and more about the fact I’d lost my balance,” Levin said. “The orthopedist asked if I’d fallen before and I admitted I’d done so the night before while carrying groceries. He said the elbow will heal itself, but we really need to deal with your Parkinson’s. For the next three months I had terrific care but was confined indoors and had a lot of physical therapy. I had a wonderful physical therapist who said something to me, late in our treatment. You must continue to do this, because you will eventually be unable to walk and express yourself, unless you follow this prescription.”
That led Levin to think about people, all over the world, who were raised in the walk-it-off school of shrugging off health issues and chalk up their declines to the aging process. Many don’t even get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, much less have it properly treated. “I thought to myself, I can’t let myself be in a trajectory of decline,” he said. “There has to be a way around this. I went on a very challenging vegan diet that sometimes was helpful for mental degenerative neurological issues. I started to do very intensive exercise and removed as much stress as I possibly could, and started to feel a lot better. Then I realized what I needed to do was go back to LA. I wanted to open a treatment center to help people with emotional well-being. Not from a medical point of view, but from an emotional one, to give people a meaningful positive outlook, to remove the stress and the embarrassment. Why don’t I start this center, because I have what they have? It’s unusual for someone to ask to be treated by someone who has the identical diagnosis that they do.”
The Levins have made their facility a virtual one — there is no brick-and-mortar facility, but rather a mechanism for a house call business that connects patients with practitioners who come to their homes and tailor treatment to the specific needs of the patient and their families who are also impacted as the disease progresses.
“There is clinical evidence that the brain has what is called plasticity,” Levin said. “There are new neuro-pathways that can be created by certain forms of intentionality. That’s what I want to help people with, using modern technology. Basically to help people who have this diagnosis. I’ve gotten excited about it, and I want to help people because I have that composite as well. You look in the mirror and don’t see who you thought you used to be. You seem to be in some form of declining capacity and your ability to deal with it is traumatic. You can’t tell exactly what’s going to happen, over what period of time. You have to live with uncertainty. That’s what Parkinson’s is about. It affects each person uniquely, as does aging. One of the things I want to do is form a team for each individual work with them and salute their uniqueness and come up with opportunities for expansion and health that are solely related to them. This is what I started. It is a virtual center. I thought it would be helpful not to have a physical space, but to go wherever the person is, to meet with them in their home space and see what care-giving services they have. In many cases, all this is as hard on the family than it is on the patient.
“What we’re trying to do doesn’t exist,” he said. “I believe as it works for Parkinson’s, it will also be helpful for the aging process and the need to deal with it in the positive way. The body mind spirit, is an elegant construct. The way it is devised, positive emotion, positive intentionality as opposed to a cacophony of negativity occupying the mind, has a real positive health effect, even in the case of Parkinson’s, and aging.”
Levin didn’t need to go out and get a job, but he has set up this as an entrepreneurial venture, not a charity, with the idea that a sound business structure will lead to sustained growth.
“It is a business, a start-up health care business so people involved will be paid,” he said. “It’s designed not as a charity but it has nothing to do with financial need but rather my own view that the best, most effective organizations are those that are run with the discipline of a business but have a primary social purpose. I wanted Time Warner to be that way and I’m doing it here. So in the future, there can be many of these clinics that are real business, employing real people and providing the financial infrastructure to fund the continued development of emotional well being. I want to see it become financially successful so it can grow not only into clinics around the country but around the world. The biggest social economic issue the world faces, is an aging population. There is a lot of Parkinson’s in China. My business/social purpose dream is that there are clinics everywhere, to deal with neurological diagnoses like Parkinson’s, and making aging a productive period instead of one of seminal decline.”