Medical school alumnus and professor Neil Shulman is an accomplished author, film producer, stand-up comic, and architectural innovator

By John D. Thomas

 A small log cabin sits nestled amidst the dense slope of trees behind Neil Shulman's Decatur home. "I always thought it would be really nice to have a little cabin up in the mountains that was away from everything, but I didn't want to have to travel all the way up there," he says in oh-so-urban logic. "So I figured, why not build one in the middle of those woods, and then maybe I'd use some of my backyard."

But a bucolic backyard refuge was not enough for Shulman, an associate professor in the medical school's division of hypertension who earned his M.D. degree from Emory in 1971. He wanted to be one with his woods. "I thought, if you're in the middle of the forest but you don't know it, what's the sense? If I could just open up the whole top and see those woods, that would make the whole thing a lot different."

Shulman took his idea for a rag top log cabin to a neighbor, Ulicer Cortes. A longtime worker in Emory's physical plant, Cortes helped design and build an innovative sliding roof. The two now hold a joint patent on the convertible cabin, which was recently featured in Newsweek and is garnering interest from potential builders around the country.

Shulman's architectural oddity, however, is not his first foray out of the medical school classroom. A successful stand-up comedian, he has also written three novels, one of which, What, Dead Again?, was adapted into the major Hollywood film, Doc Hollywood. He is also the co-author of two children's books and the associate producer of a 1985 TV movie of the week on the life of deep-sea treasure hunter Mel Fisher. And this spring he is scheduled to appear in a series of nationally syndicated television news spots that combine his comedic wit with practical medical advice.

Even though he admits luck has played a role in his successes, Shulman says he owes a lot to his own dogged determination. "I'm a bit of a bulldog manic idealist," he explains. "And that's a good thing to be if you want to get movies made because it's very high risk. . . . I think a lot of people have talent, but I think you've got to be willing to accept rejection and you've got to be willing to keep after it until you find somebody who has a passion for what you want to do and who has the ability to get it to the next step."

Shulman's next step is working on getting his latest novel, The Backyard Tribe, to the silver screen. Walt Disney Studios has purchased an option on his screenplay, and now he is just waiting for the producers and the studio to hammer out the details.

The Backyard Tribe concerns a doctor who spends his vacation in Kenya donating his medical services to the needy. While there, he meets a young girl in dire need of heart surgery, and he invites her back to his home in Atlanta for the operation. Discussions with her family get a bit convoluted, though, and her entire tribe ends up making the trip. As the name of the novel implies, the tribe takes over the doctor's backyard, turning it into a Kenyan village, complete with mud huts and cows wrangled from a nearby dairy pasture. According to Publisher's Weekly, "In this offbeat, zany story, Shulman plays off the incongruities and misunderstandings resulting from a clash between cultures [to create a] moving tale."

The Backyard Tribe grew out of Shulman's experiences giving health screenings in Africa and his role as co-founder of Heart to Heart, a program that brings children from Third World countries to the United States for life-saving heart surgery. While he was in Africa, Shulman met with a representative from the Lions Club who told him that one of the group's biggest needs was "to have a place they could send young kids who needed surgery where they could be cured of illnesses they'd otherwise die of, because they didn't have sophisticated facilities and they had very limited resources."

When he returned to this country, Shulman, in his capacity as chairman of the board of an International Society on Hypertension, was able to allocate some resources and funds to help get the program started. To date some thirty children have benefited from the Heart to Heart program.

Recently, Shulman, who teaches clinical methods to medical students, began bringing his medical expertise to Emory College. "There is a book, Let's Play Doctor, that I helped put together, and we use it to teach [undergraduates] how to do a physical exam," he says. "It's now part of the curriculum that every student in the College has to go through. We show them how to use all the instruments, so when they go to the doctor and the doctor is looking in their eyes and ears and doing all that stuff, they know what's happening. It helps them get away from just presenting their body to becoming more medically literate."

When he's not writing or teaching or wheeling and dealing with Hollywood executives, Shulman is flying around the country and the world doing stand-up comedy. Most of the time he performs for free to raise money for charities, and last year he estimates he helped to raise some $120,000 for various organizations. He describes his act as a combination of his "movies, medicine, life, and books. The theme is that humor is probably the best therapy, and that life is short, just a little dash between two numbers on a tombstone, and you shouldn't take it too seriously. Just enjoy it and not worry about it that much."

Most of the material for his routine comes out of his own experiences. He was inspired to do stand-up by some of the amusing misadventures he endured while doing publicity tours for his various book and film projects. One of his favorites is the time he was mistaken for a dog trainer on a morning talk show in San Francisco. "I was going to be talking about my first novel, Finally I'm a Doctor, and we went on live," he remembers. "But they got me mixed up with a dog trainer who was supposed to talk after me. They thought I was the dog trainer, so I whispered, I'm the doctor, not the dog trainer. But they didn't hear me, and we were on live. So I know a little bit about collies and was able to tell them about that and some cocker spaniel stories, but I missed all the questions on dachshunds. Then the dog trainer came and talked about my book and did a real good job."


The Backyard Tribe

The three Maasai warriors stood motionless in the terraced backyard a few blocks away from the Paynes' house. The afternoon sun glinted off the long steel blades of their spears. In their other hands, they gripped the handles of their buffalo-hide shields. Beneath their towering ostrich-feather and lion-mane headdresses, their faces were expressionless as they watched the swimmer splash furiously back and forth in his single-lap pool.

Ten minutes later they caused quite a stir at little Carol Martin's sixth birthday party. Her little friends stood with gaping mouths as blond-haired Carol, blindfolded and staggering forward with the donkey tail, headed straight toward the warriors, who stood by the hedge watching the party in fascination.

After that, the warriors continued to forge ahead through the subdivision until they reached a hill. In the distance, a long clearing sloped toward a white-columned mansion. From the ridge, they enjoyed a view of the ten or so dairy cows grazing in the lush grass.

A sign on the rail fence read HAWK FARM, HOME OF BABS THE COW.

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