In a battle of wits from the 1975 film, Dean Brooks peers over his eyeglasses at Jack Nicholson, and nearly steals the scene. As rebel patient R.P. McMurphy in the film based on Ken Kesey’s novel, Nicholson slaps at a fly, flashing a grin. The doctor keeps his cool and delivers his line: “To be honest with you, McMurphy,” he says, “they think that you’ve been fakin’ it to get out of work detail.”
Brooks held his own with an Oscar winner, but he was no actor. He was the real thing.
Dr. Dean Brooks, a psychiatrist and longtime superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital where the movie was filmed, died May 30 in Salem. He was 96. He had lived at a Salem care facility for the past six years.
Before that, he had lived in Everett for more than 20 years. Brooks moved here to be near family after retiring from the Oregon hospital in 1981. India Civey, one of Brooks’ three daughters, still lives here.
“I know the movie is the thing, it can draw people into conversation. It was just a couple years of his life,” Civey said Wednesday. “He was equally interesting and innovative all his life, and passionate about the treatment of patients. He made it his purpose that the people in his care would be treated humanely, and with respect.”
Here, too, Brooks continued that mission.
He was appointed by the governor to the Western State Hospital Advisory Board, and made regular trips to the psychiatric hospital in Pierce County. In Everett, he served on the board of Compass Health, a nonprofit agency providing mental health and chemical dependency services in Snohomish County and the region.
“He was an absolute champion and advocate for community-based services for emotionally disturbed kids and mentally ill adults,” said Tom Sebastian, CEO of Compass Health.
Jess Jamieson, now living in Portland, Ore., is a former Compass Health CEO who later held that position at Western State Hospital. Brooks was on the Snohomish County Mental Health Advisory Board when Jamieson met him.
“I have always regarded Dean as a dear friend and mentor,” Jamieson said. “I learned so much from him. He was a Renaissance person.”
At Compass Health meetings, Jamieson said, Brooks brought his care and professionalism to discussions that often centered on budget issues. “Dean always came back to the reason we’re here,” Jamieson said.
In 2005, Brooks headlined an event at the Historic Everett Theatre that raised $22,000 for a Compass Health program serving mentally ill and homeless adults. The fundraiser included a showing of “Completely Cuckoo,” a documentary about the making of the film. Jack Nicholson was among the donors, sending $1,000.
Brooks used his ties to the movie to draw attention to what he cared about most. “One of the things the movie did was to give me a platform,” Brooks said in a 2000 interview for this column.
Before being picked to play Dr. Spivey, Brooks was first a technical adviser for the film. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz and director Milos Forman spent time at the hospital before filming. In Brooks, they liked what they saw enough to cast him in the key role.
Civey said her father saw “Cuckoo’s Nest” as more than a story of a patient defying authority. “It’s an allegory about institutions,” Civey said. It’s about humanity in the face of any crushing authoritarian system. “The movie was his opportunity to continue the conversation about the mentally ill, and a venue to look at ourselves,” Civey said.
Along with Civey, Brooks is survived by two daughters in Oregon, Dennie Brooks and Ulista Brooks, by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife, also named Ulista, preceded him in death.
Born July 22, 1916, in Colony, Kan., Brooks attended college and medical school at the University of Kansas. A trombone player, he paid for medical school by performing big-band music at a ballroom, Civey said.
A medical officer in the Navy, he served in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he was steered into psychiatry by a commanding officer, his daughter said.
Even at 96, Civey said, her father was passionate about helping people. He befriended an Oregon author, Jane Kirkpatrick, and urged her to write a novel about Dorothea Dix. In the 1800s, Dix pushed for places to care for the mentally ill. Kirkpatrick’s book, “One Glorious Ambition,” is dedicated to Brooks, his daughter said.
Brooks had recently been involved with the Dorothea Dix Think Tank, a group he helped create that focused on alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill.
In Salem, the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health has an exhibit dedicated to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and also a Brooks Room. He started at the hospital in 1947 and was superintendent from 1955 to 1981.
Terry Clark, executive director of Little Red School House in Everett, knew Brooks when she was development director for Compass Health. She remembered Brooks going on home visits with staff as part of Compass Health’s Healthy Families program.
“He was brilliant, just incredible,” Clark said. “He was the most curious person I’ve ever known, always asking questions, always learning.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.