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Larry Selman, 70; disabled, he aided others, was in film

Larry Selman was determined to live independently.

Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times/file 1998

Larry Selman was determined to live independently.

NEW YORK — Larry Selman weighed 3 pounds when he was born on April 2, 1942, and was not expected to survive the day. He rallied, though, grew to become a friendly, husky boy and attended public school until he was about 16, when a teacher explained to him that he would probably never earn a high-school diploma because, by all measures, Larry was — in the parlance of the 1950s — mentally retarded.

Mr. Selman quit school soon afterward. He lived in Brooklyn with his parents, Phillip and Minnie, while working for the parks department. After the death of his mother in 1968, following close upon the death of his father, Mr. Selman moved to Greenwich Village with help of an uncle, Murray Schaul. He spent the rest of his life there, most of it in obscurity, though in his final years he enjoyed a gentle fame among filmgoers familiar with the 2002 documentary about him, ‘‘The Collector of Bedford Street.’’

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Mr. Selman, who had been treated for severe diabetes in recent years, died Sunday, apparently of a heart attack, friends said. He was 70.

He had an eventful and in some ways remarkable life, filled with the daily struggles of a man whose IQ was said to be 62 but who was determined to live independently. He managed to achieve his goal, in a sense, by taking responsibility for other people: those more vulnerable than himself.

Mr. Selman’s life would have remained invisible except for his outsize talent for connection. It earned him friends in the Village, including Alice Elliott, director of ‘‘The Collector of Bedford Street,’’ which was nominated for an Oscar.

The film chronicled a period of crisis in Mr. Selman’s life, in the late 1990s, when Schaul was ailing and Mr. Selman felt himself at the precipice of homelessness.

Schaul, 81, had visited him daily and helped him financially. Faced with the loss of his uncle, Mr. Selman was considering suicide. In desperation, and out of loneliness, he began giving homeless men the key to his Bedford Street apartment. Some fellow tenants took him to court, seeking his eviction.

The ‘‘collector’’ in the title refers to Mr. Selman’s prodigious work as a neighborhood fund-raiser. From 1970 until his death he collected more than $300,000 by some estimates — from people he approached in the Village, one at a time, requesting donations of $1 and $2 each. He collected money for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the families of Sept. 11 victims, Muscular Dystrophy research, AIDS research, and animal rescue groups, among others.

‘‘Collector’’ also suggests how Mr. Selman’s daily conversations with neighbors and passers-by, and his dogged way of reminding them of the needs of others, brought people together, and shepherded them toward civic-mindedness.

‘‘Larry, in effect, made our community,’’ Elliott said in a phone interview Wednesday. ‘‘He was our glue.’’

About 100 neighbors established a $30,000 trust fund for Mr. Selman. It supplemented his income from Social Security disability funds, and later replaced some of the money he had been receiving from Schaul, who died in 2005.

The neighbors also helped him settle his eviction problem. (He agreed to not let homeless people use his apartment anymore.)

In 2003, the trust fund helped pay for Mr. Selman’s trip to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles as Elliott’s guest. But her film did not win the short-documentary award.

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