Morrie Schwartz thought Mitch Albom would be the last person to benefit from his life lessons.
As it turned out, the retired Brandeis sociology professor was wrong.
Readers of Albom's 1997 book "Tuesdays With Morrie" may count themselves among Schwartz's students. So may viewers of the Oprah Winfrey production based on the book, airing Sunday at 9 on ABC.
In addition, said Albom, more than a dozen universities have assigned the book to their freshman students and encourage them to establish relationships with their own professors.
Schwartz, a man who loved to dance almost as much as he loved teaching, was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) when his former student reconnected with him and began making regular visits. The frenetic Albom was a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, hosted a radio show, appeared as a commentator on ESPN and had written two books.
But Schwartz perceived that Albom wasn't entirely happy with his life. So as Albom returned each week, Schwartz pushed him to re-evaluate his priorities and assumptions about success. In turn, Albom learned to help someone else.
After Schwartz died in 1995, Albom's book about their chats became a bestseller. Albom, financially comfortable, used the advance money to pay Schwartz's medical bills and still splits royalties from the book and now the movie with Schwartz's widow, Charlotte.
He also heeded Schwartz's admonition that a high-profile person has an obligation to give of himself. So Albom speaks to ALS support groups, universities and hospice programs and founded a volunteer group, Time to Help.
"That was a direct result of Morrie kind of sitting on my shoulder," he said. "Anyone who knows me well knows that two years changed my perspective."
Albom, 41, still writes a few columns each year, he said; he sometimes plays tapes of his chats with Schwartz on his radio show. He said he's been asked to create a television series, and he's doing a novel "about someone who makes a really big mistake early in life and gets a chance to make up for the wrong he did."
But the "Tuesdays With Morrie" phenomenon, he said, "has kind of become my job in a way. When you have to keep talking about it and answering questions, it sort of keeps me on the straight and narrow. I'm not some sort of finished product of Morrie; I'm like the eternal graduate student. I re-read the book myself -- it's one of the only ones that I go back and read. That's my photo album with him."
In the film, Hank Azaria plays Albom and Jack Lemmon plays Schwartz.
"At the beginning, I found myself thinking `that doesn't look like me, that's not how Morrie talks,' but at the end I had slipped into watching the movie as a movie," said Albom, "and I think that's the mark of a good dramatic presentation."
Albom acknowledges that the film took some dramatic license with his material.
"Is the movie exactly the same as the book? No, they never are," he said. "But does it capture the essence of our relationship, the essence of the lesson and dignity? Absolutely, and that really is as much as you can ask."
Lemmon credits the film's makeup artist and hair stylist with giving him a strong resemblance to Morrie Schwartz.
"At times I looked so much like Morrie I couldn't believe it," he said.
"It isn't necessary to find out how to emulate everything about Morrie, because people didn't know him that well, except for his appearance on Ted Koppel [`Nightline']," he explained, "but they did make me look remarkably like him."
His bigger challenge was to keep from gesturing as ALS progressed, he said. "I had to approach the character without having to use my body, and that's difficult for me, because I'm always waving my arms."
Lemmon, 74, said he had no relationship with any of his Harvard professors like Albom's friendship with Schwartz. However, he recalled that when he was at Phillips Andover Academy, "there were 10 or 12 of us who got very close to an art teacher and his wife. They were like surrogate parents."
Lemmon said he'd read Albom's book and found that playing the role caused him to be "more aware of some of the things that Morrie believed, which I believe myself -- his attitudes on life and living and what he felt was worthwhile, to be honorable, to love. If you just isolate them, they may seem trivial, seem like platitudes, but they're not at all."
Azaria, a Tufts University graduate who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, said the film spurred him to recall "a combination of two or three relationships . . . an acting teacher who has passed away and certain professors who moved me very much and who had a huge impact in my life."
More importantly, he said: "Everybody on this project was very moved by the material, from the producers to the director to Jack and me and all the actors and lighting and properties people. Everybody put their best selves forward. I know I wanted to shoot this in the same spirit that Morrie lived and died. It almost felt to me a sacred responsibility to Mitch and to Morrie."