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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Sandler gave boy 'best day of his life'

By Dave Dondoneau
Assistant Features Editor

The story starts with George Handgis apologizing for the length of what he's about to say.

Adam Sandler shut down the set of “Big Daddy” for a day in 1999 so he could spend time with Jonathan Miller, a boy who was terminally ill. Jonathan died on Feb. 1, 2000.

George Handgis photos

It's going to be about Adam Sandler, but it all starts with his grandson, Jonathan Miller, who died Feb. 1, 2000, after being diagnosed with adreno-leukodystrophy, or ALD, in November 1998.

ALD is an extremely rare fatal disease that attacks the brain. First, it takes away a person's hearing. Then it takes your sight. "Then," Handgis says quietly, "it takes your life."

Jonathan Miller was 9 when he was diagnosed with ALD. He died when he was 10. Though he was raised in Mesa, Ariz., he spent summers on the Big Island with his grandparents, who have lived there since 1987.

Jonathan was a huge Adam Sandler fan, and when he discovered the disease was fatal, he asked the Make a Wish Foundation to set up a meeting with the comedian before he died.

"The trouble was that because the disease hits so fast, the foundation didn't have time to set it up," Handgis said. "They had to grant his second wish instead, to see an Arizona Cardinals-Dallas Cowboys football game."

News of Jonathan's disease, however, reached Sandler while he was filming "Big Daddy," at the Sony studios in Culver City, Calif.

"This is what people don't know about Adam," Handgis said. "The guy is unbelievable. No press. He didn't want or ask for anything from our family. It wasn't through the Wish Foundation. He just arranged on his own for my daughter (Jeanine Miller) and Jonathan to fly to Los Angeles, and he took them by limousine to the studios for lunch."

It could have ended there, and Jonathan would have been happy, Handgis said. It was April 16, 1999, and ALD had already taken away the boy's hearing.

"Since Jonathan couldn't hear, Adam wound up writing everything down on note pads with him," Handgis said. "It was supposed to be lunch, but after they met, Adam canceled production the rest of the day to spend time with Jonathan."

The two wrestled. They played basketball. And though Jonathan could no longer hear, he was able to exchange movie lines with Sandler from "Billy Madison," the last Sandler movie he had heard.

'Jonathan's Park' on Big Island

• George and Sharon Handgis have dedicated an acre of their land on the Big Island in their grandson's memory.

• "Jonathan's Park" is on Keauhou Bay and is used by terminally and chronically ill children and their families.

• To learn more about using the facility, reach George or Sharon Handgis at (808) 324-7000.

"Adam spent the entire day with Jonathan," Handgis said. "The next day, Jonathan wrote a letter to him, thanking him. It basically said that even though he was terminally ill, Adam made it the best day of his life for him, and he'd never forget it."

Sandler remained in touch with the Millers for months. When Jonathan died, the actor sent Jeanine a heartfelt two-page letter about her son.

"It was extremely personal and emotional," Handgis said. "I'm not going to get into what he said, but he's absolutely a hero in our family's eyes."

Handgis doesn't want the story to be about his grandson this time. He tells the story to let people know the person behind "Big Daddy," "Happy Gilmore" "Billy Madison," "Little Nicky" and now, "50 First Kisses," which Sandler is shooting on O'ahu.

He wants people to know Sandler is truly a good guy, on and off the screen.

"He's the most down-to-earth guy you can know, for being such a big star," Handgis said. "I don't know many people who would do what he did. He's an unbelievable person."