Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles

Oscar-winning 1946 film "The Best Years of Our Lives" dramatized
the reality of soldiers returning from World War II.
(Movie Release Poster, Wikimedia Commons)



In my last article, “Time to end ‘blackface’ practices toward disabled actors and characters,“ I introduced the fact that many producers don’t like to cast disabled actors, even when they would be playing disabled characters. That’s why a great many disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. The official excuses generally involve money, and time, of course, which is the same as money in any business.

There are exceptions, of course. From the beginning of the series in 2000, Robert David Hall has played Dr. Al Robbins in “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (AKA “CSI: Las Vegas”). For a decade, Hall has been a stalwart member of a company of able-bodied actors, in spite of the fact that he walks on two prosthetic legs with the aid of a crutch.

In that time, Hall’s disability hasn’t prevented him from appearing as a guest on other shows and doing voiceover work as well. And he also serves as Chair of the Performers with Disabilities Committee. The group’s official name is Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), an activist organization within the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

The goal of I AM PWD is to promote employment of disabled people in all sectors of the arts and the media. In my limited experience, I’ve seen that there are some “good guys” in the industry willing to hire disabled performers. As a disabled person myself, I’ve taken particular note of movies and TV series that consistently include people with disabilities, whether the parts call for the characters to be disabled or the characters could be otherwise healthy but the actor happens to be disabled.

I was still pretty young when I saw William Wyler’s 1946 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Harold Russell lost both hands in a TNT accident while training paratroopers at Camp McKall, NC. Wyler saw Russell in an army training film and hired him to play double amputee Homer Parrish in his landmark film. Russell won two Oscars for the role, the only actor ever to do so. One was for Best Supporting Actor, and the other va- for being an inspiration to all returning veterans.

Russell continued to act occasionally over the years, but his primary focus was the veterans support group he founded, AMVETS. In addition, the annual award presented by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities is called the Harold Russell Medal.

In the late 1980s, two different TV series featured regular characters who happened to be disabled. For three years, undercover cop Vinnie Terranova depended on the wheelchair-bound communications engineer Daniel Benjamin “Lifeguard” Burroughs, played by real-life double amputee Jim Byrnes, in the crime drama “Wiseguy.” And Chris Burke’s Down syndrome was a vital part of the ongoing plot involving his character, Charles “Corky” Thacher, in the family drama “Life Goes On.”

Lifeguard’s disability was secondary to the character’s role, but the role of Corky helped educate viewers about the fact that people with certain disabilities are capable of many more activities than most people realize. The same was generally true of Geri Jewell’s recurring character of Geri Tyler, cousin of wealthy boarding house resident, Blair Warner, in “The Facts of Life.” Geri’s cerebral palsy was an occasional point of interest in the plots of the 12 episodes in which she appeared.

Finally, I was happy to note that when one of our favorite series, “Bones,” featured a character in a wheelchair, the actor is indeed a paraplegic. The chair’s presence was almost incidental to the plot, acting as a kind of shorthand to explain the shared history in the Kosovo conflict of Judge Hank Lutrell, played by Mitch Longley, who’s disabled in real life, and the main character of FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth.

Incidentally, Longley is another disabled person whose experience prompted him to become an activist. He combined his disability with his Native American background to found SOWOHO, Spirit of the Wounded Horse, Inc., an organization which helps underprivileged Native Americans with physical disabilities.

Besides the roles I’ve listed, all these actors have performed in both long-term and guest roles in many other productions. Jewell is also a standup comedian, as are several other people with CP, Hall is a musician and singer, Byrnes is a blues guitarist, and Longley is an accomplished singer. And though he’s primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter, Tom Sullivan has appeared in guest roles on many TV shows since the mid-‘70s.

And there’s one more spectacular example in John Hockenberry. The award-winning journalist has not only worked on several TV news and magazine programs over the years, he’s proved that even a newsman with a wheelchair can go get the stories in far-flung corners of the world.

These people with various types of disabilities are but a few of many examples that prove disabled people are capable of fulfilling the tasks of acting, playing music, singing, making people laugh, often about their own physical disabilities, and informing the public about world events.

On the other hand, there are too many examples of those who’ve portrayed people with various disabilities, in spite of the fact that they have no idea what it’s like to live with a disability. In my next article, I’ll expose some of these poseurs.

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