Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding the middle ground when casting disabled characters

After discussing several successful disabled performers in my previous article, “Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles,” the time has come to reveal some of the people whom I’ve seen in roles as disabled characters even though they have very little idea what it’s like to actually be disabled. But first, we must consider the fact that there is one qualifying factor in this discussion:

While many people agree there’s a moral necessity for producers in the entertainment industry to cast more disabled actors in the roles of characters with similar disabilities, it’s also true that people with certain disabilities might not be able to fulfill all the requirements of a particular role. That doesn’t mean they can’t manage other roles. People must consider the full range of an individual role before deciding whether it can be managed by a performer with the type of disability being portrayed.

That’s why I grant wide leeway to Tony Shalhoub, who did such a brilliant job as the obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk. Many of the situations Monk fell into would no doubt be far too frightening, even for many normal people, much less someone with such an extreme level of phobias as that portrayed in the series.

What’s more, during the course of the series, there was at least one other instance in which a person with a disability was played by an actor who didn’t have that disability, but there was a reason for that too. (I won’t give any hints here, because that would be a real spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the episode.)

On the other hand, the producers did cast one significant person who actually has a condition that’s not too removed from that of his character. Though he’s known as a brilliant actor and author, John Turturro, who played Adrian’s agoraphobic older brother, Ambrose, actually has Asperger’s Disorder. Turturro’s extensive body of work is testimony to the fact that with proper support, people with all manner of disabilities can achieve great things.

As for the TV series, both Monk brothers were portrayed as extremely intelligent in their areas of expertise, in spite of their psychological quirks. And the often light-hearted approach to the presentation added another element to the process of breaking down barriers in many people’s minds.

Perhaps one day that combination of facts and levity might help some viewers overcome their bias toward people they didn’t accept before they saw the show. So, where it counted, “Monk” producers came through for people with various types of poorly understood disabilities.

There were a couple of other cases in which I’ve seen able-bodied actors play people with disabilities, but certain factors required them to perform beyond those disabilities. LeVar Burton played the blind Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But a futuristic electronic visor gave him enough sense of sight that it would have been impossible for an unsighted person to play every aspect of that role.

Happily, a similar visor is now a reality, at least in experimental form, as well as an artificial electronic eye. Perhaps one day people with many types of visual impairments might be able to minimize their disabilities because of the vision of Gene Roddenberry and other people connected with the “Star Trek” franchise.

I admit I wasn’t so thrilled when I heard that the very able-bodied Jason Ritter (son of John, grandson of Tex) was cast as the wheelchair-bound former football player Kevin Girardi on “Joan of Arcadia.” Though I didn’t watch much of the show, I did read that there was at least one episode in which the actor had to perform in his pre-accident persona, which a paraplegic could not have done.

These are just a handful of the jobs that were filled by people who couldn’t personally fathom all aspects of the conditions they were portraying. But I have to admit that in certain instances, many factors make this type of casting the most reasonable course of action, and those I’ve witnessed in such cases were presented in very professional manner. Meanwhile, if these shows helped to educate some viewers on the realities of disability, then they’ve done a public service after all.

Finally, my next article will discuss those people I’ve relegated to my personal “hall of shame”: those actors who took on roles that could--and no doubt should--have been portrayed by disabled actors who would have been much better equipped to identify with both the physical boundaries and the psychological depths of the characters in those stories.

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