Glee club aims to get dis­abled ac­tors back into the lime­light

Show­biz drive to cast per­form­ers who truly fit dis­abled roles

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS -

LOS AN­GE­LES: The glee club mem­bers twirl their wheel­chairs to the tune of Proud Mary and in joy­ful sol­i­dar­ity with Ar­tie, the fel­low per­former who must use his chair even when the mu­sic stops.

The scene in a re­cent episode of the hit se­ries Glee, which reg­u­larly cel­e­brates di­ver­sity and the un­der­dog, is yet an­other up­lift­ing mo­ment – ex­cept to those in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try with dis­abil­i­ties and their ad­vo­cates.

For them, the cast­ing of a non-dis­abled ac­tor to play the para­plegic high school stu­dent is an­other blown chance to hire a per­former who truly fits the role.

“I think there’s a fear of lit­i­ga­tion, that a per­son with dis­abil­i­ties might slow a pro­duc­tion down, fear that view­ers might be un­com­fort­able,” said Robert David Hall, long­time cast mem­ber of CSI.

All of that is non­sense, said Hall: “I’ve made my liv­ing as an ac­tor for 30 years and I walk on two ar­ti­fi­cial legs.”

Hall, 61, chair of a mul­tiu­nion com­mit­tee for per­form­ers with dis­abil­i­ties, is part of a small band of sim­i­lar steadily work­ing ac­tors on TV that in­cludes Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, star of Broth­ers; teenager RJ Mitte of Break­ing Bad; and Pri­vate Prac­tice new­comer Michael Pa­trick Thorn­ton.

Vet­eran ac­tress Geri Jewell, who has cere­bral palsy, ap­peared on the now-de­parted Dead­wood.

Mitchell, 44, whose cred­its in­cluded Veron­ica’s Closet and the film Galaxy Quest be­fore he was in­jured in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent and Ed af­ter he be­gan us­ing a wheel­chair, is also a pro­ducer on the US sit­com that’s in need of higher rat­ings if it is to sur­vive.

For Mitchell, Broth­ers rep­re­sents more than just an­other show: He calls it “a move­ment” that de­serves sup­port from the wider dis­abled com­mu­nity as well as the in­dus­try.

“This is what my life is. This is what I want the world to see,” he said. “I want to hold the net­works ac­count­able. If I can come out and do what I’m do­ing, they can come to the ta­ble.”

It’s not just TV that falls short of what Mitchell and oth­ers seek, in­clud­ing au­di­tion­ing those with dis­abil­i­ties for roles that echo their sit­u­a­tion and for roles in which it is ir­rel­e­vant. (Then it’s up to them to prove they de­serve the job, Hall said.)

In the the­atre world, ad­vo­cacy groups for the dis­abled re­cently ob­jected to the cast­ing of Abi­gail Bres­lin ( Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine) as young He­len Keller in a Broad­way re­vival of The Mir­a­cle Worker, and a hear­ing ac­tor’s se­lec­tion for a deaf role in the of­fBroad­way The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

In films, Daniel Day-Lewis re­ceived an Academy Award for his por­trayal of a man with se­vere cere­bral palsy in My Left Foot and Tom Cruise was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for play­ing a paral­ysed Viet­nam vet­eran in Born on the Fourth of July.

Tele­vi­sion, how­ever, has a unique place in Amer­ica’s cul­tural and so­cial fi­bre. It deals in vol­ume, is en­trenched in most lives as it con­sumes hours of leisure time and has the daily power to re­in­force at­ti­tudes or re­shape them. In­creas­ingly, it’s been ex­pected to re­flect Amer­ica in whole and not just the so-called main­stream.

That was the in­tent in assem­bling the cast of Glee, said ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Brad Falchuk, along with get­ting the best per­form­ers pos­si­ble.

“We brought in any­one: white, black, Asian, in a wheel­chair,” he said. “It was very hard to find peo­ple who could re­ally sing, re­ally act, and have that charisma you need on TV.”

He un­der­stands the con­cern and frus­tra­tion ex­pressed by the dis­abled com­mu­nity, he said.

But Kevin McHale, 21, who plays Ar­tie, ex­cels as an ac­tor and singer and “it’s hard to say no to some­one that tal­ented”, Falchuk said.

While TV has grown more in­clu­sive of eth­nic and gay char­ac­ters, those with dis­abil­i­ties rep­re­sent a size­able mi­nor­ity that hasn’t fared as well – whether with gen­uine or fake por­tray­als.

About one-fifth of Amer­i­cans aged 5 to 64 have a phys­i­cal or men­tal dis­abil­ity – more than 50 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to US Cen­sus fig­ures. But fewer than 2 per­cent of the char­ac­ters on TV re­flect that re­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to a 2005 study of Screen Ac­tors Guild mem­bers.

And it’s not a small play­ing field: There are 600 char­ac­ters or more on the scripted come­dies and dra­mas air­ing on the five ma­jor net­works in a typ­i­cal sea­son.

More than a third of per­form­ers with dis­abil­i­ties re­ported fac­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place, ei­ther be­ing re­fused an au­di­tion or not be­ing cast for a role be­cause of their dis­abil­ity, the study found.

Many per­form­ers fear be­ing can­did about their health or needs to avoid pity or be­ing seen as in­ca­pable of do­ing a job.

There can be added pro­duc­tion ex­penses, said vet­eran cast­ing di­rec­tor Sheila Man­ning, such as hir­ing a trans­la­tor for a per­former who is deaf.

“It costs a lit­tle more, but look at the pos­i­tive re­ac­tion they’re (the net­works) get­ting. I think that more than off­sets the cost,” Man­ning said, adding that it’s the morally right thing to do.

And pro­duc­ers sim­ply can’t com­plain of a shal­low pool of choices.

“There are very tal­ented per­form­ers with dis­abil­i­ties... we just don’t know what pro­duc­ers are think­ing,” said Glo­ria Cas­taneda, pro­gramme di­rec­tor of the Me­dia Ac­cess Of­fice, a Cal­i­for­nia state project that pro­motes hir­ing of the dis­abled in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. It also gives an­nual awards for pos­i­tive por­tray­als.

The cause has union sup­port: A cam­paign spon­sored by three ma­jor en­ter­tain­ment guilds and aimed at cre­at­ing equal em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for ac­tors, broad­cast­ers and record­ing artists just marked its first year.

TV’s past, oddly enough, was brighter. In the 1980s, ac­tors with dis­abil­i­ties could be seen reg­u­larly in a va­ri­ety of shows. They in­cluded the ac­tress Jewell, who co-starred on Facts of Life, and James Stacy, who played a love in­ter­est for Sharon Gless on Cag­ney & Lacey and ap­peared in Wiseguy af­ter los­ing limbs in a mo­tor­cy­cle crash.

RJ John­son, a writer and film­maker, doc­u­mented that pe­riod in Break­ing Ground. Among those in­ter­viewed in the film was an ac­tress who pro­claimed: “We’re never go­ing back. It won’t hap­pen.”

John­son says that “ev­ery­thing aligned” to en­cour­age pro­duc­ers and direc­tors such as Michael Lan­don ( High­way to Heaven) to cre­ate char­ac­ters with dis­abil­i­ties and then hire the right ac­tors to play them.

“Then it kind of faded away,” says cast­ing pro Man­ning. “It was a cause, and then it wasn’t.”

But she sounded a note of op­ti­mism, say­ing: “It’s in the pub­lic con­scious­ness again, so it’s in the pro­duc­tion con­scious­ness.”

A friend was on the mind of Vince Gil­li­gan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Break­ing Bad, when the role of Wal­ter jun was formed.

Gil­li­gan said he was think­ing of a dear col­lege pal, a man “with an in­fec­tious per­son­al­ity”, who died in re­cent years.

“It must have been I wanted to rep­re­sent him in such a fash­ion when I cre­ated the char­ac­ter of Wal­ter jun,” Gil­li­gan told a re­cent in­dus­try fo­rum on the hir­ing and por­trayal of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“There was no rea­son for him to have cere­bral palsy. It just seemed like, ‘why not?’ There’s no bet­ter rea­son than that, I sup­pose.”

More is at stake than ac­tors’ ca­reers, say ad­vo­cates.

“When a per­son with a dis­abil­ity sees a pos­i­tive im­age on TV that looks like them, their whole at­ti­tude changes. It gives them hope for what they can do in the fu­ture,” said Cas­taneda of the Me­dia Ac­cess Of­fice.

It counts for their fam­i­lies as well, said vet­eran writer Ja­nis Hirsch, who works on Broth­ers and ’Til Death, and who had po­lio as an in­fant.

“I am sick and tired of my son not see­ing any­one even re­motely like me on TV,” she said.

“The first time my son saw some­one use fore­arm crutches was the gi­raffe pup­pet in Lion King. He was so ex­cited. Where else do you see it? You just don’t see it.” – Sa­paAP

Glee is on M-Net on Sun­days at 6pm and CSI is on M-Net on Wed­nes­days at 8.30pm.

CON­CERNS: Robert David Hall of CSI fame.

ROLE MOD­ELS: The cast of Glee, Kevin McHale (in wheel­chair), Chris Colfer, Am­ber Ri­ley, Lea Michele, Jenna Ushkowitz and Cory Mon­teith.

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