Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Activists protesting TV shows that include characters with disabilities but do not cast actors with them

From The Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, Pa.:

This October, when actor Blair Underwood (pictured) steers a wheelchair into crime scenes as the title character in NBC's remake of the drama "Ironside," some nontraditional casting will be evident. As played by the late Raymond Burr from 1967-75, the original Robert T. Ironside -- a police detective disabled by a bullet to the spine -- was white.

But color-blind casting is not the only kind of out-of-the box thinking that could have ensued in re-creating the series, according to professional actors with disabilities who say they feel frustrated when non-disabled actors win roles they would like to try for.

While acknowledging that the casting of Mr. Underwood, a 1988 Carnegie Mellon graduate, reflects the star power he brings, these actors say the decision highlights the uphill battle to convince Hollywood to give them the opportunity to audition for such roles -- as well as roles of non-disabled characters.

"I don't fault any actor for taking the role of a character with a disability. What a great challenge for any actor," said Tobias Forrest, a 38-year-old actor who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury.

"But the big problem is about opportunity," said the Los Angeles-based actor who spent several months in Pittsburgh in 2006 as the lead in a City Theatre production. "If all the chances to play characters with disabilities -- or characters without disabilities -- are given to non-disabled actors, we lose an opportunity to move forward in our careers."

Hollywood's practice of casting big names in the roles of characters with disabilities produces a "Catch-22," notes reporter Greg Gilman, who covered the protestations about the "Ironside" casting in the The Wrap, an entertainment industry publication. "There won't be any disabled stars until disabled actors are given prominent roles," he wrote.

Following publication of Mr. Gilman's article, "Ironside's" producers explained that disabled actors were not considered because about 10 percent of the role involves flashbacks to the time before the character's injury.
Certainly, non-disabled actors have created memorable performances in these types of roles. Consider Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot," Jamie Foxx in "Ray," Gary Sinise in "Forrest Gump" and John Hawkes in "The Sessions."

"Could you find an actor with exactly the same condition as Mark O'Brien to audition for the lead in 'The Sessions?' " asked Mr. Forrest, who had a supporting role in the film. "Probably not. So do what director Ben Lewin did and cast actors with disabilities in supporting roles, so we get a chance to build our resumes."

The number of characters with a disability in television has grown steadily in recent years. This fall alone brings three new offerings. In addition to "Ironside," NBC is also presenting sighted actor J.K. Simmons as a blind lawyer in "Growing Up Fisher" and Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's, as a news anchor with the condition. Casting issues aside, the visibility of these programs brings disability into the mainstream.

Yet ironically, auditioning for too many supporting roles and guest shots involving disability can limit the career path of an actor, says Springdale native John Siciliano, 42, a Los Angeles-based actor and Point Park University graduate who uses a prosthetic leg.

Both he and Mr. Forrest actively audition not only for roles involving disability, but also for non-disabled roles. Only rarely have they won the latter parts.

"When I walk into an audition, you can't tell I have a prosthesis, but it's always about the leg," said Mr. Siciliano.

"Hollywood puts you in a little pipe," he said, adding that he was taken aback as a young actor when he was almost immediately cast as a "crazy, one-legged homeless guy" on both "ER" and "Scrubs." On the plus side, the roles helped him earn his Screen Actors Guild card, he laughed.

Regarding the flap over the "Ironside" casting, he said, "The best actor should always win the role. An actor with a disability is not entitled to a role but to an opportunity to show what they can do."

And breakthroughs do occur, both actors say. Notably, Peter Dinklage, who stars in "Game of Thrones," and Robert David Hall on "CSI" have surpassed being cast solely in terms of their disabilities.

"At the end of the day, talent gets you the job," said Mr. Forrest. "But only if there's a writer who believes the character needs to live, and only if there's a casting director who thinks the actor needs to be seen, and only if there's a producer who believes these choices will make money."