Monday, April 7, 2008

LA Times: Actors with disabilities gaining a toehold in Hollywood

Chris Burke , right, and Michael Rankin in a 1991 episode
of ABC’s “Life Goes On.”

The Los Angeles Times did a nice package of stories April 7 about actors with disabilities, primarily focusing on people with intellectual disabilities, finding jobs in Hollywood.

One story gave an overview of the kinds of acting jobs actors with disabilities are getting, and talked to Nick Daley, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome, and guest starred on TNT's "Saving Grace" last season and Blair Williamson, who has Down syndrome, played a young man who received a nose job on F/X's "Nip/Tuck."

About 10% of Screen Actors Guild members have a disability, according to the article, and talent agents say placing actors with developmental disabilities is becoming easier.

"Why shouldn't more people be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them?" says Media Access Office volunteer Gail Williamson, Blair Williamson's mother. The Media Access Office is California's liaison between performers with disabilities and the media.

The 1989 TV series "Life Goes On" started a major trend by using actor Chris Burke, who has Down syndrome, (picture above) in a prime-time family drama in which one of the children had Down syndrome.

John Frank Levey, now senior vice president of casting for John Wells Productions, says in the Times article that working with Burke was his first experience working with an actor with a disability and it was such a positive experience that he has been hiring actors with disabilities every since.

"Chris Burke came into the network test, a dehumanizing experience for any actor," Levey says. "Rather than being disarmed, he disarmed everybody and went around the room giving hugs."

"Over the years, Levey has cast actors who are deaf, blind, HIV-positive and developmentally disabled, with an eye on keeping it real. 'Authenticity is an important part of good film and television,' he says."

The story also mentions a new ABC Family TV show in development that has cast Luke Zimmerman, 29, who has Down syndrome, to play the disabled older brother in a family of teenagers. The new show is being created by Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer for the family drama "7th Heaven." Apparently, Zimmerman won the role over a number of non-disabled actors. Way to go, Luke!

Two other related stories in The LA Times focused on a theater program that trains people with disabilities, Performing Arts Studio West, and the law in California that granted services and funding to people with disabilities for independent living.

Many thanks to Susan Brink, the Los Angeles Times staff writer who wrote the stories, for covering an important issue with such depth. My only question is why were these stories run in the Health section? They are much more appropriate to the Entertainment, Business or Feature sections.