By TOM FERAN
PLAIN DEALER TELEVISION AND RADIO CRITIC
Actress Laura Innes of "ER" doesn't walk with a cane. Neither did her Dr. Kerry Weaver when the role was created.
Weaver's seldom-mentioned arm crutch was added before the character arrived during the show's second season. Innes won acclaim for her performance, but it was a lost opportunity for actress Christopher Templeton, who also auditioned for the part. She uses a cane in real life as a result of childhood polio.
"That was a mistake 'ER' took a lot of flak for," said Gloria Castaneda of the Media Access Office, a disability liaison group to the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. "It upset a lot of people in the disability community. 'ER' has been very careful since then as to whom they hire with disabilities."
Since then, "ER" has even exceeded the Screen Actors Guild contract, which requires that disabled actors have the chance to audition when a disability is represented. It has reached outside professional acting ranks to fill particular roles, and it has taken pains to be accurate in portrayals.
But actors and characters with disabilities have only recently begun making wider inroads on television. Advocates say that the 54 million Americans with disabilities remain TV's "invisible minority" - not even included in the past year's network diversity initiatives, which covered only ethnic minorities.
"We’re trying to open Hollywood’s eyes," Castaneda said. "Disability is everywhere and should be shown on the large and small screen. When you show a person with a disability, and if it’s not mentioned in the story, it says a lot to many people who see the images - to accept people with disabilities in their own communities and jobs, to say, That person’s in a chair, but their brain works.’ It does affect the community in general.
"It’s not where we want it to be," she said. "You don’t see much of it. It was during the ’80s that there was a lot more interest and attention on TV in performers with disabilities."
A decade ago, ABC’s weekly "Life Goes On" starred Christopher Burke, an actor with Down syndrome. CBS’ "Wiseguy" co-starred Jim Byrnes, who had lost his legs in an accident. NBC’s "L.A. Law" featured Larry Drake as retarded office worker Benny Stulwicz. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin starred opposite Mark Harmon on NBC’s "Reasonable Doubts" as an assistant district attorney.
Not entirely stretching the point, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" featured sighted actor LeVar Burton as Geordi LaForge, the blind navigator who could "see" with a high-tech visor. And the ABC sitcom "Good and Evil" featured Mark Blankfield as a blundering blind psychiatrist - though the broadly played part, like one he had on NBC’s "The Nutt House," drew protests from the National Federation of the Blind.
A few seasons earlier, Jeffrey Tambor starred as a blind professor on the NBC comedy "Mr. Sunshine," and James Franciscus had the title role of a blind detective on ABC’s "Longstreet."
First series regular Actress Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, was credited as the first disabled person to become a series regular when her Cousin Geri joined NBC’s sitcom "The Facts of Life" in the early 1980s. Some thought the door was opened partly by Raymond Burr, who used a wheelchair on "Ironside" as a chief of detectives left paralyzed by a would-be assassin.
But disability "kind of got dumped in the back seat" in the ’90s, said Gail Williamson, the coordinator of talent development and industry relations for Media Access.
While some earlier attention had come in anticipation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which promised greater accessibility for disabled people, Hollywood’s social consciousness shifted to AIDS and then to gay issues in the 1990s. Networks and studios also began playing it safer with their production investments, growing less daring and risk-taking in the casting of shows.
Actors and producers say the door is opening again, largely in supporting and guest roles where actors place a premium on "nontraditional casting," in which disability is not part of the story line.
A leading example is Robert David Hall, who is recognized more for his craft than for his disability though he spent a year in a burn unit, learning to walk with artificial limbs, after losing his legs in a truck collision in 1978. He appears on the Dec. 22 episode of CBS’ "C.S.I." in his recurring role as the coroner, returns as a judge to ABC’s "The Practice" on Sunday, and plays another judge Monday on CBS’ "Family Law."
His numerous guest roles include a professor on "The West Wing" - which has featured Matlin as a campaign chief for Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet, a character who has multiple sclerosis.
Deaf actress Fran Ripplinger, a stage veteran, guest-starred Friday on the WB’s "Popular." Joy Mincey Powell, a wheelchair user in her early 20s, co-starred as a cheerleader last night on UPN’s "The Parkers," echoing her real-life experience in high school.
"Disabled people are often overlooked," said the show’s executive producer, Sara Finney. "They shouldn’t be."
"Writers and producers are starting to understand that a character with disability can lend more depth to a piece," said Williamson.
While her chief concern is the employment of performers with disabilities, advocates also are concerned with on-screen images - especially since the only diversity that some people see is on TV.
Such is the case with "Pels- wick," an entertaining new cartoon series seen at 8 tonight on cable channel Nickelodeon. Its title character is an otherwise average 13-year-old who uses a wheelchair.
"I created Pelswick because I want kids to know that people using wheelchairs are just like everybody else, and they want to be treated the same as everybody else," said cartoonist John Callahan, 49, a quadriplegic who was paralyzed in a 1972 car accident.
A little lampooning Besides providing laughs, he believes the show can answer questions that Nickelodeon’s young viewers have about disability - with some agreeable lampooning of politically correct attitudes, as when Pelswick refers to himself as "permanently seated."
Unlike his Stevie Kenarban on Fox’s "Malcolm in the Middle," actor Craig Lamar Traylor does not use a wheelchair. But Williamson agreed the writing is "really very good" for Stevie, Malcolm’s best friend, and was satisfied that actors with disabilities had the chance to audition.
Similarly, she thought it was "very cool" that "Malcolm" star Frankie Muniz had the lead in Disney Channel’s "Miracle in Lane 2," about a kid with spina bifida who built and raced a Soapbox Derby car. The pool of young actors with disabilities didn’t turn up another lead, she said, and Muniz’s stature "got people to see a disability story they might not otherwise" - much as when 8-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, best known for Pepsi commercials, played Helen Keller in ABC’s recent remake of "The Miracle Worker."
Accuracy and authenticity are valued, not political correctness. Williamson recalled defending an episode of "Ally McBeal," in which Ling (Lucy Liu) berated a client in a wheelchair for getting in her way and using "all the good parking spaces," against criticism it was rude and insensitive.
"Had Ling been anything else," she said, "it would have patronizing and out of character. It was fabulous.
"We don’t want to be the gimp cops. We want to help them do it right, so it’s not inappropriate or untrue. They have to put their art together, and we don’t want the wrong story to take somebody’s eye off the art they’re making."
The benefits can extend beyond the art.
Williamson, who started as a "mom volunteer" educating parents about the benefits of dramatic arts for children with disabilities, has a 20-year-old son with Down syndrome. She recalled that "Life Goes On" did more than give him a role model - after the show began airing, people in stores and restaurants who once addressed him only through her and her husband began to engage him as an individual.
"I want more people to have the experience I had with Life Goes On,’" she said.
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