One of the most beloved characters on the hit Fox show Glee is Artie Abrams, a guitar-playing singer who is a paraplegic, the result of car crash at the age of 8. It took 3 writers to create Artie. He’s been a part of the show since the pilot, and deals with disability issues and bullying. He wears horn-rimmed “nerd” glasses, and he gets picked on by the football players. The actor who plays him, Kevin McHale, is an able-bodied dancer. In fact, in one episode there is a dream sequence in which Artie dances. There’s nothing wrong with an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character. Many have: Jon Voigt as a disabled Vietnam veteran in Coming Home, Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July, Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Many in the disabled community feel that the role of Artie should have gone to a disabled actor, just as the gay community felt that a gay actor should have been cast in Six Degrees of Separation instead of Will Smith (who refused to actually kiss Anthony Michael Hall, a decision he later regretted).
Noted British scriptwriter Richard Curtis is well-known for including disabled characters in his films. David Bower plays Hugh Grant’s hearing-impaired brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And Gina McKee plays his wheelchair-bound friend in Notting Hill. David Bower is indeed hearing impaired. Gina McKee, however, is not physically challenged. But some celebrities are. Actors with disabilities have certainly played characters with disabilities. But there are also some disabled actors whom you would not know are disabled. It shouldn’t matter. The performance is what should stand out. Here are just a few of the more famous artists who have faced adversities.
10. Harold Russell
Harold Russell is the answer to a trivia question: he is one of only 2 non-professional actors to win an Oscar, and he is the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role. In Best Days of Our Lives, from 1946, Russell played Homer Parish, a sailor who lost both of his hands in the WWII. No makeup, no CGI, Russell actually did lose both of his hands during the war. He was still stateside, making a training film, when the TNT he was handling accidentally detonated. The date was June 6, 1944: D-Day. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Russell an honourary Oscar for “Bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” They couldn’t know that he would indeed win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor later that night. He only ever did one other movie 34 years later. But he appeared on TV, on Trapper John MD., China Beach, and Dogtown. Russell was born in Canada. He died in Massachusetts at the age of 88.
9. Gary Burghoff
Gary Burghoff is most famous for playing Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H. As such, he was the only actor from original film version to be cast as a regular on the TV show. Sharp-eyed viewers might have wondered why he was always holding something, usually a clipboard (and sometimes a teddy bear), in his left hand. He was hiding a slight deformity: his left hand was smaller than his right, with 2 fingers that were also smaller than the rest on that hand. It clearly had no effect on the character, or on Burghoff’s ability as a jazz drummer. He played in a jazz trio, and even got to show off his chops on an episode of MASH.
8. Peter Falk
Peter Falk is of course most well-known as Columbo, the trench coat-wearing, cigar-smoking, addled but brilliant detective. He also played The Grandfather/Narrator of the 1987 film The Princess Bride. Falk had a long and prolific career, on both the big and small screen, that ended two years before his death in 2011. Aside from his distinctive voice and slouch, Falk also had a glass eye. He’d had retinoblastoma (the same cancer that led to Jeff Healey’s blindness) and had his eye removed at the age of 3. Being blind in one eye didn’t really have any ill effects on Falk’s life, except that he couldn’t join the military during World War II. But he could college ball. And he could act.
7. Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin made her film debut in Children of a Lesser God. With that, she became the youngest woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She has since distinguished herself in the movies, and on television with recurring roles on Picket Fences, The West Wing, and the L-Word. Matlin has been deaf since the age of 18-months. She has played characters who sign, characters who speak, and characters who do both. She danced her heart out on Dancing With the Stars, and will appear on an episode of Glee this season. Maybe she’ll be in a dream sequence dancing with Artie.
6. Aimee Mullins
Ted Talks made Aimee Mullins a household name. She is a beautiful athlete, actor, and model. As a college student she worked at The Pentagon. She’s run track, played softball, and was a downhill ski racer, all despite the fact that, born without fibula bones, Mullins had her legs amputated at the age of one! She is the first person ever to sport the Cheetah running prosthetics, the same ones used by Olympic gold medalist (and murder suspect) Oscar Pistorius. She’s been a runway model, appeared in Vogue, was voted one of the “50 Most Beautiful People In the World,” and one of the “Greatest American Women of the 20th Century” for her contribution to sport.
5. Rick Allen
Def Leppard could have found a new, able-bodied drummer if they’d wanted to. Their drummer, Rick Allen, lost his left arm in a car accident in 1984. He thought his career was over. But two years later the band was on tour again, with Allen behind the drum kit. A special electronic set designed by Simmons (one-time electronic drums leader) allows Allen to play, operating a series of foot pedals along with his right hand. Allen joined the band in 1978 at the age of 15. The band is still touring today. They’ve made a couple of personnel changes over the years. But Allen is still there behind the drums keeping the band on the rails.
4. Michael J. Fox
Canadian-born Michael J. Fox was already a star as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties before his meteoric rise as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future series. He went back to TV in the 1990s to star on Spin City, and has amassed several awards, including being made Officer of the Order of Canada. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, but hasn’t slowed down one bit, voicing the title character in Stuart Little, and popping up as a semi-regular on The Good Wife, Boston Legal, Scrubs, and elsewhere. As of last September he’s been starring in NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show on NBC, playing a television news personality with Parkinson’s.
3. Geri Jewell, Chris Crazy Legs Fonseca, and Josh Blue
Geri Jewell, Crazy Legs Fonseca, and Josh Blue are all stand-up comedians with different degrees of Cerebral Palsy, but all very funny. Some readers might remember Jewell from Facts of Life on which she played Blair Warner’s cousin. As such, she was the first disabled person to have a regular role on prime time TV. She distinguished herself on Deadwood, and has 2 books under her belt. The title of the latest, I’m Walking as Straight as I can, refers to her Cerebral Palsy, and to her recent coming out as gay.
Chris Crazy Legs Fonseca used to use a walker, but now performs comedy in a wheelchair. Billed as “America’s Original Sit-Down Comic,” he is a Just For Laughs veteran, has been all over the talk-show circuit, played a disabled comic on an episode of Baywatch, and has a couple of CDs. He knows what works, and still uses a joke he’s been using for years: “I’m Mexican AND I have cerebral palsy. So if you make me mad, I’ll pull out a knife and we’ll both get hurt.”
Josh Blue burst on the scene during the 4th season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. He won, of course, because he’s a brilliant comedian with a quick, acerbic wit. He’s picked up several awards since then, has done plenty of TV, and was the first stand-up to appear on Ellen. He plays soccer, paints, and sculpts. With four CDs so far, Josh is currently on tour in the US.
2. Christopher Reeve
We would be remiss if we did not talk about Superman. Christopher Reeve had a very prolific acting career in the movies and on stage. But the 1978 film version of Superman really put him on the map. In 1995 Reeve nearly died in a horse riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He became a vocal activist for people with disabilities, stem-cell research, and other issues. He did act again, most notably starring in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Read Window, appearing in an episode of The Practice, and on a few episodes of Smallville, as a scientist who promised to keep Clark Kent’s secret. Sadly, Reeve died of cardiac arrest in 1994.
1. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman contracted polio at the age of 4, beat it, and learned to walk with crutches. That was a year after he’d fallen in love with classical music and started playing a toy violin. By the age of 19 he’d been on The Ed Sullivan Show twice (he shared the stage with The Rolling Stones), and made it to Carnegie Hall. He’s played with the best musicians, orchestras, and conductors in the world, has many Grammys, an Oscar, and several medals. He is one of the foremost violin players, conductors, teachers in the world, if not the most. For Perlman it’s very important that artists, athletes, or other achievers be recognized for who they are and what they do regardless of their disabilities, physical or otherwise. Despite his crutches, or the scooter he sometimes uses, he is not known as the violinist who had polio, but simply as Itzhak Perlman.
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