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Blind Actress: Setting Her Sights on the Stars

April 04, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

Sometimes Cheryl McMannis jumps from a cliff in her hang-glider, holding a walkie-talkie in her hand to communicate with her instructor on the beach below.

Sometimes she dives 60 feet beneath the surface of the ocean off the jagged coast of Catalina, pushing away rocks to protect her face while a partner grips her oxygen tank to guide her.

And sometimes she skis down snowy slopes while wearing a headset to hear instructions from a guide. Or she wins dancing contests in Hollywood nightclubs.

Blind Since Birth

McMannis, 31, an actress who has had major roles on "Simon & Simon" and "T.J. Hooker" television episodes, lives this versatile life despite being blind since birth.

Born in Downey three months prematurely and weighing 2 1/2 pounds, she was placed in an incubator. McMannis said oxygen pumped into the incubator to maintain the oxygen level in her arteries caused the growth of abnormal blood vessels that damaged her retinas and left her sightless.

With only minimal light perception in her left eye, she can tell whether it is day or night but cannot distinguish people or figures.

The actress also has overcome other illnesses. At age 8 she contracted encephalitis, which caused a loss of memory. She repeated a year in school and relearned everything, and she went on to graduate from Millikan High School in Long Beach and Biola University in La Mirada.

A Fall Off the Fence

Yet McMannis has done what she has wanted since she was a girl in Long Beach, where, she recalled, she once fell hard on her back while following her sighted brothers on a walk across the top of a cinder-block fence.

There were other bumps picked up as she followed her brothers, Bob, now 28 and an accountant from Irvine, and Craig, now 25 and a custom cabinet worker from Anaheim.

Once she fell hard while standing on a bicycle. Another time she developed gangrene after catching her foot in the wheel when riding on the back of a bicycle.

McMannis was brought up in what she described as a strict, conservative, "almost Midwestern" Baptist home, where her accountant father, Robert, and her housewife mother, Shirley, imposed what she sometimes thought were unusual limits on her social life.

The parents also felt, however, that it would handicap McMannis to prevent her from doing things that sighted children do. They never treated Cheryl as though she was handicapped, Shirley McMannis said.

But Cheryl said her family's conservatism left her with a distrust of the Hollywood life style, and it was only because of the encouragement of a producer that she went into acting five years ago.

She became one of the few sightless people to play a lead on a television series, appearing on "Simon & Simon" as a blind professor who is present at the scene of a murder.

Performs Own Stunts

She performed her own stunts for the part, running through an underground garage and diving under a car to elude the killer. The result, in real life, was a torn groin muscle.

McMannis also played a blind witness in two other television shows, including a recent "T.J. Hooker" episode.

The 5-foot-4-inch performer, who wore a silk hibiscus in her shoulder-length, curly blond hair during a recent interview, said her next goal is to perform in a dance-musical or a play.

"I would like to be mainstreamed with normal people rather than with handicapped and still be able to do the lead. Isn't that terrible?" she asked. "I think that would be the ultimate (tribute to my) talent."

In the living room of her Hollywood apartment, a typewriter and a Braille writer rest on a desk near a wall rack filled cassettes of books and music.

In the bedroom, McMannis' blue skis stand in a corner. A blue, pink and yellow blanket that she crocheted is folded on a chest, and nearby her tap-dancing shoes lie in a closet.

She was pursuing a master's degree in special education and was working part time at the Braille Institute in Anaheim when producer David Sher called the institute seeking a blind actress.

Sher wanted a lead for a new television series about a blind college student.

The institute recommended scores of candidates before a representative called to say that it had overlooked one--McMannis--and persuaded Sher to drive to Anaheim for a final interview.

"I was waiting in the director's office when Cheryl came in with no cane and no glasses and no guide dog," he said. "I watched her walk through the whole office not realizing that she couldn't see. She came up to me, put her hand out and said, 'Are you Mr. Sher?'

"She was wearing a dress and she looked bright and perky with flowers in her hair and a smile from ear to ear . . . until I finally confessed what I was looking for. The smile disappeared. She told me that acting was the last thing in the world she wanted to do--that she had difficulty even getting up in front of groups to talk.

"I was also told that she was fearful of even talking to Hollywood types. It took me about a half- hour to convince her that there are all kinds of people in Hollywood."

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