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Actress Is Much Admired for Her Walk-On Roles

January 01, 1988|CONNIE BENESCH | Benesch, a graduate student at Northwestern, is a Calendar intern. and

She stands 5 feet 3. That is, she did on the day she auditioned for the part of a disgruntled, disabled woman who should look around 16. But when she played a pink-, gold- and blue-haired punker questioned in a bar by the FBI, she stood 5 feet 7. And in February, when she gets another new set of legs, she'll stand 5 feet 5.

Height is no problem for Barbara Adside, an actress who has appeared on episodes of "Night Court," "Simon & Simon," "Superior Court," "Lottery," "HBO Comedy Hour," "Masquerade," "Fame," "The Fall Guy" and "Cagney & Lacey."

The 24-year-old performer, who was born without lower legs, simply puts on a different set of prosthetic devices that let her adjust her stature to the story.

Last month, for example, Adside, sporting her 5-foot-7 look, was shooting for her latest role--and her first in a feature film. She played the nondisabled part of a sullen punker in "G-Men," a Heathdale Productions Inc. film about two women training for the FBI.

Casting director Stanzi Stokes said that Adside initially struck her as "a very open, sweet, warm person"--quite unlike the character she was being asked to play. Even so, Stokes observed, Adside was able to "portray the right attitude--a little bit stoned out, a little bit hostile . . . and yet come out with this funny line."

While recently Adside has been winning TV and film roles, for most of her life she was dissuaded from acting. "From elementary school through high school, there was a lot of prejudice," she said during a recent interview.

"They gave me every excuse in the book--from insurance to what-not for why I would not be able to take acting classes or be on stage for theatrical productions," added Adside.

She says that she encountered further prejudice in junior high school, when she wasn't allowed to play drums. She learned to play them anyway and went professional at age 16, performing rock and folk music three nights at East Coast nightclubs. And while living in Florida from age 18 to 20, she played gigs there as well.

But Adside abandoned her musical career four years ago to set off for Los Angeles to audition and then join the Performing Arts Theater for the Handicapped training program.

The theater, a nonprofit organization founded eight years ago (with offices now based in Carlsbad), offers free workshops for would-be actors and writers with disabilities. It is also the group that Adside credits with helping to launch her acting career.

The actress has since had parts on TV shows, student films and a McDonald's commercial--playing characters both with or without disabilities.

David Impastato, director of the McDonald's commercial, remembered that "Barbara seemed better able to overcome her handicap than the rest of us seem able to.

"I must tell you, frankly, I was really inspired by her . . . (by) watching her perform and strive. . . . Somehow you decide that maybe you could be doing better yourself. You're not trying hard enough. You feel if she can do it, I can do it."

Adside's favorite role thus far was as a guest star in a "Night Court" episode, "Walk, Don't Wheel," which aired in 1985 on NBC. She played Kristin Dunne, a legless woman whom series star Harry Anderson escorted to a school prom.

Reinhold Weege, "Night Court" executive producer, noted that he adapted the episode for Adside. "I was very taken with her," he recalled. "I'm sure she's much more courageous than anything I portrayed in the piece. I have a lot of admiration for anybody who wins a tough battle of any kind."

Adside said that the character she played "thought that any rejection she got was because she was disabled. I face that in the regular world," she noted. "Guys'll make up stories. But I think that guys will say that to other girls, too, whether or not they have disabilities." However, as Adside noted, she has no problems finding dates herself.

Adside even prefers people to ignore her disability. "I have people come up to me and say, 'My feet are killing me.' I just start to laugh. It makes me feel good--they forget. My feet never hurt, to say the least," she said, chuckling.

But she contends that she--and other actors--have been denied roles due to their disabilities. Directors and producers, she said, "usually have a preconceived notion that somebody with a disability will slow down production. . . .

"People sometimes act like my disability is contagious. If they shake hands with you, they might think they would wake up without legs in the morning," she said, giggling.

"I've had this (the disability) all my life. To me, it's normal. I never knew any differently."

Adside therefore learned to take care of herself at an early age. "I had to. It was survival. I'm a fighter, I guess. Definitely not a wimp." Another giggle.

"From the day I was born, the medical doctors thought the worst," Adside said. "They thought I wouldn't live past seven months. Then, they upped it to seven years. They also thought I would be retarded or a vegetable and that I wouldn't walk."

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