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When he tires of answering questions about why he's in a wheelchair, the 7th-grader simply dead-pans: 'Vietnam.' : Out-of-This-World Career Still in Cards for 'Mac and Me' Star

August 23, 1988|STACY JENEL SMITH | Times staff writer Jess Bravin contributed to this story. and

Jade Calegory's mother thinks his major role in life, one for which the Dana Point boy was cast before his birth, is to be an inspiration to others. So she is encouraging his film career as an actor who happens to be handicapped.

A victim of spina bifida, the 12-year-old star of Orion's "Mac and Me," which opened nationally last Friday, had his first surgery when he was 8 days old. Since then, there have been 14 more operations.

These days, in addition to starring in "Mac and Me," he is the spokesman for the National Easter Seal Society's "Friends Who Care" campaign, a disability awareness effort being launched in conjunction with the movie. In "Mac and Me," Jade plays a boy who befriends the youngest member of a family from outer space. That he gets around in a wheelchair adds an affecting thread of reality to the fantasy and provides some striking action.

But, significantly, the crippling illness of Jade's character is not part of the plot, and for disabled actors in the film and television community, that is cheering news. Disabled actors rarely win roles that aren't "written disabled," and it is extraordinary for a boy in a wheelchair to make his film debut in a major motion picture that has nothing to do with his handicap.

Producer R. J. Louis said he always intended to cast a disabled child in the lead. Since "Mac and Me" has a profit-sharing arrangement with the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, Louis said he felt it would be an appropriate thing to do.

Laudable intentions aside, "Mac and Me" has been widely panned as a fast-food rip-off of Steven Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (Mac, by the way, stands--oh-so-cleverly--for Mysterious Alien Creatures. Is it just an acronymic coincidence that Mac is used in the name of one of McDonald's more popular products?) But Calegory's performance is among the pluses cited by several reviewers.

Kathryn Calegory says that when Jade was 5, fresh from a hospital stay and wearing a full body cast, he went outside. She looked out a few minutes later and saw her son speeding by on a skateboard, spread-eagle with one foot held jauntily aloft.

He started competing in the wheelchair divisions of 10-kilometer runs near his home when he was 7 and was soon collecting first-place trophies.

Jade, whose sun-bleached hair hangs over big, expressive eyes, got his first taste of on-camera work four years ago. Producers of the daytime serial "General Hospital" contacted Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles to find a boy in a wheelchair who could give them a "Dennis the Menace"-style turn.

"All it was was running over nurses and stuff like that," said Jade, who seems barely affected by the attention being heaped on him now. (When he tires of answering questions about why he is in a wheelchair, the seventh-grader dead-pans: "Vietnam.")

The "General Hospital" casting director was impressed enough to urge Jade's mother to find him an agent. She did, but he got only one audition in two years and no jobs.

The audition, for a show Jade declined to name, was for the role of a child in a wheelchair, but the job ultimately went to a non-disabled actor.

"It was totally obvious, their attitude," Jade said, of the casting directors on that show. "I think they planned not to use someone in a wheelchair in the first place. They were just kind of bringing disabled people in there just to say they did, you know what I mean?"

Jade, who acknowledges his ambition to have an acting career, said he knows he will face those situations again. "But I'm prepared," he said. "I don't think you can do much about it. Just go in and try."

Jade went through several interviews over a three-month period before being told he had won the role in "Mac and Me." He stars opposite another Orange County child, 5-year-old Erin Wilkinson of Buena Park, who plays Mac in some scenes.

If the movie succeeds, Jade's effort could well bring him more work. Producer Louis envisions his aliens boldly going where no extraterrestrial family unit--save the Coneheads of "Saturday Night Live"--has gone before.

But "Mac" aside, Jade's prospects for an acting career are about the same as for any disabled person.

"It'll be tough for him," said Alan Toy, a veteran actor who heads the Media Access Office, an organization that promotes the disabled in film and TV. "Things are better, certainly better than 10 years ago. I could give you 20 examples of commercials that use actors with disabilities. That's the biggest change. But it still isn't easy, by any means."

Jade's next sporting event won't be easy either: He plans to enter the Los Angeles Marathon next year. As he plans to tell the patients he intends to visit in hospitals as part of his "Friends Who Care" activities: "Never look at the things you can't do, but at the things you can . And always have a goal."

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