On the set of the CBS soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," a scene has just completed taping. New cast member Keith Jones turns to the stage manager and asks, "How was it?"
Jones has good reason to feel uncertain: Until a few weeks ago, he was not a professional actor, merely an 18-year-old student at the ERAS School in Culver City, an educational and vocational facility that trains developmentally disabled children and young adults to be self-sufficient.
When he makes his debut in Wednesday's episode of the soap, Jones will become what's thought to be the first mentally disabled actor to appear on a daytime drama.
Hiring a developmentally disabled performer was the brainchild of "B&B" assistant casting director Colleen Bell, who last September began working with Best Buddies, a program created by Anthony Kennedy Shriver to develop friendships between college students and people with mild to moderate mental disabilities. Impressed by what she saw, she suggested the idea to husband Bradley Bell, the show's supervising producer and head writer, who agreed.
Because Ken La Ron's character, Keith Anderson, a bartender at the fictional Bikini Bar in Malibu, had been on the show only since March, it was decided that his story line could easily accommodate a younger brother, Kevin, who aims for a job busing dishes at the bar and happens to be mentally disabled.
Accordingly, Colleen Bell placed casting calls to such organizations as the Special Olympics and the Media Access Office. Jones, who had performed in a few plays at ERAS, was chosen after auditioning for the Bells and casting director Christy Dooley.
"Keith really shined," Bradley Bell says. "He had a great sense of humor and he worked well with Ken."
On the set this day, Jones recites his lines perfectly during each take. Seeing his worry that he is the reason a scene is being re-shot, La Ron reassures him, "You're doing fine." After the final take, set workers and onlookers give him a spontaneous round of applause.
"It felt good. I liked it," Jones says later, seated in his dressing room with his studio teacher. "It's fun, because I get a chance to mingle with famous actors and actresses--to meet them, be around them. These people are nice and friendly to me. Me and Ken are a good match in this soap opera series."
Jones relishes the fact that the actors and director told him he was "fantastic" at remembering his lines. Besides having a good memory, he studies his dialogue every night with his great-aunt; he lives with her and his great-uncle in South-Central Los Angeles. "When I'm here at 'Bold and Beautiful,' me and Ken go over it and he helps me," he says. "It reminds me of being real brothers."
Screen sibling La Ron has already learned from his new colleague.
"Most actors have this tendency to compete in scenes," La Ron says. "But Keith is not aware of those things. He simply comes in and focuses on scenes. There are no walls, no barriers. We get to the essence, the heart of what the scene is about."
Though Jones' mental disability will not be treated as one of the soap's "issues," both Bells nonetheless hope that his presence will be educational for viewers. The reluctance of Bikini Bar manager Sly (played by Brent Jasmer) to hire Kevin mirrors, for instance, that portion of the audience who may also be prejudiced or ill-informed about the capacities of people with developmental disabilities, and will be addressed in the script.
Though Jones has already been promoted from recurring to contract status on the soap, he continues to attend a vocational training program at The Farm Store, a Culver City organic kitchen and market created by the ERAS School, in preparation for job placement. He would like to go to college, perhaps Los Angeles Trade Tech.
Of his current endeavor, he says, "I feel really at home here. It's better working here than at an ordinary job. I'm making a good living. I hope to go on acting a long time. . . . I want to work hard too. I need a good life, a good future. I need good luck.
"I hope people will watch me," he says, then adds, like a typical teen-age boy, "I hope some teen-age girls will watch me."