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Body Language

November 12, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hellen Keller wasn't quite 7-years-old when teacher Annie Sullivan entered her life. Thanks to Sullivan's determination and skill, the deaf and blind Keller learned not only sign language to communicate, but how to read and write in six languages. Graduating from Radcliffe College, Keller became a best-selling author and was instrumental in starting the American Foundation of the Blind.

ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney" celebrates the lives of Keller and Sullivan with a new adaptation of "The Miracle Worker," William Gibson's classic drama about their remarkable relationship. Alison Elliott ("The Spitfire Grill") and Pepsi spokeschild, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, star in the drama that premieres Sunday.

In previous film and TV movie versions of "The Miracle Worker," the actresses playing Keller--Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert--were actually teenagers. But the executive producers and director of the ABC adaptation thought it was imperative to cast an actress close to Keller's real age.

Casting Eisenberg, who turned 8 during the production, "makes it easier to understand how remarkable [the story] was," says executive producer Charles Hirschhorn.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 2000 Home Edition TV Times Page 3 Television Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Spelling: A headline on the November 12 cover of TV Times on The Wonderful World of Disney's remake of "The Miracle Worker" misspelled the name Helen Keller.

"It's really important to key into that age," adds director, Nadia Tass. "There is such a change that happens at 8. The child goes from this super-naive being into something that is a little more mature. So for me, having an actress playing Helen who is already in her preteen years, her behavior would have a different energy and force."

Born in 1880 in Alabama, Keller was a lively, intelligent baby who could even walk and say a few words before going deaf and blind at 19 months as a result of a fever. Despite her handicap, Keller used her other senses to explore the world.

By the time she was 5, she realized she was different. Keller became increasingly frustrated by the limits of her world and would fly into angry rages. When Keller's rages became uncontrollable, they hired a private tutor.

Annie Sullivan, who lived a good portion of her life in a poor house, had lost her own sight at age 5. Eventually, she entered the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and after two operations her sight was restored. The head of the Perkins School thought the headstrong Sullivan would be perfect for Keller.

Elliott wasn't daunted following in the footsteps of Anne Bancroft who starred as Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker" on Broadway and in the 1962 film version for which she won an Oscar.

"I personally wanted to make it as great as it could be on my own terms," Elliott says. "What was most daunting for me was I knew how well loved [the original movie] was."

Though she had less than two months to prepare for the part, Elliott worked on Sullivan's appearance and dialect and learned sign language.

"There is a scene where Helen is spelling in her sleep and I can attest to the fact that it started happening to me," Elliott says. "I would be dreaming and I would be spelling in my sleep. I wanted to be able to spell well and quickly enough. You have to be pretty agile to do that."

Tass insisted on two weeks of rehearsal so the actresses could learn each other's rhythms. "When Hallie came into the rehearsal I didn't want her to have this awareness of Alison as a person she could see," says the director.

"So, Hallie came into the rehearsal space blindfolded with ear plugs in her ears. Her first impression of Alison--through touch-- was as the character of Annie. We spent an entire day doing that."

One of the most difficult but gratifying scenes for the director and Elliott is the seven-minute sequence in which Sullivan attempts to get Keller to start using a utensils and not her hands to eat. Keller slaps Sullivan. Sullivan slaps her back. Keller breaks the dishes. She kicks and screams. Eventually, Sullivan gets Keller to sit at the table with a spoon in her hands.

"That scene is chamber music without the instruments," says Tass. "The instruments are the two beings. There is nothing said, but there is so much communicated."

*

"The Wonderful World of Disney: The Miracle Worker" airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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