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Soaring Spirit Behind 'Pelswick,' an Animated Quadriplegic

October 20, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

John Callahan is in his wheelchair today, where he's been since age 21, when an auto accident in Long Beach rendered him quadriplegic. In his 1990 memoir, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: The Autobiography of a Dangerous Man," he recalls his final hours on foot:

"On the last day I walked, I woke up without a hangover. I was still loaded from the previous night.

"It was 11 a.m., a hot July 22, 1972. I had no idea where I'd been the night before. Past experience told me I had an hour of grace before withdrawal symptoms set in. So I was a man of leisure. First thing: Light a cigarette. Everybody in the house was gone. I'd slept right through the taped mariachi music Jesus Alvarado turned on at 5:30 every morning to pump himself up for another day of house painting. Music from Taco Bell in hell."

And this is the John Callahan, a recovering alcoholic and former mess-up, who has just created a groundbreaking animated series for children?

The same.

Why groundbreaking? Because like Callahan--a syndicated cartoonist who wears his heroically twisted, dark wit proudly--the 13-year-old protagonist of Nickelodeon's "Pelswick" is paralyzed from the armpits down. Not from the armpits up, though, affirming how the best of TV animation smartens prime time, a surge of brainy cartooning that began memorably on Fox with "The Simpsons."

"Pelswick" is more evidence, too, that Nickelodeon is just about TV's classiest locale for kids.

Beating "Pelswick" to the tape by nearly 10 months was Fox's amusingly bent comedy for adults, "Malcolm in the Middle," which has its own wheelchair adolescent in that endearing wheezebag Stevie.

But Stevie is no more than a fourth banana in "Malcolm," in contrast to Pelswick (voiced by Robert Tinkler), around which everything in this funny, daring new half-hour orbits. Often biting, the humor packs an adult wallop in a series that's not only appropriate but mandatory for kids, given how effortlessly it uses comedy to deflate prevailing stereotypes about the wheelchair crowd.

You hear the C-word--"cripple"--here, as when school bully Boyd (Chuck Campbell) must think of creative ways to abuse and torment Pelswick because he can't bring himself to "punch a cripple." Pelswick, on the other hand, prefers being known as "permanently seated."

Boyd blurting out "cripple" is honest because "being clumsy is part of what kids are," Callahan said from his home in Portland, Ore., where he lives with his dog and cat. "I'd rather have people be clumsy instead of walking on eggshells. When they do that they make you feel like you're wearing a Halloween mask you can never take off. And you're screaming at them, 'It's me, y'know?' "

What you don't hear in "Pelswick" is the G-word, "gimp," which some with physical disabilities have been known to facetiously apply to themselves. "I prefer to be called an invalid," said Callahan, ever self-mocking.

He said he was on the phone recently with famously wheelchaired actor Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic since taking that disastrous jumping fall as an equestrian in 1995. "And you know I was so impressed because he is such a high achiever," said Callahan. "I was thinking that he probably would think of me as the anti-quad."

No one will accuse the anti-quad of walking on eggshells, especially in his often hot-button newspaper cartoons, one of which showed a scantily clad female standing on a conference table welcoming delegates to "The Third Annual Bulimia Convention." Instead of having her pop from a cake, Callahan had the cake popping from her.

No, not for everyone.

His animated series has a different tone and agenda, though. "Pelswick" inhabitants have that mutant-bordering-on-grotesque look. In chinless Pelswick--who has golf-ball eyes, a cucumber nose and a mouth halfway down his neck--Callahan is transferring to TV a kid who surfaced from time to time in his syndicated cartoons, but was not in a wheelchair.

"I had this sudden inspiration based on a thousand little questions children have asked me over the years," Callahan said. "But when I would tell people about the central character being in a wheelchair, they would roll their eyes."

Other characters in the series include Pelswick's best friends Ace (Phil Guerrero) and Goon (Peter Oldring); his heartthrob Julie (Julie Lemieux); his mellow father (Tony Rosato); his toothless screwball of a granny, Gram Gram (Ellen-Ray Hennessy); and Mr. Jimmy (David Arquette), a mentor of many looks who can be seen only by Pelswick.

The usually unsaid PHN-words ("pick her nose") are shockingly uttered in the opening episode which finds a reluctant Pelswick being tricked by Boyd into running for student body president against Julie in an election featuring the usual "dirty tricks and blind ambition."

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