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Welcome Reunion as Metrano Perseveres After Accident

Television * A role with buddy Craig T. Nelson on CBS' 'The District' boosts the comeback for the paralyzed actor-comic.

February 02, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Craig T. Nelson, star of CBS' new crime drama "The District," asked the writing staff about creating a guest role for Art Metrano, producer Scott Williams immediately volunteered.

Metrano, Williams remembered from an article that ran in The Times, is the veteran comic and actor who was paralyzed in 1989 after falling off a ladder while working on the roof of his house, fracturing his neck in what is called "hangman's break," which often proves fatal.

Perhaps best known for his mock magic act, "The Amazing Metrano," and roles in film comedies such as the "Police Academy" series, Metrano transformed his arduous tale of recovery--which now allows him to walk a little and jet around in his wheelchair a lot--into a one-man stage show, "Metrano's Accidental Comedy," which played at the Odyssey Theatre through the spring and was recently selected as one of the year's best one-person shows by LA Weekly.

Williams stepped forward because of his own history with lobbying on behalf of the disabled. He and his wife, Catherine Curry-Williams, lost their infant son Shane in 1997 to spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that would have left him disabled had he survived.

The couple have since channeled their efforts into a campaign to help such children, recently culminating with the opening of Shane's Inspiration, a playground at Griffith Park designed to provide access for disabled youths.

"I immediately said, 'I'll write it,' " Williams said of the episode featuring Metrano, which airs Saturday and happens to coincide with the first weekend of the February rating sweeps.

In the show, Metrano plays a former partner of Nelson's character--tough-minded Washington, D.C. Police Chief Jack Mannion--who had been paralyzed after slipping on ice and sustaining a neck injury.

A Re-Teaming of Radio Writer-Performers

Nelson and Metrano, in fact, worked together on an Emmy-winning local variety show, hosted by the radio team of Al Lohman and Roger Barkley, which aired on NBC stations in California during the 1970s. The two served as writers and performers on the program--which marked the start of Nelson's career--along with a team that included director Barry Levinson and John Amos, who currently co-stars on "The District."

Yet for Metrano, who has struggled with medical bills and to support himself since his injury, the call represented more than a reunion.

"It's amazing to go from nothing to get this really good role that had some meat on it," Metrano said.

Williams--who also created a part for a disabled character during a previous stint on the CBS police drama "Brooklyn South"--said he tailored the subplot about Mannion's partner to Metrano, a crusty New York native who has played cops before. After initially having the character wounded in the line of duty, the story evolved into having the injury happen in a more mundane way.

"This man, in spite of his misfortune, is living a full life from his wheelchair," Williams said. "[The episode] enabled me to say some things . . . in my stand for people with disabilities."

Metrano, meanwhile, is hoping response to the episode inspires the producers to bring his character back. CBS has already picked up "The District" through this season. It currently averages about 12.8 million viewers. Depending on reaction to the episode, Williams said he sees no reason why Metrano's role couldn't recur somewhere down the road.

The irony of being in a prime-time police drama isn't lost on Metrano. In July, feeling somewhat frustrated by the dearth of opportunities available to him, he said, "I can't get arrested. . . . I used to joke with [his manager], 'Let's do a remake of "Ironside." ' At least I need the wheelchair."

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* "The District" airs Saturday nights at 10 on CBS. The network has rated this week's episode TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).

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