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Rising stars

They're actors with developmental disabilities, and more often they're showing up in roles on the big and small screens.

April 07, 2008|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

Nick DALEY, 28, has Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by short stature, low muscle tone and mild retardation. He's also been in 17 films and 11 television shows, including a guest-starring role in last season's TNT series "Saving Grace."

"If I were a star, I would be on all over the world," he says. "I would be mobbed by fans. People would see my name and get my autograph."

Blair Williamson, 28, is an actor with Down syndrome. He has been in clothing commercials for Macy's, was once murdered in a "CSI" episode and had a nose job on a "Nip/Tuck" episode.

"I love being an actor," he says. "It makes me feel good inside me."

Daley and Williamson are among a growing number of people with developmental disabilities -- including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, mild retardation and seizure disorders -- who want to be in the movies, or on TV. They want to make records, or be in commercials. They want what a lot of people in this town want: to be stars.

And some of them are getting close.

Their aspirations are a small part of a sea change in thinking about adults with disabilities since 1973, when California passed landmark legislation known as the Lanterman Act (updated in 1977). It granted services (and funding for them) to people with disabilities to let them live as independent a life as possible.

Since that time, people with disabilities slowly and persistently have paved a new way for themselves, allowing society to grow accustomed to seeing them bagging groceries, running flower stands, serving coffee or stocking shelves. "Our constituents want to work, to be active members of society, to earn money," says Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, vice president of Easter Seals Southern California.

And over the decades since the Lanterman Act was passed, people with developmental disabilities are not only coming out of hiding, they're also showing up on the big and small screens as casting directors discover the obvious: People with disabilities who have acting talent can actually play people with disabilities.

According to statistics from the Media Access Office, the state's liaison between performers with disabilities and the media, in 2001, the office submitted 1,087 performers' resumes, which resulted in 64 entertainment jobs. In 2002, the office submitted 961 resumes, resulting in 166 hires. Since then, says Gloria Castaneda, the office's program director, staff limitations have prevented updated statistics.

It's still a rough road for the 10% of Screen Actors Guild members who have a disability. But for talent agents such as Carmel Wynne, who places actors with developmental disabilities, this client pool is becoming an easier sell.

"Why shouldn't more people be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them?" says Media Access Office volunteer Gail Williamson of North Hills, Blair Williamson's mother.

Keeping it real

Probably the easiest casting call is when the role is for a character with a unique physiognomy. "It's a slam dunk with Down syndrome," says Wynne, director of talent at Performing Arts Studio West, a state-funded acting, music, dance and production studio for people with developmental disabilities in Inglewood (see related story). She's referring to the classic facial features associated with the syndrome. "More nontraditional disabilities are harder," she says.

Although the viewing public has come to accept story lines about people with disabilities, typically, non-disabled actors get the roles, as in "My Left Foot," "As Good As It Gets," and "Rain Man." The 1989 television series "Life Goes On" was a breakthrough -- a prime-time drama about a family with two children, one of whom had Down syndrome. In that show, Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, played Corky Thatcher, the child with Down syndrome.

John Frank Levey, now senior vice president of casting for John Wells Productions, worked with Burke -- his first experience with an actor with a disability. "Chris Burke came into the network test, a dehumanizing experience for any actor," Levey says. "Rather than being disarmed, he disarmed everybody and went around the room giving hugs."

Over the years, Levey has cast actors who are deaf, blind, HIV-positive and developmentally disabled, with an eye on keeping it real. "Authenticity is an important part of good film and television," he says.

Levey cast Nick Weiland, 29, who has Down syndrome and is a Performing Arts Studio West client, in the role of Peter Fonda's son in an "ER" episode last season. Levey was impressed with the actor. "Nicholas was a delight on the set," he says. "He was prepared, open and flexible. He was an actor."

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