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For once, his disability was an advantage

TELEVISION : PRIME-TIME TV

March 02, 2008|Josh Gajewski | Special to The Times

Maybe one day, RJ Mitte will just be RJ Mitte. Actor. Talented, funny and handsome.

Maybe one day, he'll be many other things before he is RJ Mitte, the kid with cerebral palsy.

And maybe one day a story like this won't have to concentrate so much on a person's disability. But such is the world we live in, where RJ Mitte (pronounced MITT-ee) represents an anomaly that underscores a glaring Hollywood flaw: Although nearly 20% of Americans from the ages of 5 to 64 have some kind of disability, less than 2% of the characters on TV display one, and only one-half of 1% actually have speaking parts -- this according to a study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild that was published in 2005.

And yet here's Mitte, every Sunday night on AMC's "Breaking Bad," delivering funny lines and some welcomed levity to a show about a man dying of cancer.

"TV feels like it's about the beautiful people, doesn't it?" said series creator Vince Gilligan, inspired long ago by a college friend who had CP. "There's always this push in TV to populate these series with people who are good-looking and tall and youthful and all the things that most of us aren't in real life."

Well, truth be told, Mitte happens to be all those things. But he's also just like any other 15-year-old: He's into Guitar Hero and girls ("But I like staying single"), paintball and rock climbing ("Broken nine or 10 bones"). He doesn't like school and pretends to dislike his 4-year-old sister -- "She's a mess," said RJ. "Oh no, he's a phenomenal big brother. Very protective," said his mother, Dyna.

He has a dog named Pearl, 110 MySpace friends and he's all about watching TV, "though on Sunday nights," said Mom, "when he's on, he gets up to go fix something to drink. It's strange for him, I guess. But then he gets calls from his friends, and he kind of grins."

The fruits of being an actor? "Pretty much just the stuff I can buy," he said with that same grin. But Mom told us this: "We were talking one night and I said, 'So what do you want to get out of this?' He said, 'Mom, I really hope people with disabilities can see that you can do what you want to do, and accomplish whatever you want.'

"You know," she added, "I think the hardest time for RJ was when he was in maybe second or third grade and all of his friends were playing football. That wasn't possible for him because of his hand-eye coordination, and I remember him sitting down and crying. . . . When he started acting, I didn't know if I wanted him to go through the emotional thing of getting turned down, but RJ said, 'No, it's OK, I want to try it.' And now he says, 'I finally have my niche.' "

Chance encounters

IRONICALLY, it was the little sister who paved Mitte's way. In 2005, she was noticed by a talent agent while at a water park in Houston, where the Mittes had just moved from their native Louisiana. That led to an agent meeting in Los Angeles, where the agent saw RJ and asked to sign him up too. The Mittes moved to Hollywood, and RJ added acting classes to a daily regimen of exercise and speech therapy intended to dull the effects of CP, a neurological disorder that causes speech and muscle impediment of varying degrees. And sometimes puts things in perspective.

"When RJ went to the AMC Cinematheque gala for Julia Roberts," said his mother, "I asked him how it was and who he got to meet." "He said, 'Oh, just people.' Later I found out that he'd met some real stars [such as Denzel Washington] and when I asked him again, he said, 'Oh, they're people just like we are.'

"The one thing with RJ, because he's gone through so much with CP, to him everyone is a person, whether you're a star or a kid going to school. I think RJ knows everyone has feelings and everyone has a place."

Though for special-needs actors in Hollywood, that place seems small. According to the SAG study, researched by Olivia Raynor and Katharine Hayward of UCLA, only a third of SAG members with disabilities reported working in a theatrical or TV production in 2003, and those who did worked an average of 4.1 days that year. Chief among the complaints: only being considered for disability-related roles, and then seeing those roles given to able-bodied actors anyway.

It should be noted that language has long existed within the contract between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and SAG that affirms a "commitment to a policy of non-discrimination and fair employment" and "to continue the active promotion of diversity," but hopeful words don't necessarily mean implementation.

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