A Hollywood legacy

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 30, 2018 # Mobility, News

In February of 1977, the highly-rated CBS sitcom, “Maude,” produced by the most socially conscious producer in history of American TV, Norman Lear, aired an episode called “Maude’s Reunion.” At a reunion gathering, Maude, played by Bea Arthur, encounters one of her oldest friends now suffering the consequences of a debilitating stroke. Maude can’t handle it. She spends the entire evening avoiding this woman until she no longer can. Her friend sees the disquieted look on Maude’s face and says, “I scare you, don’t I?” Maude’s reply: “You scare the hell out of me.”

In a slightly circuitous fashion, this episode, and the overwhelming positive audience response it received, ignited the Hollywood disability movement. Soon after, Lear cast Geri Jewell, a young actress with CP, as the first regular character with a disability in a primetime show, “Facts of Life.” Around the same time, he co-founded (with Fern Field) the annual Media Access Awards to celebrate the inclusion of disability story lines and characters in mainstream TV and film. Next week the Media Access Awards will celebrate its 39th year with a breakfast ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

A few years after Christopher Reeve’s horrendous accident in May of 1995, he decided to help address the problem of the woeful underrepresentation of performers with disabilities (PWD’s) in Hollywood productions. Disabled actors were – and often still are -- marginalized to an occasional “inspirational” one-off character and even in those roles, non-disabled actors might be cast for convenience sake. Regulars parts for PWD’s like Geri Jewell and the quadriplegic actor, Jim Troesh, a recurring character on “Highway to Heaven,” did not start a trend. Once a struggling actor himself, Chris knew the needs of all young actors, especially those with a disability: financial support.

So was born the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, presented annually at the Media Access Awards and offering a cash prize for noteworthy, aspiring young disabled actors. The foundation has remained committed to this honor in Christopher’s name ever since.

My own involvement in the Media Access Awards began in 2010, so I’ve tried to keep track of the careers of the scholarship winners since then. It’s no news to anyone that not everyone makes it in Hollywood – in fact very few do. And often even those who succeed in forging a career have to wait decades for anyone to notice. It’s a tough racket.

The Reeve scholarship winners of late have done pretty darn well, all things considered. None have become household names – yet – but they are moving up the ladder. The 2010 recipient, Christopher Thornton, a wheelchair user, now works steadily. He was last seen in guest roles in the Netflix series, “The Santa Clarita Diet,” starring Drew Barrymore, and the ABC hit, “Speechless.” Or you might have caught him as recurring character Mr. Milner, the put-upon science teacher, in half the episodes of the recent HBO limited series, “Vice Principals.”

Some of the scholarship winners thrive, some step back or focus on theatre, a much more inviting forum for PWD’s. The 2016 recipient, MacGregory Arey, just signed a 10-month contract with the Oregon Shakespeare Company, starting in 2019. The 2012 winner, Zack Weinstein, now attends Harvard Law School, but still submits his reel for plum auditions. Others, like Katherine Crawford (2015, single amp) and Santina Muha (2013, chair user), have recently landed career-enhancing exposure in top shows like, respectively, “NCIS: New Orleans” and the new “One Day At A Time.”

In a business where opportunities for PWD’s are infinitesimally low and according to a recent Ruderman report, where 95% of disabled characters in the top ten TV shows were played by non-disabled actors, the relative success of the Reeve Scholarship winners is impressive. The cash prize is both a nod of encouragement and a way to pay for those de rigueur 8x10 head shots and resumes.

This year’s Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship recipient, to be announced at the Media Access Awards ceremony on November 1st, is a young, vivacious African-American actress/comedian/advocate named Tatiana Lee. Born with Spina Bifida, Tatiana is studying improv, has a popular web site – accessiblehollywood.com – and was recently featured as a plus-size model in a groundbreaking Parfait Lingerie national ad campaign. Remember her name. You will hear it again, I promise.