Paralysis with a Twist

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on November 18, 2020 # Events

Danny J. Gomez, this year’s recipient of the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, presented at the virtual 2020 Media Access Awards (streaming on mediaaccessawards2020.com), was, in his words, “caught in the rat wheel of life,” the day in 2016 he crashed his mountain bike and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. In the wake of an earlier horror -- his family home being destroyed in Hurricane Katerina in 2005 -- he had come to LA to try to become an actor and it wasn’t working out. He had lost his drive to succeed and more importantly, his confidence. It felt like a typical Hollywood story, one many times more prevalent than the Hollywood-made getting-discovered-at-the-soda-fountain fairy tale. There are 160,000 members of the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, representing every on-screen talent from Brad Pitt to puppeteers. A huge majority of these people are unemployed. Danny had yet to qualify for a SAG-AFTRA card. You can’t work in a professional film or TV without one.

So, sitting in a bed at the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Hospital in Downey, CA, trying to absorb the impact of his injury, acting was the furthest thing from Danny’s mind. He had been drinking heavily. He knew he had to stop that. He certainly wouldn’t be asked back to his old job of bartending. He was lost and alone. Most of you reading this blog know the feeling.

Being alone and having to think of his life in a new way had a positive effect on Danny. Shortly after rehab, and with all the instant learning involved in everything from going to the bathroom to fixing dinner, two fortuitous events occurred. Out of the blue, a friend called to say they had suggested him for a commercial. For whatever reason, he said yes. Somehow auditioning didn’t seem as earthshattering or nerve-wracking as it always had. He had just cheated death. What difference would failing an audition make? All of a sudden, he was no longer nervous about acting. His confidence was coming back.

At the same time, Danny discovered a community of people just like him. They embraced him, made him feel welcomed and loved, treated him like a brother in arms. He signed on as an ambassador to the local Triumph Foundation, a Southern California group dedicated to helping people with paralysis, and became something of an overnight sensation in the area of wheelchair sports. This led to other advocacy work, all of which brought him closer to a community he didn’t even know existed.

Again, out of the blue, Danny was asked to act in a short film as part of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, an annual event that challenges disabled filmmakers and actors to knock out a short film over a weekend. From the attention garnered by this made-for-nothing short, Danny signed with a talent agent, Gail Williamson, a legend in the Hollywood disability community for her tireless work on behalf of disabled performers, including stars like the Tony-winning wheelchair actress, Ali Stroker.

Things started to fall into place. While still acting in yearly Easterseals Disability Film Challenge shorts, Danny got the call to appear in an episode of the NBC primetime hit, “New Amsterdam.” In the episode, “Liftoff,” he plays an ace fighter pilot, afraid of nothing, struggling with the cruel fate of paralysis. “New Amsterdam” is a show well-known for casting disabled actors in demanding disabled roles. Danny, in a word, killed.

In short, this is a Hollywood success story, a real Hollywood success story, one with a wonderful twist. There is no guarantee that Danny is going to move into the ranks of Hollywood stardom, or even a career as a continuously employed character actor. But there is no question that he is talented, highly motivated, confident, and indefatigable. There is also no question that he is surrounded by fellow actors and advocates who will love and support him no matter what. That may be the greatest success of all.

Make sure to tune in on November 19, 2020, to stream the virtual Media Access Awards. The award show will be available to stream on the website after the premiere as well.