Nine-year-old Tyler Crose runs ahead of his mother with his baby sister's diaper bag, rushing to see his favorite television star, "Life Goes On' actor Chris Burke.
Tyler was at Pinellas Park High School, along with about 300 other physically disabled and mentally handipacced students. Tyler, who has Down's syndrome just like his TV idol, takes a seat near the front of the auditorium and waits excitedly for the rally to begin.It is a rare public appearance for Burke.
Frank Burke explains that his son who is the first actor with Down's syndrome to land a starring role on a TV series, received hundreds of invitations to address organizations for the handicapped. But because of his 12-hour, five-days-a-week work schedule from July through April on the one-hour ABC-TV program, Burke simply cannot accept most of them.
"My son was having problems at school," says Tyler's mother, Michelle Larson of Clearwater, Fla. "Then the program came on last year and Tyler made a turn around. Now he says, "I be like Corky.'"
Corky Thacher, an active high school student, is the character Burke, 24, plays on "Life Goes On." The show is about a middle-class family of five and start Patti LuPone and Bill Smitrovich.
"Before Corky," says Cindy Harshbarger, a social worker, "the mentally handicapped viewed wrestlers as their role models. I don't know why, but that's who many of them got into looking up to. Corky is certainly more positive for them to try to emulate!"
Teacher Kathy Clement cites one episode that dealt with the Special Olympics as her favorite : "The program didn't say, 'Isn't this cute that they can do this?' Instead it emphasized that these kids become trained athletes and very competitive for this event."
Nineteen-year-old Amy Dormois, who also has Down's syndrome, leads the group in the salute to the flag and says later that she always watches the show and loves Corky.
After a film clip with an emotional scene between Smitrovich (as the father, Drew) and Burke talking about Corky's running for freshman class president, Burke, dressed in a blue sports jacket and gray slacks, reads a short speech to the enthusiastic, cheering audience. Some even responded with the barking chant popular from the Arsenio Hall Show: Wooh! Wooh! Wooh!
Burke says the greatest part of success is "to be able to become independent." Then he ad-libs with a laugh, "And that's all I have to say."
Burke, who according to his father has never been shy, later expresses excitement that "Life Goes On" will be on location in Hawaii in July for two weeks.
He says he has a hard time memorizing scripts, but doesn't mind working the long days. He calls his congenital mental deficiency, "the Up syndrone," and adds witha wide grin that he has "just a slight case of it."
Burke is upbeat and friendly, but he says he has missed his mother, Marian, who hasn't been able to move to Los Angeles with the family. "The separation I haven't liked," he says. His father, who is a retired New York Police Department inspector, explains later that his wife also plans to retire at the end of this year as a manager of trade shows.
Burke has had extensive schooling, but until 1988 he worked as an elevator operator at a public school in Manhattan. He graduated from the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York, attended the Cardinal Cushing training School in Hanover, Mass., and graduated from Don Guanella School in Springfield, Pa.
After performing in many school plays, he was inspired to pursue a professional acting career by another actor with Down's syndrome, Jason Kingsley, who guest-starred on "The Fall Guy."
Burke wrote to Kingsley, and the family friendships that formed led to Burke being recommended by the Kingsleys for the role in the ABC-TV movie, "Desperate." This led to the network writing a series just for him.
What's in store for Corky in upcoming episodes? "Who knows?" teases Burke. "And if I did know, I'd keep it a secret."
"He takes his success in stride," says his sister, Ellen Orlando. "We're the ones who are shocked by it."