Play disabled, Hollywood loves you. Be disabled, don't wait by your phone.
Able-bodied performers like Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Marlon Brando, Patty Duke and Daniel Day-Lewis have played afflicted characters, and all but Brando won Academy Awards for doing so. Robert De Niro received an Oscar nomination this year for his graphic portrayal of a spasmodic encephalitis patient in "Awakenings."When it comes to disabled actors, though, the message from the movie industry seems to be: Disabilities make for heart-tugging dramas and award-winning performances, but that's as far as our interest goes.
Last year, Day-Lewis earned the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Christy Brown, an artist who had cerebral palsy, in the movie "My Left Foot." He beat Tom Cruise, who was cast as paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in "Born on the Fourth of July."
In 1989, Hoffman won as an autistic savant in "Rain Man." Voight received an Oscar for his role of a paraplegic Vietnam vet in 1978's "Coming Home"; Brando was a paraplegic vet in 1950's "The Men." Duke received an Oscar for her portrayal of the blind and deaf Helen Keller in 1962's "The Miracle Worker."
Cruise, De Niro and Hoffman are all major box-office draws. But Hollywood's attitude toward disabled actors runs much deeper than its defense of star power justifies, some critics say.
"They will hire able-bodied actors for even a small part like a blind person or a person who uses a wheelchair," said Otto Felix, an able-bodied actor who created Handicapped Artists, Performers and Partners Inc., a training workshop for disabled entertainers.
"How many named actors do you know who are disabled? Only Marlee Matlin, and she wasn't known before `Children of a Lesser God."'
Matlin, who is deaf, and Harold Russell, who lost both of his hands in World War II, are the only Oscar winners whose characters reflected the actors' real-life disabilities. Matlin won for 1986's "Children of a Lesser God" and Russell for 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives." During the last years of his extensive film career, Lionel Barrymore was confined to a wheelchair, as were the characters he portrayed.
Christopher Burke, who has Down's syndrome, stars as a mentally retarded youngster on the ABC series "Life Goes On." James Stacy, who lost a leg to cancer, starred in the 1977 television movie "Just a Little Inconvenience," about a Vietnam veteran-amputee.
Other performers with disabilties include Christopher Templeton of "The Young and the Restless," who walks with a cane as a result of polio, and Jim Byrnes, hit from behind by a car while pushing a stalled vehicle on a highway in 1972, who was cast as Lifeguard on TV's "Wiseguy." Byrnes got the part because he was a good actor; the disability of being a double amputee was written into the role.
Actor Dave Hall has a co-starring role as an automobile accident victim in the new movie "Class Action." The actor, who lost both of his legs in a car crash, said television programs and commercials are making progress in dealing with the disabled, while advances in the movie business have been slower.
"Overall, I've noticed that there's a little bit more openness to casting an actor with a disability in a nondescript role, i.e., in a role that may or may not be involved with disability," said Hall, who serves on the board of the Media Access Office Inc., a clearinghouse that presents annual awards for accurate portrayals and casting of the disabled.
"The way the business is, is that things have to get made. Sometimes it's a star vehicle that gets things made. We don't have a lot of actors with disabilities who are major stars. The only way that's going to happen is if we get some visibility and major opportunities to do this."
In 1990, top winners of the Media Access prize included "My Left Foot" and Burke. In 1989, "Rain Man" and the TV film "A Bridge to Silence," about deafness, won awards.
The Screen Actors Guild, in its collective bargaining agreement with producers, protects against the discrimination of performers with disabilities, as well as the elderly, women and ethnic minorities.
If a role calls for a disability, SAG requires that the producer audition performers with disabilties. SAG cannot prevent able-bodied performers from trying out for the same part, and the final casting decision remains with the producer. Nor can it prevent a producer from holding tryouts in a room that is not wheelchair accessible.
Hall said disabled actors don't need or want preferential treatment, just a fair, honest shot. And casting agents, he said, should consider the disabled for all roles.
"I happen to be a double amputee. There are double-amputee lawyers, doctors and fathers," Hall said.
Most able-bodied actors who play characters with disabilities are careful to say their portrayals at best only approximate the real afflictions. But to make their depiction as accurate as possible, many of these performers spend months in preparation.
Oliver Sacks, the British doctor who wrote the book "Awakenings," was skeptical about De Niro's ability to play a sleeping sickness patient.
"Can an actor with, presumably, a normally functioning nervous system and physiology `become' someone with a profoundly abnormal nervous system, experience and behavior?" Sacks wrote in a new appendix to his 1973 book.
Sacks, who served as a consultant on the film, answered his own question: Yes. De Niro's depiction of an oculogyric and a respiratory crisis were almost too real, Sacks wrote.
"He gasped, he stiffened, his eyes rolled torturedly upwards, he turned such a color I feared he would pass out," Sacks said.
Day-Lewis researched his role in "My Left Foot" for three months, spending much of the time at the Sandymount Clinic watching children learning to adapt to cerebral palsy.
"This may be presumptuous of me, but I felt that I had an understanding of to some extent his anger, his frustrations, his desire to create, his sense of impotence," Day-Lewis said of playing Brown.
"It became very important to me that it didn't become a film about a supposedly able-bodied actor taking on the physical manifestations of this supposedly disabled man. That seemed to me a secondary importance."
Day-Lewis said studios are hesitant to even consider movies about disabilities, and that "My Left Foot" had difficulty getting made.
"You have to deal with a really immense reluctance and, at worst, a kind of cynical attitude that, `Well, this is a kind of cripple picture' - which makes me furious," the actor said.
"It's unconscious discrimination, but things are changing," said television producer Paul Waigner ("Hunter," "Beverly Hills 90210").
Awareness is a key problem, said Waigner, who is a board member of the Media Access Office.
Not long ago he cast an actor to play a small role as a junkie in a TV show. "And I got a call from wardrobe and they said, `You know this actor uses prosthesis?' And I said, `Yes, I know that. What difference does it make?' "