For Utah viewers, ABC's made-for-TV movie of the week, Blind Witness (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 4), will have an awfully familiar look and feel.
The locations, ranging from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Trolley Square to the old Fuller Paint warehouse across the street from Pioneer Park, are in and around the Salt Lake City area. The dialogue is sprinkled with references to the University of Utah, Temple Square, the Great Salt Lake and the Mormon Church. And the cast includes a number of local actors, including Jeff Olson, Jesse (you probably know him as Michael) Bennett, Dennis Saylor, Russ McGinn, Jayne Luke, Ivan Crossland, Will Hazlett, J. Omar Hansen, Dana Purser, Mark Van Wagoner, Michael Ruud, Michael Flynn, Oscar Rowland and Micaela Nelligan.But the most familiar face of all is probably the one that is more commonly associated with Texas. More specifically, Dallas. Even more specifically, "Dallas."
Victoria Principal, best known to televiewers as Pamela Barnes Ewing, the woman who had the season-long nightmare on "Dallas," dominates "Blind Witness" in what is probably her most demanding film role to date. She plays Maggie Kemlich, the blind wife of a U. of U. professor who is brutally murdered in her presence. When police refuse to put much faith in the evidence she knows she can provide them, she becomes a one-woman vigilante force in tracking down her husband's killers.
And that, according to the story's creator, is the one element that makes the show un-familiar. And unique.
"Basically, this is a disabled vigilante piece," said Tom Sullivan, who came up with the idea for the story. "Nothing like this has ever been done before. Usually we see the disabled person portrayed as a helpless victim. Here we have a blind woman who takes control of the situation."
Sullivan was relaxing in a trailer parked beneath the 400 South viaduct during a break in the last day of "Blind Witness" filming in Salt Lake City last September. This is a happy day for him, because it represents the culmination of his first made-for-TV movie. It also represents a change in career direction for him and a chance to do just what Principal's Maggie Kemlich does - take control of life.
Sullivan is blind. But like Kemlich, he refuses to allow that disability to place restrictions on him. He is a respected character actor, with TV credits including "M*A*S*H," "WKRP in Cincinatti," "Fame" and the films "Airport '77" and "Black Sunday." He is a gifted musician, a regular on the nightclub and summer music theater circuit. He has authored four books - "You Are Special," "Common Senses," "Adventures in Darkness" and "If You Could See What I Hear," which was later developed into a biographical film.
And that's just the beginning. He is also a popular lecturer, a marathon runner, a 20-handicap golfer, an excellent skier and a world-class wrestler. And his wife, Patty, says he's also a terrific husband and a great father to their two children.
Tom Sullivan is a Renaissance man, with multiple talents and numerous accomplishments. And yet, he has felt limited by an entertainment industry that continues to think of him as a blind performer - not just a performer.
"Whenever I'm cast in a part, my blindness is a central issue," says the 41-year-old Californian. "I understand that. I'm not bitter about it. You just get a little tired of playing the same thing all the time."
Similar sentiments have been expressed by other disabled performers like Marlee Matlin, who is deaf. But even though Sullivan acknowledges that he and Matlin and others have begun eliminating barriers, he insists that "we're still unique.
And that, he says, is the problem.
"If I had one great wish it would be to not be thought of as being unique," Sullivan says, without a trace of anger in his voice. "To not be blind actor Tom Sullivan, but to be Tom Sullivan, who among many other things is blind."
But an actor has little power to instigate such changes in attitude. The real power in show business is behind the camera, where producers, writers and directors decide how issues will be addressed and how people will be portrayed.
Which is why Sullivan is so excited about "Blind Witness."
"This has changed my life," he said while strolling from Pioneer Park, where he had been interviewed by "Good Morning America," to the Fuller building. "I've always written for myself, but now I realize that I can write for others."
Indeed, he wrote "Blind Witness" for himself. It was the network's decision to re-cast the lead as a woman and offer it to Principal, who also serves as the film's co-executive producer.
"What I've learned is how exciting it is to be able to make decisions and see them carried out," Sullivan said. "You don't have that kind of power as an actor. You're limited. You can make suggestions, but in the end you pretty much have to do what you're told. But as a writer and producer, I've got a shot at expanding - having influence."
For example, in "Blind Witness" he wrote the story and then helped Principal create the character of Maggie. "I didn't care about teaching her the physical things - a sighted person can coach that better than I can, because I don't know what it looks like to be blind," Sullivan said. "My job was to get her to think like Maggie."
And does he think he did his job well? "She has made a supreme effort," he said, "and she's terrific. This is Victoria's `Burning Bed.' It's Emmy-winning stuff. Really."
And that speaks well of the entire production - even the first-time co-producer and writer? "Yeah, I guess so," Sullivan says, smiling broadly. Then he tilts his head back and laughs, almost ecstatically.
"I love this!" he exults. "This is as good as it gets for me! Right now!"