It’s no secret producers and casting agents remain hesitant to hire real disabled actors. They could have a dozen roles portraying someone with a disability to fill, and they’d still find an excuse to hire nondisabled actors.
Are they nervous around people with disabilities, or do they think we’re not good enough? Of course, it depends on the casting agent, but this same sing-song story of avoiding actors with disabilities is getting old.
Fortunately, there have been some bright spots in this sea of faux portrayals — actors with real disabilities given roles that make them shine brilliantly.
Robert David Hall in CSI
A 66 year old actor with double amputations (he lost his legs, one below the knee and one above, in a car accident when he was 31), this renowned actor plays Dr. Albert Robbins, a coroner, on the long-running television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The way he’s portrayed is spectacular on this show. Dr. Robbins just does his job, and his disability is never brought up. It’s a non-issue. If only the world could take a cue from this.
Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God
Matlee Matlin, a deaf actor who was 21 at the time, made her film debut in Children of a Lesser God — a role that won her an Oscar. She portrayed a custodian at a deaf school who falls in love with a teacher who tries to teach her how to speak. Her excellent portrayal elevated the profile of actors with disabilities. A saucy portrayal but a deep one, Children of a Lesser God does an excellent job of showing people with disabilities are multi-faceted too.
Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones
One of my favorite roles played by an actor with a disability is Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Tyrion, the son of a powerful lord who resents him because of his disability, is one of the main characters — a shrewd mastermind who is both despised because he is a dwarf and yet honored because he is his father’s son. Dinklage, a dwarf, has also been in other shows such as Nip/Tuck where he played an artist and boyfriend of one of the lead characters. He won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for Supporting Actor in Game of Thrones.
Jamie Brewer in American Horror Story
Playing a recurring character in all three seasons, Jamie Brewer is one of the most well-known actors with Down syndrome today. She plays a feisty, curious young woman. I especially like her in the latest season, American Horror Story: Coven, where she plays a witch who can read people’s minds and communicate with ghosts. Very rarely is her disability ever brought up in the show, and she’s given just as much respect (and as many lines) as her fellow actors.
RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad
Born with cerebral palsy, RJ Mitte is one of the hottest actors right now with a disability. He moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to become an actor, and two years later he was cast in Breaking Bad as Walter White Jr., whose CP requires the use of crutches. This show is very intense, but its fans find humor within the show’s darkness. As with other characters on the show, Mitte’s has developed a following — one running gag associated is how often he’s shown eating breakfast.
Geri Jewell in Deadwood
Another esteemed actor with cerebral palsy, Geri Jewell got her first role in the ’80s sitcom, Facts of Life. Currently she plays the role of “Jewel” on the HBO series Deadwood. A period piece that takes place in the late 1800s, Deadwood profiles the goings-on of the eponymous town, with her playing the maid (and whatever else they need her to do) in the local saloon and brothel. I especially love the interactions between her and her boss, Al Swearengen, who berates and loves her at the same time.
Marlee Matlin in The L Word
Another drama Marlee Matlin shone in was the TV show, The L Word. This Showtime series followed the lives of five successful lesbians, with Marlee playing the girlfriend of Jennifer Beals. Jennifer played the director of an art museum, while Marlee is one of their resident artists, and the love story between these women is epic. Jennifer learns how to sign to win over Marlee’s heart, and one of the last episodes, where they reunite, is unforgettable. I love seeing a character with a disability portrayed in such a romantic light.
When it comes to disabled actors getting awesome roles, there have been great improvements over the years, but yet … there’s still work to do. Hopefully as the awards keep coming in for these shows and movies, more casting agents increasingly will be more willing to give us a chance.
What role portrayed by an actor with a disability is your favorite?