Jade Calegory’s mother thinks his major role in life, one for which he was cast before his birth, is to be an inspiration to others. So she’s encouraging his film career as an actor who happens to be handicapped.
A victim of spina bifida, the 12-year-old star of Orion’s “Mac and Me,” which opened nationally last Friday, underwent surgery for the first time when he was 8 days old. Since then, there have been 14 more operations.
These days, in addition to starring in “Mac and Me,” he is the spokesman for the National Easter Seal Society’s “Friends Who Care” campaign, a disability awareness-raising effort being launched in conjunction with the movie. In “Mac and Me,” Jade plays a boy who becomes involved with the youngest member of a family from outer space. The fact that he gets around in a wheelchair adds an affecting thread of reality to the fantasy and provides some striking action.
But it is not part of the plot, and for disabled actors in the film and TV community, that is cheering news. It’s unusual for actors with disabilities to win roles that aren’t “written disabled,” and it is extraordinary for a boy in a wheelchair to make his film debut in a major motion picture that has nothing to do with his handicap.
Producer R. J. Louis said it was always his intention to cast a disabled child in the lead. Having set up a “Mac and Me” profit-sharing arrangement to benefit the Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities, he said he felt it would be a positive and appropriate thing to do.
Louis, whose previous credits include “The Karate Kid” and its sequel, said he considered dozens of prospects before deciding on Jade. Then he put the young actor through two months of “basic training” to prepare for the role, which included a diet designed to help Jade lose weight and gain color, and frequent sessions with an acting coach.
Laudable intentions aside, “Mac and Me” has been widely panned as a sort of fast-food version of “E.T.,” but Calegory’s performance is among the pluses cited by several reviewers.
Kathryn Calegory says when Jade was 5, fresh from a hospital stay and wearing a full body cast, he went outside to visit neighborhood pals. She looked out her front window a few minutes later and saw her son speeding by on a skateboard, spread-eagled with one foot held jauntily aloft.
Jade started competing in the wheelchair divisions of 10-kilometer runs near his Dana Point home when he was 7 and was soon collecting first-place trophies.
Jade, whose sun-bleached hair hangs over big expressive eyes, got his first taste of on-camera work four years ago. Producers of the daytime soap “General Hospital” contacted Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, looking for a boy in a wheelchair who could give them a “Dennis the Menace"-style turn. Jade was recommended for the non-speaking role, and got it.
“All it was was running over nurses and stuff like that,” said Jade, who remains unaffected by the attention being heaped on him now. (When he tires of answering questions about why he’s in a wheelchair, the 7th-grader simply dead-pans “Vietnam.”)
The “General Hospital” casting director was impressed enough by Jade and his style to urge his mother to find an agent for him. She did, but the two years that followed brought only one audition and no jobs. The audition, for a show Jade chose not to name, was for the role of a child in a wheelchair, but the job ultimately went a non-disabled actor.
“It was totally obvious, their attitude,” Jade said, of the casting people on that show. “I think they planned not to use someone in a wheelchair in the first place. They were just kind of bringing disabled people in there just to say they did, you know what I mean?”
Jade, who acknowledges his ambition to have an acting career, said he knows he will face those situations again.
“But I’m prepared,” he says. “I don’t think you can do much about it. Just go in and try.”
Jade went through several interviews over a three-month period before being told he’d won the role in “Mac and Me.” If the movie succeeds, his effort is bound to bring him more work. Producer Louis envisions his aliens boldly going where no extraterrestrial family unit has gone before. He plans to begin a sequel later this year and sees a possible TV series beyond that--maybe even an animated cartoon show.
Louis said he sees the “Mac” family (it stands for Mysterious Alien Creatures) as being in the same fantasy league as “The Munsters.” But “Mac” aside, Jade’s prospects for an acting career are about the same as they would be for any disabled person.
“It’ll be tough for him,” says Alan Toy, a veteran actor who heads the Media Access Office, an organization devoted to promoting the images and opportunities for disabled people in film and TV. “Things are better, certainly better than 10 years ago. I could give you 20 examples of commercials that use actors with disabilities. That’s the biggest change. But it still isn’t easy, by any means.”
Jade’s next sporting event won’t be easy either. He plans to enter the L. A. Marathon next year. As he plans to tell the patients he intends to visit in hospitals as part of his “Friends Who Care” activities: “Never look at the things you can’t do, but at the things you can . And always have a goal.”