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Comedy With Courage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Art Metrano was never exactly a household name but one of those faces you’d recognize: the blustering lieutenant in the “Police Academy” movies or that zany guy who performed bogus magic tricks to the jaunty tune “Fine and Dandy"--holding out a finger on each hand and then “magically” extending two fingers on one hand and none on the other. It added up to a nice living.

Metrano’s life changed dramatically in 1989 when--while working on a house he was trying to sell--he fell off a ladder and fractured his neck. It was the “hangman’s break,” which often proves fatal and left Metrano paralyzed.

After a remarkable recovery that now allows him to walk a few halting steps, Metrano turned his experience into a one-man stage show, “Metrano’s Accidental Comedy,” which recently ended a run at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Zipping around the stage in his wheelchair while recounting his childhood growing up in New York, events surrounding the accident and his rehabilitation, Metrano played to positive reviews and standing ovations--standing himself and walking a few steps, at the end, to demonstrate the progress he has made.

Chris Barrett, president of Metropolitan Talent Agency, came away convinced there is a television series to be derived from Metrano’s experience.

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“It’s really moving and it’s very funny,” Barrett said. “It’s touching . . . a remarkable story of courage. There is a market for [the show].”

Metrano’s manager, Jeff Wald, was equally enthusiastic, viewing the show as a calling card to put his client back to work--a part in a sitcom, maybe a pay-TV special. He urged industry executives to come see the performance, citing the virtual invisibility of the disabled in prime time.

Yet to Wald’s chagrin, he found it difficult even to convince people to see the show, much less hire Metrano.

“I can’t get arrested,” Metrano said. “The question always came back, ‘The guy’s in a wheelchair? The guy walks with crutches? What are we gonna do with him?’ I used to joke with Jeff, ‘Let’s do a remake of ‘Ironside.’ At least I need the wheelchair.’ ”

Despite this frustration, the same determination that allowed Metrano to get out of his chair--indeed, even to move his arms--now surrounds his desire to jump-start his career. A certain sense of urgency underscores the effort, since medical expenses have taken a toll on his finances, prompting his wife, Becky, to go back to work as a teacher.

Metrano will spend part of this week editing a taped version of the play, staged without an audience before the show concluded its run. Some of the current options include taking the show to New York or shopping the tape, once completed, to a cable network such as HBO.

Wald has been pushing to get Metrano in a TV show, perhaps cast in a supporting role as a crotchety sitcom dad--a part that not only fits his demeanor but, given the endurance he displayed during his 90-minute solo performance, is well within his abilities.

“It doesn’t have to be about me,” Metrano said. “It could be a cop who got shot in the back. It’s about how the family survives.”

There has also been discussion about Metrano performing “Accidental Comedy” at the White House in early fall to raise awareness of the disabled, who, he noted, for the most part “don’t exist” in movies and TV. As it was, the show raised thousands of dollars to help those with similar disabilities through a nightly plea for donations, with people leaving cash in a fish bowl outside the theater.

When asked if he would be willing to take the show to Washington, Metrano said his response was, “Are you kidding me? I’ll go there now and wait.”

Metrano concedes the show has evolved considerably since he created it in the early 1990s under the title “Twice Blessed,” drawing on memories and observations compiled while still in the hospital.

“I kept this diary. I couldn’t move my hands, but my wife brought me a voice-activated recorder,” he said. “In 1990, I had all the little cassettes transcribed. It actually made me cry. It was really cathartic for me.”

It was also an extremely dark and serious tale, one Metrano’s longtime friend actor-director Joe Bologna eventually urged him to lighten. With Bologna as director, Metrano reshaped the piece--putting more emphasis on comedy to get the story across. The original version, Metrano said, had been “very heavy, almost morbid. . . . Joe said, ‘The story you tell is so dramatic, you don’t need to be dramatic.’ ”

Bologna understands why it was difficult attracting television executives to the theater. “Accidental Comedy” began playing in March, during the period of producing new series candidates for the coming TV season. Still, he’s hopeful the show can provide a springboard for Metrano.

“You very seldom see a stand-up comic who has the emotional pipes that Art has,” Bologna said. “I’d like to see Art get a career out of it--to get the kind of recognition he should be getting.”

The play now opens with video clips from Metrano’s past, including his signature appearances as the not-so-magical “Amazing Metrano"--a comic bit he improvised at a party that soon landed him on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

“The stage manager said, ‘You make sure you get right off [after doing the act],” Metrano said. “But Johnny waved me over to his desk. The piece killed.”

With all he has overcome, Metrano remains committed to adding new highlights to such memories. That will require getting the entertainment industry to take notice--and take a chance on putting someone with a disability in, or at least near, the spotlight.

“I’m just trying to tell people that life goes on,” Metrano said. “I’ve got a story to tell.”


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