For once, his disability was an advantage

Special to The Times

Maybe one day, RJ Mitte will just be RJ Mitte. Actor. Talented, funny and handsome.

Maybe one day, he'll be many other things before he is RJ Mitte, the kid with cerebral palsy.

And maybe one day a story like this won't have to concentrate so much on a person's disability. But such is the world we live in, where RJ Mitte (pronounced MITT-ee) represents an anomaly that underscores a glaring Hollywood flaw: Although nearly 20% of Americans from the ages of 5 to 64 have some kind of disability, less than 2% of the characters on TV display one, and only one-half of 1% actually have speaking parts -- this according to a study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild that was published in 2005.

And yet here's Mitte, every Sunday night on AMC's "Breaking Bad," delivering funny lines and some welcomed levity to a show about a man dying of cancer.

"TV feels like it's about the beautiful people, doesn't it?" said series creator Vince Gilligan, inspired long ago by a college friend who had CP. "There's always this push in TV to populate these series with people who are good-looking and tall and youthful and all the things that most of us aren't in real life."

Well, truth be told, Mitte happens to be all those things. But he's also just like any other 15-year-old: He's into Guitar Hero and girls ("But I like staying single"), paintball and rock climbing ("Broken nine or 10 bones"). He doesn't like school and pretends to dislike his 4-year-old sister -- "She's a mess," said RJ. "Oh no, he's a phenomenal big brother. Very protective," said his mother, Dyna.

He has a dog named Pearl, 110 MySpace friends and he's all about watching TV, "though on Sunday nights," said Mom, "when he's on, he gets up to go fix something to drink. It's strange for him, I guess. But then he gets calls from his friends, and he kind of grins."

The fruits of being an actor? "Pretty much just the stuff I can buy," he said with that same grin. But Mom told us this: "We were talking one night and I said, 'So what do you want to get out of this?' He said, 'Mom, I really hope people with disabilities can see that you can do what you want to do, and accomplish whatever you want.'

"You know," she added, "I think the hardest time for RJ was when he was in maybe second or third grade and all of his friends were playing football. That wasn't possible for him because of his hand-eye coordination, and I remember him sitting down and crying. . . . When he started acting, I didn't know if I wanted him to go through the emotional thing of getting turned down, but RJ said, 'No, it's OK, I want to try it.' And now he says, 'I finally have my niche.' "

Chance encounters

IRONICALLY, it was the little sister who paved Mitte's way. In 2005, she was noticed by a talent agent while at a water park in Houston, where the Mittes had just moved from their native Louisiana. That led to an agent meeting in Los Angeles, where the agent saw RJ and asked to sign him up too. The Mittes moved to Hollywood, and RJ added acting classes to a daily regimen of exercise and speech therapy intended to dull the effects of CP, a neurological disorder that causes speech and muscle impediment of varying degrees. And sometimes puts things in perspective.

"When RJ went to the AMC Cinematheque gala for Julia Roberts," said his mother, "I asked him how it was and who he got to meet." "He said, 'Oh, just people.' Later I found out that he'd met some real stars [such as Denzel Washington] and when I asked him again, he said, 'Oh, they're people just like we are.'

"The one thing with RJ, because he's gone through so much with CP, to him everyone is a person, whether you're a star or a kid going to school. I think RJ knows everyone has feelings and everyone has a place."

Though for special-needs actors in Hollywood, that place seems small. According to the SAG study, researched by Olivia Raynor and Katharine Hayward of UCLA, only a third of SAG members with disabilities reported working in a theatrical or TV production in 2003, and those who did worked an average of 4.1 days that year. Chief among the complaints: only being considered for disability-related roles, and then seeing those roles given to able-bodied actors anyway.

It should be noted that language has long existed within the contract between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and SAG that affirms a "commitment to a policy of non-discrimination and fair employment" and "to continue the active promotion of diversity," but hopeful words don't necessarily mean implementation.

A point of contention among disabled actors is that they aren't included in the Casting Data Report that's published by SAG each year, which details the hiring practices and employment trends in film and TV related to ethnicity, age and gender -- but not disability. The data is made available because of a questionnaire producers are required to fill out regarding their productions, but in past negotiations, SAG hasn't been able to convince the AMPTP to add a disabilities column to the page.

"They're very hesitant to include that on the forms," said Rebecca Yee, SAG's national director of affirmative action and diversity.

Of course, certain disabilities are more noticeable than others and actors often choose to hide them. The study found that about half of those surveyed chose not to disclose their disability on their resume or in the casting office, for fear of impeding their chances of getting the part.

The AMPTP points to this problem as a barrier to properly tracking disabled actors, saying more accurate self-disclosure is warranted. "We are unwilling to assume, based on a mere visual inspection, that someone has an impairment," said AMPTP spokesperson Jesse Hiestand.

Yee couldn't comment on whether the topic would be part of the imminent SAG-AMPTP discussions on a new contract; their current pact expires June 30.

Seeing is believing

NO matter who is to blame, Gail Williamson, executive director of the Down Syndrome Assn. of Los Angeles and mother to Blair, a 28-year-old actor with Down, said Hollywood's problem is a reflection of society. "We grew up being taught not to look, stare or ask questions, because that's considered rude," she said. "So we've been taught not to pay attention when in fact we need to pay attention."

A bigger special-needs presence in TV and film, she said, helps people do that. She points to 1989, when her son was 10 and a new TV series, "Life Goes On," premiered. The show focused on a character named Corky (played by Chris Burke), who had Down syndrome.

"It changed the world," Williamson said. "Before that, people pointed and made fun of Blair, and at restaurants they'd never ask what he wanted; they asked me. Once that show came on, they always asked Blair what he wanted to eat."

Perhaps the most important link between "Life Goes On" and "Breaking Bad" is this: Neither show pities its special-needs actor. Walter Jr., Mitte's character, is just an everyday teenager who cracks jokes, takes the bus to school and gets busted for trying to score some beer. The effects of cerebral palsy are there -- he uses crutches to get around, though in reality Mitte doesn't need them -- but the words "cerebral palsy" have yet to be mentioned on the show, nor have his parents made a single reference to his affliction or hardships.

"To them, he's simply Walter Jr.," explained show creator Gilligan, "and it would make no more sense to them to tell people, 'This is my son with CP' than it would to say 'This is my son who hates beets' or 'This is my son with black hair.' All of those statements would be irrelevant. None of them really speak to who he is."

It's a brilliant touch, said Robert David Hall, one of Mitte's few special-needs counterparts in television today -- he plays the coroner on the original "CSI" series despite having two prosthetic legs. "There's a discomfort level with showing people with disabilities as regular people," he says. "I play a coroner now but most of the roles in my first 15 years were the bitter war veteran or the disability rights guy, never the father, the cop, the teacher.

"That's my point -- people with disabilities go on trips, they go out to the movies, they buy cars, they have good and bad relationships. We do all the same stuff that everyone does, but rarely do we see that played on films or on TV. We need this to change."

If it ever does, maybe more eyes will be opened and more RJ Mittes will find their niche. The natural byproduct could be a Hollywood that's as colorful as the real world.

As one unnamed actor put it in that 2005 study, "The people that are the guardians of storytelling in America claim to be the most creative people that there are. Yet, if you remember in elementary school and kindergarten, most kids had the eight Crayola box. That's what most of the people in Hollywood are using. Eight crayons. They have the nice, handsome white guy, the beautiful white girl, sidekicks, a couple of others. I'm saying if you are really going to tell the story, you need the 64 Crayola box."

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