Column: Someone give these ‘New Amsterdam’ guest stars a spinoff
Two years ago, the Broadway veteran and prolific character actor John Christopher Jones auditioned for a role on “New Amsterdam.” He didn’t get the part, but he got something even better: He went on the wall.
Many television writers rooms have “a wall,” some swath of whiteboard on which the team tracks episode beats, narrative arcs, character development — whatever bits of the creative process it might be helpful to lay out visually. (If you ask writers what they miss most about working in person during this pandemic, their first answer will be their peers; the second will be their wall.)
Every wall is different, but the one developed by “New Amsterdam” creator David Schulner may be unique; it is filled with the names of actors with disabilities for whom Schulner is determined his team will write a part — and not in one of those sad-but-heroic stories that often revolve around characters with disabilities.
Jones has late-stage Parkinson’s disease — he was diagnosed 18 years ago — but he also has a brilliant sense of comedy. It’s on full display in Tuesday night’s episode of “New Amsterdam.” Two years after his audition, Jones is half of a moving and delightful “Sunshine Boys”-type storyline, offering moments of humor and humanity in an episode that’s fast-paced and exposition-stuffed even by the standards of “New Amsterdam” on NBC.
His scene partner is the equally funny Timothy Omundson. Known for his roles in the long-running series “Psych” and “Supernatural” and the short-lived “Galavant,” Omundson suffered a major stroke in 2017. Like Jones, he has continued to work, playing a stroke victim in “This Is Us” and reprising his role as Carlton Lassiter in the recent “Psych” movies.
“Working with Tim was fantastic,” Jones says. “I had seen him on ‘Psych’ and my daughters are big fans. When I told them I was working with him, I became a god in the eyes of my children.”
Omundson parries: “As soon as you said you liked ‘Pysch,’ I knew you were a great man.”
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The two are speaking via conference call, and despite the speech limitations dictated by their conditions, not to mention the inevitable issues with any conference call, the conversation zings with one-liners in a way that is remarkably similar to their scenes in “New Amsterdam.”
“Seriously,” Omundson adds, “one of the biggest selling points of this role was that I got to work with this epic Broadway star, and he did not disappoint.”
One of Jones’ biggest fears when he got the offer was of disappointing the cast and crew; Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease and two years is a long time. “But they didn’t even ask if I could do it. I’ve had a hard time learning lines for a while now, but the best thing about TV is that if you mess up, you can do it again.”
It never occurred to Schulner that Jones would not be up to the task. This, after all, was an actor who not only paired with Dan Moran, who also has Parkinson’s, in a production of “Endgame,” but filmed the process in a documentary, “The Endgame Project.”
“I knew he could do it,” Schulner says. “And having worked with many actors with disabilities, I knew the crew and the director would support him.”
Jones wasn’t the only one who was worried; for Omundson, “New Amsterdam” was completely new territory.
“It was the first time I’d been on a show where I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “On ‘This Is Us’ and the ‘Psych’ movies, they knew what they were getting.”
Throughout the episode, Jones remains either in a bed or a wheelchair. “Sometimes I would just fall asleep between takes,” he says. (Omundson: “Oh, I thought that snoring was you getting in character.”)
Omundson, however, enters the scene walking — something he has only recently begun to do without a cane.
“It was a little scary,” he says. “Especially because so much of it is comedy. I didn’t know what I would be capable of doing. I used to rely on my voice a lot and my voice used to have a much larger range. And when I move, it still feels like I’m wearing armor.”
For the record:
8:11 a.m. Oct. 26, 2021An earlier version of this story identified Laura Valdivia as the episode’s director; she is its writer.
He also had to tell writer Laura Valdivia that he really couldn’t see well on his left side, so he should be directed from his right.
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Valdivia did not see any of it as a problem — quite the opposite, in fact.
“The two of them were just so honest and funny all the time, we were all falling down laughing,” she says. “They just kept ad-libbing and, frankly, most of it made it into the episode.”
Both Jones and Omundson were grateful for the ability to improvise — Jones because it relieves the stress of memorization and Omundson because it gives him a chance to find a comedic rhythm.
Both are vehement about the importance of increasing the number and diversity of stories involving people — and actors — of various abilities.
“What’s so great about this story is that it’s about friendship, not disability,” says Omundson. “If I have to spend the rest of my life playing stroke victims, and I certainly hope I do not, this is exactly the kind of story I want to do.”
I point out that the episode also includes a very dramatic arc about a deaf surgeon.
“Does it?” Omundson asks, admitting, “I’ve only seen the bits with us. You know how the joke about actors reading a script goes — ‘nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, my part, nonsense, nonsense. Only the joke uses another word.”
Jones happily recites the joke using the other word, and the two men laugh, having been caught in a foible of their profession.
“We’re actors,” Jones says. “It’s always all about us.”
A group of creatives and executives with disabilities in Hollywood is pushing employers to start including accessibility as part of inclusion initiatives.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sexual content)
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