In the summer of 1989, when I was a LIFE magazine reporter, I heard
that a young man with Down syndrome would be starring in a new TV series
called Life Goes On. Intrigued, I sent a note to my editor in New
York. He was less interested.
Well just do a photo and a caption, he said.
To me, the story was huge. Since childhood, Id been casual friends
with Carmen, a bright, charming young woman with Down syndrome. Her parents
had mainstreamed her into our small-town Alabama church and community. Shed
graduated high school with me, going on to work in a plant nursery. My connection
to Carmen made me curious to see how well television would depict a person
with Down syndrome.
By many accounts, ABC did a commendable job. Life Goes On ran on
the network from September 1989 to May 1993, winning a number of awards.
The drama centered around the Thatcher family, whod also wanted to
mainstream their son, Charles "Corky" Thatcher, played by Chris
Burke, after hed spent years in special-ed classes. Their daughter
Becca, played by Kellie Martin, was gifted but socially awkward. Theater
actress Patti LuPone played the mother and Bill Smitrovich the father. (Two
different actresses played the part of an older sister, who remained on
the fringes of the story.)
When I first made my inquiries, the shows initial airing was still
months away, and my New York editor was still none too encouraging. I went
to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to meet Chris Burke anyway.
Chris on Corky
I spent the day with the actor, who was 23 at the time, and his father,
along with the cast and crew of the series. I liked Chris immediately. From
the first few minutes, he had me laughingor groaningwith his
puns and awful jokes.
He remembered that day, too, when I spoke with him again recently. Today,
at 42, he still gives his old show high marks for covering uncharted territory:
Back in those days, a parent looked at the disability and didnt
see the ability, he recalls. Life Goes On showed that
people with a disability can be included. Just give them a chance and let
them learn. Thats what the show was trying to teach. By the
end of the series, Corky had a job as an usher at a local movie theater,
and found a girlfriend, who also had Down syndrome, whom he married.
During production, the series writers often looked to Chris and his
family for situations they could dramatize. I think it was a good
picture of what it is like to have Down syndrome, and what its like
for a parent who has a child with Down syndrome or a disability, he
The overall character of Corky had many qualities Chris is famous for within
his circle of family and friends. The actor notes, Corky is the one
who never gives up. I never gave up. He faces obstacles and he couldnt
always reach his goals. But he tries to reach his dreams. Corky is an ordinary
person who does extraordinary things. He is a true inspiration, but he doesnt
know that hes an inspiration.
From A Caption to a Book
When I filed that initial report to my editor at LIFE in the summer of 89,
it was a rough collection of notes and quotes from Chris. But I had so much
good material, I had no idea how my editor would reduce it all to a two-sentence
photo caption. It turned out that he couldnt.
The next morning, my phone rang early. It was my editor. He had read my
notes and could not believe that the quotes were from a person with Down
He sent me back to the set for another day. And another. For the next several
weeks, I hung out with Chris and his father in their temporary Burbank hometheyre
die-hard New Yorkersand at the studio.
It was fascinating to watch hardened show business veterans adapt the show
to accommodate Chris needs. People with Down syndrome have some diminished
intellectual capacity, although early education and stimulation have gone
a good distance towards closing that gap. Still, they shortened Chris
hours as well as his dialogue, and allowed for the fact that there were
tasks he couldnt do, such as tie a slip knot, because of reduced motor
skills. The crew improvised by shooting close-ups of someone elses
hands tying a slip knotand life went on.
People with Down syndrome, like Chris, may have weakened immune systems
and heart abnormalities. Once shunned and denied medical care and even vaccinations,
they used to have vastly diminished longevity. But today most people with
Down syndrome are expected to live out full, active lives.
With his persistence and unwavering determination, its no fluke that
Chris became the first actor with his condition to play a regular role in
a prime-time series. On camera, he sparkled. Like a pro, he was able to
act out the sometimes wrenching emotions demanded of his character. More
than once I heard, Hes magical. There is something in his eyes
that draws you in and makes you care.
Audiences seemed to agree: The pilot episode was a hit, rated in the top
10 that week. Life Goes On became especially beloved by families
and rocketed to No. 1 among pre-teens and children. Overall, it drew greater
audiences than any show ABC had put in the Sunday- night slot for years.
That November, what started as a photo caption evolved into an eight-page LIFE magazine storywith Chris beaming out from the cover, wrapped
in a hug with co-star Patti LuPone.
About a year later, Doubleday hired me to expand that story into a nonfiction
book titled A Special Kind of Hero. It landed on a few bestseller
lists and was selected as a top book of the 1991 by Library Journal. It
is still available on bn.com, Barnes and Nobles website.
Chris tells his story within five chapters spread throughout the book. For
the other 11 chapters, I interviewed more than 200 people, including friends,
family, cast, crew and writers from the show. I also talked with experts
on genetics, education, job training and other issues important to those
with Down syndrome.
Seeing Beyond Obstacles
So much has changed since 1965, when Chris mother Marian was advised
by her doctor to put her infant into an institution. That same year, a renowned
minister wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that all infants born with what was
then called mongolism should be immediately euthanized. He argued
that these people would have no quality of life, and were only
a burden to their families. How wrong Chris and others have proven him.
When he determined he wanted to become an actor, Chris took lessons at every
opportunity, and did what he could to learn about his profession. His attitude
is summed up in one of his favorite sayings: Obstacles are what you
see when you take your eyes off the goal.
Chris is the son of Frank, a retired police officer, and Marian, a retired
executive. Before he was born, older siblings Ellen, Anne and J.R., had
modeled and acted in minor roles. From the start, Chris parents and
siblings encouraged him in all his goals except oneacting. The TV
business, they knew, could be harsh and disappointing, even for the most
talented and qualified actors.
During Chriss childhood, his family was far more concerned about his
basic education. From an early age, he enjoyed pre-school at New Yorks
Kennedy Child Study Center. But as he got older, his familynot unlike
the one on the showwas dismayed at the poor quality of the special
education their local school system offered. They opted out and chose instead
private, Catholic-run boarding schools, which were also on the East Coast.
Chris teachers from those years remember the way he talked of his
dream to become an actor. He wanted to make an impact, he told them repeatedly.
He wanted to show the world what someone with Down syndrome could do. At
14, he asked a teacher to help him with a movie script he was writing. As
a young adult, he took more acting classes, as well as courses in filmmaking
and comedy improvisation at the Young Adult Institute, two bus rides from
his New York home. He spent his allowance on head shots, which he sent to
producers and agents.
Chris had an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and television shows, and
he could recollect names of actors with only minor roles in his favorite
shows. Hed mail admiring notes to them.
Then one day, his world changed when he tuned in to The Fall Guy,
a prime-time TV series starring Lee Majors. There, on screen, was a boy
with Down syndromeJason Kingsley, the 10-year-old son of Emily Perl
Kingsley, an award-wininng writer for Sesame Street. Jason was a
regular character on Sesame Street in his childhood years and also
played himself on the NBC drama This is My Son.
Chris wrote Emily a note, telling her that he, like her son, had Down syndrome,
and that he enjoyed watching Jason on the The Fall Guy. Emily was
moved and wrote back, in what went on to become a friendly correspondence.
It was a difficult time for the Burke family, who worried about their loved
ones future. Even in the vast metropolis of New York City, it was
difficult for Chris to find even a part-time job. He volunteered at a school
for children with disabilities where his niece went. In time, he became
the elevator operator there. The Burkes were thrilled that he had a salary
and benefits, working in a loving environment in which his abilitiesnot
his disabilitywere noticed and appreciated.
Then Emily Perl Kingsley recommended Chris for a role in a TV pilot titled Desperate. Chris won the part, and he and his father spent weeks
in Key West, where the pilot was filmed. After it was over, Chris returned
to his day job running the school elevator.
Though Desperate was not picked up for a series, ABC executives loved
the way Chris lit up the screen. They immediately hired the pilots
writer, Michael Braverman, to create a family drama that would surround
Chris with a talented ensemble..... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Volume 2007 Issue 2