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.
“We’ll just do a photo and a caption,” he said.
To me, the story was huge. Since childhood, I’d 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. She’d 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, who’d also wanted to mainstream their son, Charles “Corky” Thatcher, played by Chris Burke, after he’d spent years in specialed 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 show’s 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 laughing—or groaning—with 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 didn’t 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. That’s 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 (played by Andrea Friedman), 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 it’s like for a parent who has a child with Down syndrome or a disability,” he says.
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 couldn’t 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 doesn’t know that he’s 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 couldn’t.
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 syndrome.
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 home—they’re die-hard New Yorkers—and 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 couldn’t do, such as tie a slip knot, because of reduced motor skills. The crew improvised by shooting close-ups of someone else’s hands tying a slip knot—and 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, it’s 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, “He’s 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 story—with 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 Noble’s 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 one—acting. The TV business, they knew, could be harsh and disappointing, even for the most talented and qualified actors.
During Chris’s childhood, his family was far more concerned about his basic education. From an early age, he enjoyed pre-school at New York’s Kennedy Child Study Center. But as he got older, his family—not unlike the one on the show—was 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 film-making 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. He’d 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 syndrome—Jason 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 one’s 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 abilities—not his disability—were 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 pilot’s writer, Michael Braverman, to create a family drama that would surround Chris with a talented ensemble.
During his four years on Life Goes On, Chris was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor, and won other awards as well. He remains an active member of the Screen Actors Guild, yet these days does not do much acting. During and after the series’ run, he appeared in guest roles on television shows including ER, Touched by an Angel and The Promised Land, as well as in the TV movie Jonathan: The Boy Nobody Wanted. His most recent role was in 2003, when he played a janitor in the Julia Roberts’ film Mona Lisa Smile. Today, Chris still keeps in touch with his favorite cast and crew members, including Life costar Kellie Martin.
In the future, Chris is determined to work behind the camera. “I’d like to be a project consultant, to continue to promote awareness of Down syndrome in television shows. I’d like to work with producers and writers and give them script ideas.”
When Life Goes On ended its run, Chris joked with typical aplomb: “Life Goes Off.”
Frank and Marian thought it might be the end of Chris’ performing career. To their surprise, he moved on to a new passion—music.
In 1993, their youngest recorded his first album with childhood friends and camp counselors Joe and John DeMasi, who are twins. Three more albums followed, all available through Chris’s website.
Their schedule can be jam-packed. This March, for example, the trio traveled from Ohio to Idaho, and from Georgia to New York for eight performances. They often play at schools, outdoor festivals and meetings for Down syndrome-related conferences. Though Chris is not a trained singer, the songs often have him singing, rap-style, to a catchy beat.
“We’ll perform,” says Chris, “then we teach about goals and how to reach for your dreams. We get the audience involved. We try to teach them what to do in the future. We try to encourage them.”
“I like being on the road with Joe and John,” Chris says. “But I am so anxious to get back home. It’s not easy being on the road. I like to entertain, but I’m really close to my parents and I miss them.” He also stays close to his three older siblings and his 10 nieces and nephews, including Dewey Burke, who played college basketball this year at the University of North Carolina.
Marian says she and Chris’s father, now both in their 80s, often talk about the future “after the two of us take off for the big beyond.”
“It is a concern for us,” she says. “We come up with different solutions every week. We try to discuss it with Chris, and he finds it so hard.”
“It is naturally the biggest concern of the parent of any young person with a disability: What happens after we’re gone? We do have a wealth of options. His two sisters and his brother, his nieces and nephews—they all love him dearly. We know he’ll never be left on his own.”
Not by a long shot. Where Chris goes, a crowd seems to follow. When he’s not on the road performing for fans, he spends several days a week at the National Down Syndrome Society in New York City, where he is a spokesperson. “It keeps me occupied,” he says. “I’ll help send mail, answer the door for the UPS men. Whatever they need.”
He spends almost as much time roaming around Manhattan, taking buses or walking to Blockbuster, Best Buy and other stores, where he keeps up with the latest music and movies. Chris laughs and admits his collection has grown quite large. Recently, he was waiting to nab a new favorite movie, Dreamgirls, on DVD so he could watch it again.
Chris himself is out on DVD: In 2006, his series Life Goes On was released, making four great years of life with Chris now available to a whole new generation of fans.
by JoBeth McDaniel
Buddy Walk www.buddywalk.org
Chris Burke’s Official website www.chrisburke.org