Daryl “Chill” Mitchell is something of a Renaissance Man. His career as an actor, director, producer, writer, musician, public speaker and comedian might strike others as overwhelming, but to Mitchell it’s all part of the game. For years, he enjoyed recurring roles on shows like Veronica’s Closet, Ed, and The John Larroquette Show. But after a spinal cord injury changed his life, Mitchell found himself wondering if he’d ever recapture that kind of success. Fresh off his FOX sitcom Brothers, in which Mitchell tackled his disability head-on, the entertainer took time for a phone interview with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and discussed how fighting his way back into the mainstream isn’t entirely a new experience.
Chet Cooper: You call Georgia home now?
Daryl “Chill” Mitchell: Yes, sir. Sugar Hills, Georgia. I’m from the Bronx, but I’m just like everybody else, man. After we make it big in New York, we come to Georgia and hide out.
Cooper: It was good to see you at the Department of Labor event the other day. You’re a pretty strong advocate for employing actors with disabilities.
Mitchell: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. You meet with these Labor Department guys, and you can tell everybody is enthused and ready to go. That’s the main thing, really. Their willingness to fly out from Washington and see us in Los Angeles and speak with us says a lot about them. But it’s really a matter of what we need to do, what we’re willing to do as people with disabilities. We need to be more boisterous. We need to let the world know that we’re here.
Cooper: When did you become a person with a disability?
Mitchell: I had my accident November of 2000.
Cooper: Were you involved in anything related to the disability movement in your pre-accident life?
Mitchell: Well, prior to that incident, a friend of mine was a victim of random violence. He was standing around with a friend of his when some guys driving by just opened fire. I think the shooters had had a problem with a rival group of people, went to retaliate, but didn’t realize that the group they were firing on definitely wasn’t the one they were looking for. So my friend got hit.
That all happened maybe eight to 10 years before I got hurt. So being with my friend and doing things with him and going places with him opened my eyes a bit. He used to visit me in Los Angeles when I was doing The John Larroquette Show and doing movies with Martin Lawrence. He’d come out and hang, and I could definitely see how important accessibility was, just by being with him. When I got hurt, it was a blessing that he was one of the first people to show up at the hospital.
Cooper: That’s great he was there for you.
Mitchell: He was there for me. And from day one, he showed empathy, but he didn’t show sympathy. Man, he was like, “Get it goin’ right now.” He was very much of the mindset, “This is just what it is and you deal with it.” He was there for me, as any good friend would be.
Cooper: How have your feelings changed about disability after an experience like that?
Mitchell: You know, it’s interesting. I look back now at a person like Stevie Wonder. I look at a person like Ray Charles. Those were really the only people with disabilities ever put in the front of me, but their situation was never presented to me—or, I think, to anybody in the black community—as a disability. Because when you are a person who is already kind of socially disabled, who sometimes doesn’t count, disability is just another sense of not being able to do something.
So with African Americans, to some extent we’re talking about a whole race of people that was already given a disability because of various social issues. When it came to Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles, I never looked at them as people with disabilities. It might have been a great educational tool for me if I had, you know, in the sense that I would know that this is what a person with a disability is, and this is what he does to overcome his disability. But to me they were just Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. They were blind and they were talented. But they were never “disabled”.
So I just never thought about it. Because when you’re busy grindin’ and tryin’ to make it happen, you don’t have time to stop and look at certain things in a certain manner. You just look at those guys and think, “Okay, they make it happen. Let’s just keep it movin’.” Those two men have been blind as far back as I can remember, but they were primarily two black men who came from the bottom. They were just part of another set of people on the bottom.
Cooper: It’s interesting that you’re able to relate this to the reality of racial differences. Do you notice much difference between issues of disability as a general grouping and issues of minorities with disabilities?
Mitchell: Oh, definitely. I know The Christopher Reeve Foundation has statistics on that, and has documented evidence of African American and Hispanic wheelchair users who are not being counted.
Cooper: They’re not being counted?
Mitchell: They’re not being represented, no. When surveys take a look at how many people in America use a wheelchair, a lot of times the African American and Hispanic populations are not being counted.
Cooper: I’ve definitely seen data that would suggest that the more minority categories a person belongs to—because as you know, disability crosses everything—the more difficult it is for him to find employment.
Mitchell: Definitely. But that ain’t no news to me, you know what I mean?
Cooper: Is there a part of your personal mission, if you want to call it that, that feels a responsibility towards helping African Americans with disabilities?
Mitchell: I don’t know. I mean, that would be like saying I would advocate only for people with disabilities who happen to use wheelchairs. But I can’t be like that. It’s not only people in wheelchairs who pay attention to me, who pay attention to my movies, to my work. So I can’t just advocate for people in wheelchairs. In the same sense, I can’t just advocate for black people.
But at the same time, I suppose I give the African American and disability angle some type of special attention because these are the things that affect me as well. But it ain’t gonna be the only thing that I advocate for, personally.
Cooper: I have the same issue. I have to advocate for people who are really attractive, because I am what I am. (laughs)
Mitchell: You know what I mean? (laughs) “Hey, baby, it ain’t my fault! God made me like this!”
Cooper: I’ve met a lot of people who have acquired disabilities later in life, rather than having been born with them, and there often seems to be a sense of awareness: “I think I need to be an advocate.” But thinking back on your pre-disability life, what could have motivated you to get involved in a movement that you might have assumed was never going to be a part of your life in the first place?
Mitchell: You’re asking, if I don’t have a disability, why would I want to get involved?
Mitchell: It starts in your heart. I mean, I was always an advocate for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Even before my accident I used to be involved in things like that. But it starts in your heart, and you’ve got to know what’s right.
I can’t speak for other people, but I know what it’s like coming up from the bottom. A lot of people don’t understand that experience. When you finally get a shot at success and you get up on top, you want to bring your people around. You want them to have a good time. When I found success, I put on a big party in Atlanta, invited everybody from my community. We got a bus and everything, everybody came out, I had 400 people in my yard. But you do something like that because your heart tells you. That’s where it starts for me.
You’ve got to want to make a difference for somebody. So that’s why when they call me out for Make-A-Wish Foundation, pediatric AIDS and causes like that, I still support these things.
Cooper: But that’s coming from your desire to help, from your own kindness. You had mentioned earlier that, in the cases of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, you were never even thinking of their disability. You were thinking those were great guys who sing well and play good music and entertain. But you never thought “disability” per se.
Cooper: So how do we tap into that place in someone’s psyche? The place where the disability isn’t even on their radar.
Mitchell: Well, the powers that be have to implement us into the fabric of life and tell the rest of the world that we count. It was the same thing that was done with the African American community. Once the President essentially said, “You know what? Every man is created equal and we’ve got to make this right,” then we started to implement that philosophy and much of the rest of the world followed suit.
It starts with the powers that be, the guys up top, because there’s only so much that we can do. We can make noise, but they’ve got to accept that noise and include us. We need inclusion. That’s the biggest thing. That’s why it’s important that the US Department of Labor came down to speak with us, because by doing that, they’re saying, “You know what? We’re going to let the world know that you guys are here.”
Once the African American community got that sort of backing, we were allowed to let the world know it. We had people out there to say, “Yes. Let them in the party. Let them on the court. Let them play ball.” That’s what we needed. And that’s what’s starting to happen right now, I think, for people with disabilities. Are things going to change overnight? No. Mindsets have to be changed. But see, once you get yourself in the room and let people know that people with disabilities can do the job, then that’s when things will change. We know what we can do. We just have to be allowed to do it. That’s where the powers that be come into play.
Cooper: Grassroots advocates might say the opposite of what you’ve just said. They might say that all meaningful change is going to be from the bottom up. I think it’s both.
Mitchell: (laughs) Sure.
Cooper: But the achievement of you getting your own show, starring as the lead actor, that’s a step in the right direction. How did that opportunity come about?
Mitchell: That came about because Michael Strahan wanted to do television. And I was looking for a show. It’s crazy, actually, because I had met Michael five years prior to that, and he had told me, “If you ever need me for anything, give me a call.” So I called him. When I found out he wanted to do a show, I was all for it. But see, I knew I was going to have to stack the deck—because in prime-time television, it’s just so hard to get a show on the air.
My main tactic was to hire Michael Strahan, knowing we would get a lot of publicity because of his football career. So we came together to produce the show. I told him: “We’ve already got a story. Your life is a story and my life is a story, so let’s just build the show around our lives. I had this accident and you are a retired football player.” We put a little bit of fantasy around it to make it interesting.
Once we had that, I started utilizing all the relationships I’d built with people in the past. We got Don Reo, who had produced Blossom and who was a writer on M.A.S.H. and My Wife and Kids. He had worked on The John Larroquette Show with me, 20 years ago. I got him on board, and I knew Kevin Reilly from NBC, who is now over at Fox. Eric Tannenbaum, who was the producer, had produced Two and a Half Men. I snagged all these strong, powerful people. By the time we went to pitch at Fox, everything was in place. We got Carl Weathers, CCH Pounder.
And then Don Reo asked me, “Look, do you know somebody who can do music?” I was like, “Me. I do music.” So he said, “No problem. You got it.” I started soliciting producers to come into my company and started writing music for the show. We put all of these elements together into a package that a network couldn’t say no to. We went to four different networks, and three of them wanted the show. Three out of four networks wanted that show.
Cooper: That’s pretty good.
Mitchell: It was a pretty good pitch. We went out and did it, man. I was the producer, star, music supervisor, and I was eventually directing. And that gave me the opportunity to hire other actors with disabilities.
Cooper: Are you thinking that maybe there is another home for the show now, since it’s no longer on Fox?
Mitchell: No, I think that project is over and done with. It was a big show. It cost a lot to make. But I’m still meeting with other networks now to do something else. People are pretty open to ideas once you come at them and tell them what you’re about.
Cooper: Yeah, I think that’s where I was trying to lead with my earlier question. How do you introduce the issue of disability to people who don’t realize they actually haven’t been introduced to it yet?
Mitchell: My answer is: do comedy. I don’t make light of the situation, but I present it accessibly. Whenever people are around me, I want to make them comfortable, because if I can laugh at myself, then they’re like, “Okay, it’s cool.”
We ain’t doin’ surgery here. It ain’t that serious. I’m still a person, I’m just an injured person. But I find that a lot of people are not comfortable around me because they knew of me or they knew me prior to my accident. I think because I was known on television, some people still look at me like I’m just going to get up and walk tomorrow. So there’s a whole other attitude when it comes to living as an entertainer, especially as a relatively well-known entertainer.
Cooper: When you’ve come across people you knew prior to your accident and engage with them, do you see a change in their attitudes towards you?
Mitchell: Yeah, sometimes. But you know what? I nip it in the bud, just immediately. Not through anything I say to them, just through my actions. I ignore your attitude and your behavior if I don’t like what you’re about.
Cooper: One of our writers, a wheelchair user, has said that when he’s traveling with his wife people always talk to her about him, instead of to him. He has to say, “I’m right here!”
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s absent-mindedness. Somebody talks over me and says to my assistant, “Does he want some water?” I’m like, seriously? It’s crazy. Or sometimes people ask, “Can I take a picture with him?”
Mitchell: If they want to take a picture with me, they’ll ask my assistant. “Can I take a picture with him?” It’s not that they’re being rude, it’s just a natural fact that they don’t know how to respond to my situation.
Cooper: It’s unfamiliarity.
Mitchell: I always tell people, it’s difficult to refer to your skin color or to civil rights without sounding militant or angry. But the fact of the matter is, this is what it is. The only reason why blacks were able to move forward is because we are all one color. The problem with disability, though, is that there are so many different types and groupings, and everybody wants to be acknowledged on their own merits.
Cooper: You’re right. There are silos within this arena called disability that actually conflict with each other’s agendas.
Mitchell: Right. The deaf people want to be known this way. The blind people, people with wheelchairs, amputees, want it another way. But I say, let’s all get into one car. Let’s all get ourselves on the road and then we’ll decide what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get in the car first. That’s the thing.
When Martin Luther King marched, he didn’t march from Selma and announce, “All right! Now we’re gonna march in Florida!” No. We’ve all got to march together. Whether you’re black in a wheelchair, whether you’re black and blind, black and deaf, we need to march together because we’re black. And that really is what it’s going to take. We’ve got to do this thing together.
Cooper: So you do after all believe that part of this movement depends not on waiting for the top-down assistance, but also on the grassroots level to do it ourselves.
Mitchell: (laughs) Right. Once we move ourselves together, then the top’s going to pay attention. That’s what’s happening right now. They see we’re trying to make movement. We’re stronger united than we are separated. And that’s the same thing I said when my show was struggling. With so many people with disabilities in this country, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be watching the show.
Brothers was a big step forward for us in the industry. Everybody with a disability who wants to be an actor should have been about campaigning for our show. I always told people, “It’s not my show, it’s our show. It’s monumental for people with disabilities that I got this opportunity.” And then, once I got that opportunity, it wasn’t as if I shied away from the issues of disability. We made statements all the way across the board.
I was driving a car on the show, showing people that we still move around. I had a girlfriend, I had everything. And as it turned out, I got more people without disabilities paying attention to the show than I did people with disabilities.
Cooper: But that’s key, right? You almost want to get people to watch your show without realizing what they’re watching. You’re just there, you’re living life, you’re having fun.
Mitchell: You’re right, that’s the thing. It wasn’t like a documentary, where you’re sitting there watching as somebody hand-feeds me. When you watch this show, you enjoy the ride.
Cooper: I guess it’d be good television if your girlfriend hand-fed you.
Mitchell: Oh, yeah, hey, you know what I mean? (laughs) Now you’re talking!
Cooper: How much stand-up comedy do you do now?
Mitchell: Oh, I go out, but it really depends on how much time I’ve got. I spend a lot of my time now auditioning or writing. When I’m down here in Georgia, I appear on Comedy Corner. I’m a motivational speaker, too, so I’ve got speaking engagements. Once I get on stage, it gives me a change to speak and crack ‘em up at the same time. I fit it all in.
Cooper: So you’ve honed a message. How long have you been doing motivational speaking?
Mitchell: About five years.
Cooper: What was your career like prior to your accident?
Mitchell: I was acting. I had just finished a movie called Black Knight with Martin Lawrence, and then I did another movie called The Country Bears. That’s when I came to South Carolina for a thing called Heritage Day, where everybody celebrates our South Carolina heritage. My nephew had a Kawasaki 1100 and asked me to ride it. I didn’t want to ride it because we had all been sitting around drinking and I knew he wanted me to do tricks and stuff. I said, “No, not tonight, bro.” But the next night, I saw him, pulled up to him. He threw me the keys and I jumped on the bike. But listen, I know you shouldn’t go out there horsing around on a bike you don’t know. You’re supposed to get out there and feel it out first, right?
Cooper: That would be the right idea.
Mitchell: Anyway, I went up a curve, at a place where there was only one road in and one road out. It was midnight, on a blacktop road. At the area I was driving through, the tide comes up high, and the water washes over the road. The salt eats up the blacktop.
I came around the curve and hit that blacktop, that loose gravel. The bike took off, I’m paying more attention to the bike than I am the road, and I go right into the ditch. The bike fell right on top of me.
That’s when everybody was like, “Where’s Chill?” They knew I hadn’t come back down the other way. No one had seen me come back, but they saw the police cars shootin’ up the road. Somebody had seen the accident and had called the cops.
Cooper: That was fortunate.
Mitchell: Yeah, I was blessed that way. But I woke up three days later in the hospital, with a T-4 fracture.
Cooper: So you were unconscious?
Mitchell: Yeah. No helmet. It’s not state law in South Carolina. Usually I wear a helmet, sure, but this night I was thinking, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” You know what I mean? It’s like they say: people have an accident within three miles of their house.
Cooper: Right. That’s why I always stop within three miles and call a cab to go the rest of the way home.
Cooper: Did you ever meet Christopher Reeve?
Mitchell: Oh, yeah. I work with The Reeve Foundation as part of their minority outreach program. I go and speak at their events.
My thing is, we can and should do more to get corporations aware of hiring people with disabilities. A cure is great, and we should definitely strive for it, but the reality is that people want to work. People need to take care of their families. People need to be able the pay their mortgages and their rent and take care of their kids. More than anything, they want jobs. They don’t need handouts, they need jobs.
Cooper: At abilityJOBS.com we have a resume bank and anyone with a disability can post a resume, plus search for jobs if they’re looking for work.
Mitchell: Right, right. That’s what we need.
Cooper: Where did you think your career was going to go after your accident changed your life?
Mitchell: The thing was, I knew I still had my ability, I just wasn’t sure people would give me a chance. That was my main thing. Fortunately my friends in Hollywood really stood up for me. They spoke for me. If they knew something was happening, they’d call my manager and let us know. I utilized my relationships. That’s 90 percent of what makes things happen in the industry. I’ve got relationships going back 20 years, and I’ve done right by these people. My mother had always told me, “Respect can take you places money can’t.” That’s what it all boiled down to.
Cooper: After accidents like yours, people often go through stages of anger, denial, acceptance. Did you find yourself going through those stages?
Mitchell: Yeah. In my opinion, a little bit of denial is good, because it means you’re gonna push yourself. But you’re always gonna find out there are some things you can do and some things you can’t do. When I got out of the hospital, one of the first things I did was buy a Hummer. That was just to let the world know about me. I was making a statement: “Look, you ain’t gonna stop me and you ain’t gonna leave me behind.”
I tell people that adversity goes a long way. When you’re dealing with adversity, you learn about yourself. In a sense, as a black man, I’d already been there before. So this new situation was all about redirecting my energy.
Cooper: You’re saying you’d felt adversity before and already knew how to deal with it?
Mitchell: I’d been in places where people didn’t want me. I’d been to places where people looked down on me. I’d been there already. I wasn’t always famous, but I’ve always been black. You go through things where people discriminate. I know what that’s like. Ultimately it’s nothing if you just keep moving. Like I said, this was just another form of the bottom. Are you going to be mad all the time, or are you going to be productive and let the world see you, let the world understand you?
I’ve been discriminated against because of my age, too. I’ve been discriminated against because I was a rapper. When I first came into Hollywood, I was coming in at it from the rap industry. A lot of people didn’t want to hire a rapper because they’d thought, “He’s gonna wind up gettin’ locked up or cause problems.” But I didn’t do none of that. I learned a craft and transformed and moved from one thing to another. That’s the main thing I do now: I come in and I do my job. I’m respectful and I show people that I can do it. And they’ll respond with, “Okay, wow. There’s nothing different.” It ain’t nothin’ different.
The bottom line, I think, is that I don’t have time to sit here and be remorseful. I’ve got plenty of time to cry, but I don’t have it right now. Right now is the time to go to war. That’s what I told the doctor when I found out what had happened to my body. “Okay. Now what’s next?”
That’s all I wanted to know: “What’s next?”