In a scene from CBS’ hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Robert David Hall’s character, medical examiner Al Robbins, MD, is interrupted as he jams to the radio and nails a complicated riff on his air guitar. His talent is natural, his guitar-a crutch. While many writers feel the need to center a part around the character’s disability, the crutch’s sometimes doubling as an air guitar is the extent of its scripted role in this No. I drama. Robbins is not defined by his disability, but rather the assistance he is able to provide to investigators of Las Vegas’ CSI unit by applying his extensive knowledge of forensic pathology.
A seasoned actor, Hall has appeared in such films as Starship Troopers and The Negotiator, as well as the Emmy award-winning TNT mini-series Andersonville. His television roles have included guest appearances on Family Law, The Practice and The West Wing, to name a very few. His voice has been heard in hundreds of commercials, animated series and narrations.
One of the most prominent actors with a disability working today, Hall found that his role as a burn survivor in Michael Apted’s film Class Action closely paralleled real life. In 1978, an 18-wheel truck struck Hall’s car and he was severely burned when his gas tank exploded. After several months in a burn unit and the amputation of both legs, he now walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs.
Hall has just completed his term as a national board member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and is national chairman of the performers with disabilities caucus for SAG, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the London-based trade union Equity. He serves on the board of directors for the National Organization on Disability, as well as the Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices Project, which promotes empowerment of writers and performers with disabilities in the American theater. He is also a member of the Mutual Amputee Foundation, where he visits recent amputees.
ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently sat down with Robert David Hall in his Los Angeles-area home to discuss his passionate love of music (which extends beyond air guitar), acting and advocacy.
Chet Cooper: You have quite a collection of instruments. How many do you play?
Robert David Hall: Guitar, piano and mandolin. I also used to play flute and French horn when I was younger. I played in a series of semi-good and semi-crappy bands and I loved it.
CC: Did you make them semi-good or semi-crappy?
RDH: (laughs) In some ways semi-good, I think.
CC: Do you still perform?
RDH: Yep. My friend and I play two or three times a year. One of our buddies is a studio harmonica player who’s outrageously talented and we have a few guitar players who are great. I pretty much spent my twenties as a musician and taking acting classes. I loved it. I was at UCLA getting As and Bs in English and creative writing, basically trying to stay out of the Army. All I really wanted to do was play music. At some point you turn 27 or 28 years old and you say to yourself, “God, I’m getting up there.” You think you are so old at that age. That’s when I got into radio. The day of my accident I worked the morning shift on a local radio station, I wrote copy for an ad agency for two hours and then I took an acting class. I was like the guy who didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. A musician, a voice-over guy, an actor…
CC: A surfer?
RDH: I was never much of a surfer. Back in the day I’m a bit older than you (laughs)- we had long boards and we didn’t use ankle leashes the way they do today. The first time I almost died was surfing: I got hit on the head with a board. I went under and started swimming until I hit the bottom of the ocean. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going the wrong way. Do I have enough air to get back up?” If you’re a surfer you know the feeling.
CC: Absolutely. And the big boards hurt when they conk you in the head.
RDH: Boy do they ever.
CC: But it’s nothing like getting hit by a semi-truck!
RDH: (laughs) No kidding. Here’s the abridged version of the story because I hadn’t thought about it for 20 years or so until CSI people started asking me, “How did you become disabled? What’s the deal?”
It was July 10, 1978, a special day because I was selling my Volkswagen. I had washed and waxed it, and the buyer was going to give me twelve hundred bucks for it-the most money I had ever gotten in my hand at one time. I was going to buy my first new car-a Honda Civic, I think. I was heading north on the San Diego Freeway at about two o’clock in the afternoon, and there was a lot of construction. Coming the other way was a truck driver hauling a double-wide load of dirt or gravel. The guy had just stopped off at a bar for a six-pack lunch, and he went right through the chain-link fence dividing the highway and ran me over. He just came out of the blue. I tried to react but he was on me, and I was trapped under tons of metal. The freeway was chaotic; others had been hit by the truck and people were kind of unaware of me. So I’d survived the crash, but…
CC: Wait a minute, so you did survive?
RDH: I survived.
CC: Okay, good.
RDH: (laughs) No, I died and came back; I’m reborn. Seriously, I knew I was injured, but I didn’t know quite where I was. I figured something really horrible had happened, and then my gas tank exploded. Referring to me, I heard a cop yell, “Forget about him!” They were afraid the truck’s gas tank was going to explode. When I heard that cop I started screaming my lungs out like I’ve never screamed before and I hope to never scream again. Two guys, a welder who had just retired and another trucker, jammed a fire extinguisher into where they thought I might be and they managed to put out the fire. I remember the sounds and the smells, and I remember a million people all around me.
CC: What was going through your mind at that time?
RDH: It’s funny what you think about during chaotic or traumatic times. I had just bought a new pair of Levis and I remember looking down and they were black. I thought, were blue jeans-they’re not black, they’re supposed to be blue.” Some of the guys came to visit me later in the hospital and they said I’d been one of the funnier guys they had ever scraped off the high way. I said, “Funnier? What do you mean?” I had been in shock, and I guess at the time I was convinced that if I stopped talking I would die, so-according to them I’d babbled like nobody they had ever heard. I do remember telling them what I’d studied in school, my favorite records, my favorite movies, every girlfriend I’d ever had, where I lived, who my brother and sisters were. They said. “You yakked all the way to the hospital. When they finally jammed all the anesthesia into you, you shut up.”
CC: Were you burned?
RDH: I had burns over 65 percent of my body. I spent four months in the burn center. I was in a room with a bunch of people who were burned worse than I was and some not so badly. A couple of them died. I can remember hearing the flat-line beep, and though I was wrapped up like a mummy with tubes coming out of me, I remember the scurrying and closing of the sheets and then the very discreet removal of the bed.
CC: It must have been very surreal.
RDH: It was. I went back for several operations over the next year. They had amputated my right leg above the knee the night of the accident, and then they amputated my left leg in stages over the summer. They kept trying to prevent gangrene, but I’d burned too much of my body. But the great thing about having gone through what I went through is that I’m not afraid of casting directors, producers or directors. What are they going to do, run me over with a semi and set me on fire? (laughs) Been there, done that!
One positive thing about the accident was that I had the opportunity to speak to individuals and groups and maybe help somebody who had gone through a similar experience. Of all the films, TV shows and other stuff I’ve done, one of the things I’m proudest of is a little burn movie created to help new burn patients. I did that 15 years ago, long before anybody knew who I was, but I’ve been told they still show it at some of the big burn centers. It’s rare that you get a chance to make a difference, and that’s probably the gift in what happened to me.
CC: What kind of support did you have as you were going through recovery?
RDH: When I was in the hospital, one of the nurses whom I didn’t especially care for-probably because she was administering pain on a regular basis-gave me a book about an English pilot named Sir Douglas Spader, who lost both his legs in a training accident right before World War II. Back then prosthetics were not quite as high tech as they are now, but he got back into the Royal Air Force. They gave him a desk job. and then the war started. When they started losing pilots, he badgered them to let him fly again. He flew 50 successful missions before being shot down behind German lines. The Germans took his prosthetics from him, so he fashioned his own very rudimentary legs and escaped from prison camp. He became a huge hero in England.
CC: The book obviously made an impact on you.
RDH: At first I was thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to have to spend the rest of my life reading this kind of inspirational stuff?” But I remember that book to this day, and I’m really grateful because it just reminded me that we all have to improvise. Improvisation is not just an actor’s tool; it’s a human being’s tool. It’s better when you have a mentor or a support group, but sometimes you have to invent the whole deal by yourself. I’ve been lucky-I can get creative when I need to, but I’ve also had people along the way who helped me.
CC: Did you ever have second thoughts about your acting career after your accident?
RDH: At the beginning I worried about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to run and jump on stage. It was a big change, because I was a track athlete in high school and college. I thought it would stop my career cold. But Gordon Hunt, Helen Hunt’s father, was my acting teacher for ten years, and he told me, “Acting is one person telling the truth to another person, and the other person listening.” I think that’s worth four years of college right there.
I still wanted to do what I wanted to do. I wasn’t willing to settle for less. My late father always told us, “There’s always somebody who’s got it better off than you and somebody who’s got it worse off than you, so get over it and move on.” I realize more and more that he’s absolutely right. I always wanted to be an employed actor working at a high level and I’ve got that. This isn’t forever, but it brings new dreams. I want to do film after CSI is over. I want to write and I want to continue dis ability advocacy because being an actor in a hit show gives you a certain platform and certain leverage, and I take that very seriously.
CC: It certainly provides opportunity.
RDH: I think there is more to life than just being an actor on a TV show. I want to do something where I encourage young people with disabilities to go after their dreams, to believe they can play at a high level. I want to reduce the amount of discrimination in some small way. When I was younger I thought you could move the world miles at a time, but it seems you only move people’s attitudes by inches, feet if you are really lucky. It’s what ABILITY Magazine does.
CC: We use the metric system.
RDH: (laughs) You use the metric system, you’re different from me. I really thought things would happen faster than they have. The key element I’ve noticed by serving on different boards and being in different groups is that it’s not enough to have a big event; you must have a constant presence. Whenever there is a discussion in our country about diversity, somebody with a disability somebody with a brain and the ability to speak-has to be at the table.
CC: I couldn’t agree more. It’s the consistency of presence that’s so crucial.
RDH: I would like to see people with disabilities included at every level of our society.
CC: The only visible sign of disability most people see is that you use a cane. Do you experience discrimination?
RDH: I’m a Jekyll and Hyde. If I go to the beach and I want to get some exercise, I take my wheelchair and I don’t wear my legs. If I’ve got my prosthetic legs on, I’m just a middle-aged mark. If I’m in my wheelchair, I get high-fives from derelicts who, last week if I was walking on my legs, would have hit me up for spare change.
There’s still a perception that if you have a disability you are sick or fragile. I drive a Mercedes, live in a nice house and have a bank account. I’m not bragging: I’m just saying people assume too much. They assume if you’re a woman over 40 you can’t be an actress in Hollywood. They assume if you use a wheelchair, you might be a problem on a set. I have seen improvements in the 25 years I’ve been an actor. There were many years where I would have five auditions and my friends would have fifty, even though we had the same credits, the same training and basically the same look. I’ve never
hidden my disability. I’m a man, an actor, a father, a husband and all that jazz, but I’m also a double amputee. I’ve always reminded casting people that I am there to do the same work that everyone else is. But if you don’t get the auditions, well, it’s the same mathematical equation that holds true about getting into law school or getting a job in any profession. If you get 50 interviews and I get 5, you are 10 times more likely to get a job than I am. Though there have been strides for people with disabilities, we still lag far behind in education, job interviews and employment.
CC: That’s part of the mission of the Media Access Office in California-to promote employment and awareness within the entertainment industry.
RDH: It’s important. If you see a person with a disability in a serious role, playing a lead character, playing an important character, then little kids, teenagers and adults say. “Oh yeah, sure, of course a judge can have a dis ability,” or “Of course there could be a blind FBI agent,” or “Yeah, I guess a guy with a crutch could be a coroner.” It’s subtle but it’s direct. The images people see affect their expectations of a particular group. African-Americans can tell you this.
CC: The media plays a very powerful role.
RDH: I went back to Washington this past summer to speak before Congress about people with disabilities, and I also went to speak on behalf of The Crime Laboratory, the forensic organization in Washington. Both
times the congresspeople I met were thrilled to meet a guy from one of their favorite TV shows. I could have talked about indoor plumbing and they would have shaken my hand and asked for an autograph and picture. That’s what I was getting to earlier: you can influence people with this medium of television. I like the idea that those of us with disabilities can get a chance to interact with the power brokers.
I just want to make sure that the doors are open so people with disabilities can succeed or fail like anyone else. We just have had less opportunity. I feel funny saying this as a white, middle-aged male. I don’t know that I would have this particular mindset had I not acquired a disability.
CC: I see very few people working as advocates within the disability movement who do not have disabilities themselves. You raise an important question: how do you get people to care when they haven’t experienced disability personally?
RDH: My pump was primed before my accident. One of my brothers is legally blind, and it was never a big deal in our family.
CC: But how do you bring that level of awareness to a person who hasn’t had a disability or experienced one in the immediate family?
RDH: That’s interesting. You know the play Six Degrees of Separation? Everybody knows somebody either directly or indirectly who has a dis ability. Everybody. The more I think about Christopher Reeve, God rest his soul-he did so much. Much more than he even intended to do. When somebody famous acquires a disability there’s a lot of, “Oh what a shame, too bad.” But if that person does something with his or her life. then people notice. That speaks volumes.
I’m really concerned there be positive images of as many people with dis abilities as possible. I try to make sure my crutch is in every scene I’m in on CSI, though they don’t know that. (laughs) People’s attitudes change slowly, and knowing somebody with a disability who is a functioning person is one of the most influential factors. That’s why change sometimes happens one person at a time.
CC: People often fear the unknown.
RDH: People fear becoming disabled, and they’re sometimes uncomfortable around those of us who are. That’s something I went through in the initial phases of my disability. I was burned very badly and I was not yet walking on artificial legs, and I remember wheeling around a drug store. A young girl and her mother turned the corner just as I was coming, and the little girl started screaming. Her mother shushed her and quickly ran away. A short time later the little girl had separated from her mother and she saw me wheeling down the aisle. She didn’t run this time. She stopped and I said, “Hi, what’s your name?” Part of what frightened her was that I was wearing a mask, a restrictive garment to keep burn scars down, so I removed the mask and showed her that while I was burned badly, I was a real guy inside. She asked me if I was okay and I said I was doing great. We didn’t talk a lot, but I just tried to calm her down, and I said good bye to her and she said goodbye to me; it works. I learned a valuable lesson: yes, there’s going to be a lot of staring and discomfort, but there is probably a way to deal with it. It all stems from those two bedfellows, fear and ignorance.
My son Andy is 23 years old and couldn’t care less about my disability. He grew up saying to me, “Dad, we are going to be late for the movies if you don’t get your legs on.” Andy has accompanied me on some of my trips to burn camps and various disability functions. I know he’s going to be a person who looks beyond the color of people’s skin and beyond their disabilities. That’s the point we have to get to, where people don’t pat themselves on the back and have an award dinner because they are treating others halfway decently. It’s got to be something that’s lived.
RDH: I was once doing a voice-over at a studio in Santa Monica with a guy I’ve known for a while, and he said, “You’re different from those other disabled people.” I asked, “What do you mean?” I was expecting something pretty wild to come out, but he said, “You don’t make me uncomfortable. You seem to have a sense of humor.”
CC: James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, told me during an interview, “Hiring people with disabilities is not just the right thing to do, but they are fun to watch.” The people working for him said nervously, “You’re not going to write that down, are you?” I thought, here is a man who was shot in the head, survived a major brain trauma and still has a sense of humor.
RDH: I think people are sometimes afraid to let their hair down around us. Maybe political correctness does more harm than good. We’re just like everyone else breathing, laughing, having the same desires. I want to go to a good restaurant; I want to go to the same movies you go to; I want to travel and visit a foreign country. I want love in my life and a little bit of income.
Chet, I’m humbled by everything going on. A lot of actors with disabilities came up swinging through the 80s and 90s. For most of the roles we were lucky enough to get, we played either some super-inspirational disabled guy or some pathetic disabled guy. Never the doctor, the judge, the-God forbid-lover. We always played the bitter guy who’s thinking of killing himself until the series’ star comes up and says, “Dave, life’s worth living.” But even playing those bizarre roles, I kept learning how to act. Eventually we were considered for parts that weren’t quite so stereo typical. The only way to get a non-stereotypical role in any field is to constantly go up against the best, people who are better and smarter than you are, and welcome the challenge.
CC: Have you ever watched the Paralympics? Some of these athletes are amputees who come within fractions of a second of Olympic records.
RDH: Oh, yeah. Single-legged amputees?
CC: Also dual.
RDH: Dual? Really? Cool.
CC: I wonder if there is some benefit to being a dual amputee as opposed to a single, because prosthetics used by competitive runners are constructed to match the remaining leg, with the same strength and bounce. But if you don’t have anything to match to, there’s a lot of room to be creative in the design and spring load.
RDH: Theoretically you’re right, if the amputations e exactly the same length. However, you always were have one leg that’s longer than the other.
CC: Hmm…how tall were you prior to the accident?
RDH: I used to be 5 foot 11 and a half before my accident, but now I’m about 5 foot 8 and a half. I could have been eight feet tall. I tried. (laughs) I always wanted to be six feet tall, and I made the prosthetist do my first set of legs so I would be. I walked like the guy with the Eat at Joe’s signboard on. It was very awkward, and I found that everything worked out better as they kept shortening my stride. I could walk faster and I was in less pain. Lack of pain always wins out.
CC: Do you ever go to Vegas, where CSI is set?
RDH: I’ve shot there twice. Vegas is a fun little get away. I like to play cards, and the coroner of Las Vegas actually loves me. He’s been bugging me for three years to watch him work, so I went up and saw two autopsies. I have to tell you, that’s the end of my method acting! I am never going near a morgue again in my life.
CC: I thought about being a doctor. To conquer my fear of blood, I purposely worked in a morgue in college. It didn’t help me either.
RDH: (laughs) Because of the time I spent in the burn ward I probably am not as freaked out as some people would be, but when I went to visit the Las Vegas coroner…TV sanitizes everything; we have this electron ic music playing, and there are blue lights and smoke and stainless steel and all that. The Vegas morgue looked as if Bob Marley and the Wailers had gone on an LSD ram page. I mean, bodies were crammed all over. There were about six guys with big red mechanics’ tool boxes, and one of them was wearing a Rasta hat and burning incense at his station as they were all slicing and dicing. I had to double mask because the stench was so horrible. I’d never been so aware of who was alive and who was dead. The bodies just looked like suits that aliens had dropped out of the sky; they had a bad Sci-fi look to them. It wasn’t all dignified the way we think it should be.
CC: So steer clear of method acting when it involves morgues. Any other tips for your fellow actors?
RDH: When a casting director asks, “Can you do this?” the actor needs to be honest. “Yes, I can do that. I can do it well,” or “I can’t do it the way you’re thinking, but I can do it this way.” All of us who have some sort of disability have to get creative; we have to figure out ways to do the things we want to do. If I want to go swimming, do I think, “I don’t have legs, so therefore I can’t swim?” No. I think, “Well, I can have a little fin fashioned by my prosthetist to help me swim faster.”
CC: Any final thoughts?
RDH: I have more CSI swag than you know. (both laugh) Someday I’m going to be an old geezer on eBay writing. “Original CSI …” (laughs)
I’m hoping the best is yet to come. I always have operated that way. Maybe it’s denial because mortality does rear it’s ugly head, but you keep hoping there is more and that one thing will lead to another. I know that when one door shuts another door opens.