The year was 1995 and host to events that have shaped American history and culture. Friends, a new comedy about six close friends living in New York City, won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New Comedy Series in its first season. Terrorism became personal with the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and an unrelated first mention of the Taliban was heard across the news wires. Pierre Omidyar announced on Auction Web a new site for noncomputer items called eBay and Christopher Reeve, the idolized actor who portrayed Superman, experienced a fall during a charity equestrian event that would lead him to become one of the most controversial celebrity advocates of all time.
In the world of disability, there are those who were born with a disability or acquired one at a very early age in life-and there are those who, due to heredity, illness or accident, find themselves learning to live with a disability later. Statistically, people in this second category, who have lost a level of mobility they once experienced. tend to direct their focus toward finding a cure rather than quality of life issues, such as lowered sidewalks or Braille keypads on automated teller machines. Campaigning for a cure is often met with harsh opposition by many who see their disability as an extension of themselves and have consequently devoted themselves to fighting the legal system on issues of accessibility and equality. In her recent book, Disabled Rights, author Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer likens Christopher Reeve to Jack Kevorkian as, “…one of the most despised and cursed individuals by many disability rights activists.” Some, such as activist and researcher Phyllis Ruberfeld, credit Christopher Reeve for pushing the disability. rights movement back a “zillion years.”
The feelings are strong and the accusations are harsh. The question is, will the comments made by Reeve in the initial years following his accident contribute to a decrease in equity or attention paid to the disability rights movement? Probably not. When ABILITY first met with Reeve shortly after his accident, he discussed specifically that he did not want to be perceived as a disability advocate. Yet, the media could not get enough of him. Perhaps it was a summoning of awareness of our own mortality, the possibility that any one of our lives could change without a moment’s notice. He was Superman, after all. Disability advocates were dismayed when Reeve talked to Barbara Walters about his brief thoughts of suicide or the fact he didn’t feel he was a whole human being. Ironically, some believe these people fiercely condemning Reeve should have been the most understanding.
The notion that a human being can survive a severe traumatic accident without desire to use his resources for the betterment of his position, or even the possibility of restoring himself to his original freedoms, is ridiculous. While he may have alienated a few who are fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, Reeve’s candidness about his feelings were empathized with and welcomed by many who have shared his frustrations, anger and grief.
The life of Christopher Reeve has served as a perfect illustration of the evolution that occurs within a person who has experienced a life-changing disability. Together, we watched a man go from a Hollywood hero who had it all, to a quadriplegic contemplating the value of life and now, to a self-described disability advocate. Through his work with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Christopher Reeve Resource Center. Reeve has proved that finding a cure and the promotion of quality of life issues need not be mutually exclusive.
Proving to all that he’s still got it, Reeve recently guest starred in an episode of The Practice, which was a collaboration between himself and the show’s executive producer, David E. Kelley. He is an actor and a disability advocate. He is addressing issues such as ‘caregiver burnout and raising millions of dollars toward spinal cord injury and stem cell research. Most of all, he has done it all with humor and as Camryn Manheim later states, an “unbelievable grace.”
ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper was on the set of The Practice and spoke with David Kelley, Christopher Reeve, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco and Carolyn McCormick. The following interviews take you from how the show originated to glimpses of working with Christopher Reeve and a look at what they’re doing now.
Interview with David E. Kelly
Chet Cooper: How did this collaboration between you and Christopher originate?
David E. Kelley: The genesis of this was Christopher himself. He came up with a storyline he thought would be viable to The Practice and submitted it to me. I read it, responded favorably to it and we spoke. He actually did a treatment for it and then I went about writing it with the hopes that he would be available to actually act in it. He was, so it all worked out.
CC: Do you think he originally conceptualized the episode with himself in mind as the actor?
DK: Well, I actually thought it felt right. Whether or not he was available to act in it or not, he was interested in telling the story. It worked out that he was available, but as he was traveling a lot at the time, we had a small window with which to get him as an actor. So, I was taking a little bit of a risk when I was writing it. I wasn’t counting on his ability to definitely be in it at the time, but was certainly hoping for that.
CC: Have you had the opportunity to see the episode?
DK: You know, I’ve not seen the episode because I don’t see ‘dailies.’ I see the first cut. I’ll see dailies if someone gives me a holler and says. “Wait a second, we have a problem here. Look at this.” I know people on the set were very happy with it and I have great hopes for the episode. I’m really happy, extremely happy with Chris performance. I enjoyed the story and I’m hopeful that when I see that first cut it will live up to my expectations.
CC: When you are writing an episode, such as this one, how much research is done on a new theory or defense, such as caregiver burnout? Did this defense come from your office or from Christopher?
DK: That started with Chris. We have researchers as part of our staff who get involved and talk to doctors and psychologists once we undertake a particular story line, but it was conceptualized and brought to us first by Chris. I found the concept very interesting because I am always fascinated with legal defense theories and how they continue to evolve. These days they are as diverse and varied as the crimes themselves. I had never heard of caregiver burnout raised as a possible temporary insanity or diminished capacity defense, so it sort of caught my fascination a little bit and off we went exploring the idea.
CC: Do you know if this defense has ever been tried in a court of law?
DK: don’t know that it has been used in a court of law. It’s certainly a real phenomenon as you probably know. but I don’t think that it has been launched yet as an excuse to get away with a crime, certainly not homicide. Oddly, when we write episodes we tend to learn that something is happening just as the episode is airing. I wouldn’t go out on a limb and say, “Gee, this has never happened,” because we have been surprised before. Just as an episode is airing, someone brings to our attention that it is actually a case in Tennessee or in Florida. To my knowledge though, I don’t know of someone employing caregiver burnout as a diminished capacity defense in a homicide case yet.
CC: Do you have any examples where a storyline has coincided with an actual case?
DK: I think the last one that comes to mind is that we did a death penalty case that talked about forcing medication on an insane inmate to make them sane for the purpose of executing them. Just as we were about to air, I think that issue came up again. It had been raised before but I think it came up in the courts so it was rather timely, fortuitously timely for us. That has happened on occasion.
CC: As we close, anything else?
DK: Over the years, especially in our criminal cases, we tend to go for juicy plots. We also have issue-oriented storylines which are an examination of an issue, be it ethical or social. In our criminal cases, more often than not, there are juicy plot twists. The fun of this particular story is that it leads as a cause piece, but then it is not that at all-it turns into a rather delicious criminal plot line. The episode certainly isn’t all it appears to be at first blush. We really had fun with this story and with Chris in it.
Christopher Reeve Interview
CC: There are many dramas currently running. prompted you to choose “The Practice?”
Christopher Reeve: I spoke with Camryn Manheim a while back and began considering the show. I thought it was the most logical because it’s very contained: it mostly takes place in the courtroom, the witness room and the judge’s chambers. The audience is forced to focus on the words. I’ve also been following the show for a while and I think they do a good job. I wrote a story treatment and gave it to David Kelley and he called and said he liked it very much.
CC: Will you be credited as a writer of the episode?
CR: No. I collaborated with David Kelley on writing the story. Then he wrote the teleplay based on the story that the two of us came up with.
CC: Briefly describe the storyline of this episode and the role you will be playing as an actor.
CR: In this episode, I have a very wealthy older brother whose 16 year-old son, Justin, was in the car with me practicing for his driver’s test. We got into an accident and he was killed and I became a quadriplegic. My brother, Derek, has never forgiven me for that-he thinks it is my responsibility and my fault. After being estranged for a year, Derek has been killed and my wife is on trial and that’s where the episode begins. My wife admits that she killed him, but is pleading temporary insanity due to caregiver burnout. She’s been depressed, she’s been having blackouts-completely blanking out on what happened during an entire day. There is a record of phone calls, e-mails and meetings where she had begged Derek for money and he refused to help. The issue is whether the jury is going to recognize care giver burnout as a legitimate medical condition, something that would warrant a release on temporary insanity. I am trying my hardest to support her in this.
CC: Over the past few years, you appear to have deliberately shifted your role to that of a disability advocate. How does participating in an episode of “The Practice” correspond to your goals?
CR: My overall aim as a disability advocate is to reach out in various ways, whether that means promoting legislation in Washington, working with the media or con ducting interviews to reach a wider audience. Within the framework of a TV drama, which of course has to have twists and turns in the plot, you can subtly introduce these issues.
CC: What exactly is caregiver burnout and how are you addressing the issue?
CR: In this episode, my wife, played by Carolyn McCormick, is handling my care by herself. That means dressing, feeding and cleaning up-it takes over her life.. People who are put in this position often end up feeling very depressed and hopeless. Worst case scenario: care giver burnout usually happens when people living with disabilities reach the limit on the lifetime cap of their health insurance policy, which is usually a million dol lars. While it sounds like a lot, if you have a severe dis ability, you can run through that amount in only a few years. After that you may have to sell your house or borrow from relatives-anything to raise enough money. Ultimately it comes back to the relatives or the care givers, and can become a tremendous strain on them.
I’m trying to demonstrate to insurance companies that it would actually be profitable to provide proactive care. therapy and service for people with disabilities.
CC: How do you convince the insurance companies there’s a benefit?
CR: If the insurance companies can pay for a treadmill, for example, to be installed in private homes, it’s not a large investment and there are many benefits. People who have control of their upper body often walk again in a couple of months. Virtually all of them are able to walk on their own, using a cane. They’re not cured, but they are rehabilitated. They’re out of their wheelchairs.
I’ve had the opportunity to exercise since October 1995. The benefit is my muscles have not atrophied. Pulmonary conditions and osteoporosis are huge issues which cost insurance companies a lot of money when patients need treatment or hospitalization. I haven’t knock on wood-needed to be hospitalized in more than five years.
CC: When we last met you had a pretty serious decubitus (bed sore).
CR: I’m doing much better. In fact, I was able to with stand a 13 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. I don’t need to be turned at night and I can sit up in the chair for longer. All of that is important.
CC: Your recovery has actually made unprecedented progress in some areas.
CR. In September 2000, when I found I was able to move my index finger on my left hand, they began at study conducted by Dr. John McDonald of Washington University in St. Louis. Results from the study were made public last September both in the Journal of Neurosurgery and in the Proceedings of the Academy of Science. It showed that I have been reclassified from: ASIA A all the way down to ASIA C, and that I have some sensation now on approximately 70% of my body.
In regards to the functional recovery of my legs and arms, most of the movement I can do can’t be done in a chair because of gravity. By lying in bed or floating in a pool, you take the gravity away and gain quite a lot of movement back. I’ve been fortunate to have the best possible care, but this care and the equipment should be made affordable to everyone. For example, an FES Exercise Bicycle right now costs about $15,000 retail, 1 know a manufacturer who says they can be made for $1,500. It is going to be up to a combination of small companies who are willing to manufacture equipment for a lower price, but they will only be able to do it if they get the support of healthcare plans, insurance companies and rehab centers. I really think that if the whole community works together and doesn’t look at each other as adversaries, we could absolutely revolutionize rehabilitation.
CC: How has the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation changed over the past few years, and what significant achievements have been accomplished?
CR: The foundation originated as the American Paralysis Association by Henry Stifel of Springfield, New Jersey. Mr. Stifel founded it in 1982 after his son, at the age of 17, was in a car accident which resulted in a spinal cord injury. The foundation had a few people working and was able to raise a modest amount of money. It grew over the years and in its course developed relationships with the best scientists in the world.
I came on board in 1996, and in 1999 the name was changed to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Since that time we have quadrupled the money raised for our research and quality of life programs. Now there is also the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, just down the road from our main office in Springfield. It’s funded through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first of its kind, the Paralysis Resource Center is a clearinghouse of information for people who are newly injured or people who have been living with paralysis for more than a couple of years. There they can find referrals to whatever they need.
CC: Still, even before the merger, you were branching into quality of life issues.
CR: I was. In 1997, I became the Vice Chairman of the National Organization of Disability, which fights for accessibility, job opportunities and recognition of the rights of people with disabilities. I wear two hats and they are both equally important.
CC: Technology today has reached a level where a per son with quadriplegia, severe cerebral palsy or other such disabilities that limit mobility, is able to access and navigate the world wide web, send and receive e-mail. conduct research or write papers. Are you currently utilizing any such technology?
CR: I use a voice-activated computer that was custom designed by AM Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts that allows me to send and receive e-mails. write letters and essays, communicate effectively with the home office of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in Springfield, New Jersey, and relay important data about my regimen of exercise and physical therapy to researchers and other advisers. I can also listen to music, watch movies and navigate the web.
CC: A few years back, you and I discussed how people were automatically labeling you as a spokesperson for disability. At that time you were going through a transition in your life, and were probably a little more focused on finding a cure than advocating for quality of life issues. How would you say things have changed?
CR: Right. I think perhaps it is understandable when you are newly injured that you think life’s not worth living. Once you get past that phase-hopefully with the help of family, friends and professionals – then you move on to asking, “What kind of a life can I build?” Then you become quite interested in the state of research: is there something out there? Is there a chance to get out of this situation? I’ve generally found, depending on how long people have been injured, their state of mind differs. Some people don’t even want to hear about a cure, don’t even want to think about it.
Some people even say, “Well if you invent a cure, are you suggesting there is something wrong with having this disability?” And I say, “Well, if there was a cure available tomorrow which would enable me, or anybody else, to get up and walk again, my vote would be, ‘Yes, please.” If someone else were to vote, “No, I like myself the way I am,” it’s a free country, but I think that it is about choices. We should not conceal the possibility of being able to change the situation and to be able to recover function. I can’t see why that is unreasonable. What if we had never bothered to try to cure tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, the flu? What if we were still using the surgical techniques from the 19th century? What if we were not able to do heart transplants? It doesn’t make any sense.
CC: You obviously feel strongly about this now.
CR: When you put yourself in a position of leadership or advocacy, when you take a point of view, then you have to be able to be strong. You have to say, “This is our goal, this is what we are trying to do. We want scientists to conduct practical research that will lead to human trials that will lead to therapy.” You can’t do that half-heartedly, So, yes, I am very aggressive about it, particularly because money is tight. We want to get the most out of every research dollar that we can, and, yes, we are at the point now where we are pushing the scientists. We want them to go faster, we want them to feel a sense of urgency, we want them to think about the mil lions of people, and consider that they, themselves or their loved ones, could suddenly suffer a debilitating injury or come down with an incurable disease. Would that make them feel any differently?
CC: Do you find the same method works within the realm of politics?
CR: I’ve found working politically, the officials who get it are those that have a personal or emotional connection to the issue. For example: Nancy Reagan. Now that her husband doesn’t even recognize her, now that it hurts, she’s speaking out. My question is, “Why couldn’t she have spoken out before?” I think back to the question of whether or not the federal government would fund AIDS research, and remember President Reagan was against it. In fact, he implied that AIDS was God’s revenge against people who lived certain lifestyles. Today, women and children, thousands and hundreds of thousands of people are dying-not only here, but world-wide. Now the federal budget for AIDS research is $1.8 billion. In the early 80s, it was zero. Why did it take so long? Because the climate has been changed and the people have demanded it. I think we can learn a les son from that. I do believe that people have the power.
CC: Do you forsee funding for stem cell research receiving the same wave of acceptance as was eventually granted to AIDS and HIV research?
CR: I feel particularly because stem cells hold such promise to cure so many diseases, that there is a basis for a new grassroots movement. I also think the federal government is going to remain deadlocked because of social and religious conservatives. What we are doing now is moving on to the state initiatives to pass the legislation that should be passed by the federal government. California was the first to pass the bill last September which allows scientists there to conduct research on stem cells derived from any source. Similar initiatives are also under way in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin. I feel that because it’s the right thing to do, because there is very strong popular support, because it is a major opportunity for the research community as well as the pharmaceutical industry, I think state legislation will be passed that the federal government will be unable to overturn. Scientists in England are allowed to do all kinds of stem cell research and they are funded by the government to the tune of 40 million pounds which is about $75 million. Other countries such as Israel, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, China and Singapore are also doing cutting-edge stem cell research.
CC: Are you connected with any of these scientists?
CR: Yes, actually. I am in touch with a scientist that used to be at the University of California, San Francis heading co, Roger Pederson. He left a few years ago because of the restrictions in the United States and is now the stem cell team over at Cambridge in the UK.
CC: I saw a documentary about your recovery.
CR: It’s called “Courageous Steps” and was made by my son Matthew.
CC: Any other projects you have been working on?
CR: I’m trying to do three things at once. I’ve enjoyed my path as an actor, but I’m also trying to get the message out for our foundation and specifically for people living with disabilities.
Interview with Camryn Manheim
CC: Are you aware how this episode with Christopher Reeve came about?
Camryn Manheim: I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I know a couple of years ago I met Christopher at a party after the Democratic Convention. We talked about how under-represented people with disabilities are on television, and I asked if he would be willing to come on the show. He said, “Yes, given the right storyline.” So I went to David [Kelley] and told him that I had a conversation with Christopher, and that it would be meaningful to me, to him and to a number of people, if we could find a way to bring him on board. I didn’t know that anything would actually come of it, and I’m not even sure that conversation with David sparked it because it wasn’t until two years later when I found out Chris was coming on. I’m not quite sure the history of it, but I would like to think I had something to do with it. I’m always trying to get them to find people with dis abilities: judges who use wheelchairs or jury for people who are blind. I think the best television represents everybody. Everyone is looking to find themselves in role models. I think we found a great home for Christopher to come and play with us.
CC: When I spoke with Christopher prior to the interview, he did mention this was in large part due to the original encounter you had with him.
CM: Oh, it was? Then I feel really proud our conversation led to that. As a result of my work with the deaf community and feeling like I have always been a bit of a misfit on the outside, I feel a kinship to all sorts of people with disabilities. Because of this, I like to make sure they find their way onto television and into the popular culture.
CC: I’m sure Chris’ presence and the storyline will affect a lot of people.
CM: It was an honor and a privilege that I had any part to do with that. I feel really grateful. I always love it when people put seeds out there and then find that those seeds actually grew. The more his image gets in the mass media as an actor shows he is still doing something, and not just showing up every once in a while trying to raise money. He’s actually still working. He’s a productive person, and it just shows that we need to reevaluate hiring people with disabilities.
CC: Not only is he productive, but as you mentioned, he has an amazing attitude.
CM: Yes, and I have to tell you this story. I hope he doesn’t mind. The pinky on Chris’ left hand kind of curls under, so I asked him. “What’s up with the pinky?” He says, “You know, I broke it. When this happened to me the doctor said, ‘Look, I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that your pinky will never straighten out, but the good news is that you won’t really notice!”” (laughs) It was really funny. He was saying, “You know you are going to be a quadriplegic, but the really bad news is that you will never be able to stretch out your pinky.” He just jokes around and makes everybody feel very comfortable. I asked him all kinds of questions about his equipment and about breathing and he would say, “Oh God, it’s such a boring story.” But I really wanted to know so he told me how it all operated, and it was really interesting. We seldom have occasion to learn those kind of things. Everyone is fascinated because he’s so graceful with it all and we know it is incredibly exhausting.
CC: Is this your first time working with Christopher?
CM: Yes, it’s my first time working with Christopher.
CC: What has the experience been like?
CM: It has been amazing working with Chris. It’s multi layered. My first feeling is that Christopher is a wonder ful actor. We come from the same theater background: he went to Julliard, I went to NYU. We spoke the same language. You know, it is always great when I get to act with people who came from the same kind of acting training because I feel like “Oh, I’m home.” We all know that acting doesn’t come in gestures: it comes from your eyes, your heart and your soul. And, let me tell you, he’s got those in spades! If you look into those baby blues you’ll know what I’m talking about. Then, of course, you can’t help but question yourself about your own fears, “What if this were to happen to me?” You can’t help but wonder, “Would I be as gallant and courageous and brave as he is?” But ultimately, in a way, he lifted a burden for me because he exists with such grace and ease and he makes everyone feel so comfortable around him, like nothing is wrong. He doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, but you start to think to yourself, “Yes, I am strong and brave and capable enough to handle anything.” He is on such a kind of spiritual level that he made me question my own strength. In the end, I took away that I am strong. Does that make sense?
CC: It does.
CM: I think Chris represents to a lot of us some of our biggest fears. We all ask ourselves, “What would we do if we became a quadriplegic?” Our first instinct is to say. “Oh, I couldn’t do it.” But when you spend time with him you realize that it can be done and it can be done with an unbelievable grace, like he has. He made everyone feel so at ease and no one felt sorry for him. You know, we enjoyed him so much. We enjoyed every minute we spent with him and not because he used a wheelchair, but just because he is such an astonishing man.
CC: Have you spent time with Dana Reeve?
CM: I don’t really know Dana, although I have seen her at different events or on talk shows with Christopher. I think any time we are faced with a catastrophic situation either the very best of us comes out or we get broken. It is so clear that the very best of Dana has shown through.
CC: ABILITY featured her as a cover story a few years ago. She’s really a strong person.
CM: Right. She is unbelievable. The great thing about living with someone like Christopher is that it really does make you question your own mortality, your own source of inspiration and your own courage. I hope, what people will find after working with him is that you come out having more faith in yourself.
CC: What do you think of the episode’s storyline?
CM: Well I believe we have a tendency to think of people who have a disability, or have something to overcome, as victims. I think it is always great to shake that up a little bit.
CC: How do you feel about the defense’s argument of caregiver burnout?
CM: That’s a really good question. I think it is a viable defense. I think you have to look at all of the circumstantial evidence, and I do think it should have a bearing. It should have some weight in a defense. Absolutely. I think that if eating a Twinkie can get a man off from killing another man because of a sugar rush…care giver burnout is a very good defense! (laughs) What are your feelings on caregiver burnout?
CC: I would think, for the defense to work, they would have to prove her psyche was altered because the pressure being put on her caused her to fall into depression. If they can show psychological or physiological changes occurred, the defense can argue she was acting in diminished capacity and unable to distinguish right from wrong.
CM: hear what you’re saying.
CC: Have you ever considered becoming an attorney?
CM: I couldn’t be a lawyer. (laughs) As you know, I was a sign language interpreter in the legal system and it was incredibly frustrating for me to see the injustices. It hurt my heart too much. I don’t think I could take it as a lawyer. I enjoy playing one and I enjoy learning about it. I really think it is provocative and I think there are a lot of good things about our legal system, but I think there are some things we need to just chuck and start over.
CC: How is your son doing? He’s almost two, right?
CM: He’s two alright.
CC: Good twos or terrible twos?
CM: The good twos. He’s starting to talk; he babbles a
CC: How do I put this eloquently? It seems like you are in better shape. CM: (laughs) Oh yeah, that is good. I have lost some weight. I’ve lost about 60 pounds.
CC: You look great, not that you didn’t look great before! (laughs)
CM: (laughs) I’m such an “it doesn’t matter” kind of person, you know? But I was having some health issues so I really needed to make a few changes for myself and for my kid. So I finally did it. There’s no secret, it’s been a lot of hard work I feel a lot healthier and that was the goal.
CC: You really look healthier.
CM: My mother is always saying. “Oh, I was so worried about you and you look so much better. Now you’ll live long enough to see your son go to college.” She makes a big deal about it and I just say, “Mom, let’s just get one thing straight: was a happy person 60 pounds heavier and I am still a happy person 60 pounds lighter.” I feel a little better, but I don’t want to discount that I had a really lovely and beautiful life prior to the weight loss.
Interview with Michael Badalucco
CC: What did you do before “The Practice?”
Michael Badalucco: I’ve been knocking around for a long time. I graduated college with a BA in theater arts in 1976 and I got this job in 1996. So 20 years after I graduated from college. I finally got a steady job. (laughs)
CC: An overnight sensation!
MB: Right, overnight! (laughing) But you know I’ve been doing a lot of bits in movies and plays in New York. A lot of roles in movies. I worked with Farrelly brothers a few times. Spike Lee…I’ve been knocking around.
CC: How long have you been on “The Practice?”
MB: This is the seventh year. No, sixth year, seventh season. It’s a great show and a blessing to be able to work with this crew and the cast. We deal with a variety of challenging topics, whether it be the death penalty. abortion or the issue of paralysis. There is always something that makes people want to go to the water cooler and discuss it. David (Kelley] always puts two points of view in there: “You know, I can see that, but I can see that other point too….” It is really great working on the show.
CC: What is your role in the episode with Christopher Reeve?
MB: Eleanor (played by Camryn Manheim) is the main attorney, the first chair. I am the second chair and I support her in the case of defending Chris’ wife. I really don’t have much to say, but when all of the twists and turns come up and the story sort of changes, it is a surprise for all of us. I am just there witnessing all of this, but not knowing how it is all going to turn out.
CC: Have you worked with Chris before?
MB: No, I’ve never worked with him, but we’ve met before. The first time I met him was last year in Vail when he asked me to attend a yearly charity event for his foundation. It is the Christopher Reeve American Ski Classic in Vail, Colorado. I’m not a skier but they asked me to do it. I said, “I’ll auction off lunch with me. What is it worth? $2? $200?”
CC: Five bucks, easy. (both laugh)
MB: So, my wife and I go, everybody is very nice and I’m signing autographs for people. I get up on stage with Chris and they start auctioning me off. And the guy goes, “Start off with $4,000…$5.000.” These guys are bidding $6,000, $7,000, and then I say, “I’ll throw in as many autographed pictures as you like!” $8,000, $9,000 for lunch with me! So then I say, “I’ll throw in hats, as many hats as you want!” Anyway, it goes all the way to $10,500. Ten thousand, five hundred dollars! Then the auctioneer asks, “Hey Mike, do you have two lunches in you?” At $10,500 each, sure-that is $21,000!
MB: So (laughs), I’m worth 21 grand. I’m a luxury! These are obviously very generous people who just wanted to give.
CC: They must be really hungry! (laughs)
MB: Yes, they must be. (laughs) I look at Chris and he looks at me and goes, “Wow,” and I just said. “It wasn’t me, it’s these people that are so wonderful.” I met the winners and it was funny. They had actually been there. before and were part of the organization, but they were very, very nice. I asked them where they lived and said I would be available for lunch or dinner. They lived in New York, so I told them I’m in New York all the time. and we’ll do it when I’m in New York. We went out last year; it was great. What nice people they were. Anyhow, that was the first time I met Chris. Recently I did a benefit, a celebrity ice hockey game at Madison Square Garden. I was named MVP of the game.
MB: Well, it was so funny, I don’t even know how to ice skate! They asked me to do this benefit which the New York Rangers host for their charity called “Cheering for Children.” It’s a children’s charity. Chris’ son plays hockey. In fact it is a coincidence: his son and my nephew play on the same team, the Booster Express, but my nephew is older.
CC: Small world.
MB: Actually, two of my nephews play hockey so I know how to ice skate, but I haven’t skated in years. All I have to do is skate out when they introduce me. My nephews will be in the audience, they will get a kick out of it. I’ll be wearing the Ranger uniform. I’ll have a stick, but I don’t want to play. You know, these guys really skate! They are doing the introductions and who goes first? “Badalucco, Double Zero” I am the first per son they introduce. Well, I’ve got to skate by myself, the first one, and I have to skate all the way to the blue line? So I’m skating out and I’m sort of truckin’ along and Chris tells me later, “We were watching you, we thought you were joking! We thought you were doing a skit like you couldn’t really skate.” No! That is how I skate! I skate like I am from Brooklyn. They introduce three other people that get to the line and, to make a long story short, I’m happy just to be introduced. Now these guys are skatin’ around and my only goal is to get to the bench, sit down. I’m happy, I’m done.
CC: Nothing’s broken…
MB: Yeah, so the coach wants to put me on the ice. I said, “I don’t want to play in this game; these guys are real skaters.” Then the coach tells me, “Oh no, you’ve gotta play!” I get on the ice and these guys on the mic are breakin’ my chops, “Badalucco-he’s stuck! He can’t skate!” So, Mark Messier of the New York Rangers passes to me. I’m in front of the net and boom! Goal! Crowd goes wild. They carry me back, and then they put me out for a penalty shot. The guy made me do it, but I put it in. To make a long story short, they named the MVP, and it’s me! Chris says at the end, as he gives me the trophy, “I just want to say this: If Michael Badalucco can score, nothing is impossible!” (laughs) We’ve made a few fond memories together.
CC: Is there any particular cause you are more connect. ed to than others?
MB: Well, I am connected with the National Paralysis Foundation through a chapter in Kansas City. I don’t know if you are familiar with Steve Palermo. He’s the umpire that was shot nine years ago helping a couple of waitresses being robbed in Dallas and he was paralyzed. It was one of these stories where they said he would never walk again, but he is presently walking with a I got involved with that charity about three years ago, and, every year, Bob Costas does a “Late Night with Bob Costas.” It was sort of like a talk show, like Johnny Carson.
They invited me to participate three years ago and it was such a great group of people, such a great organization. In the subsequent years I’ve always gone back. My wife and I buy tables to donate. You know, we go there just to be there, but they always ask me to go on stage.
So two years ago they show me in the all-star game. I had done this softball game, and I get in and I am not much of an athlete-but I am now because I have the ice hockey MVP-and I hit this ball to the shortstop and I’m running to first base. The shortstop is an actor and he sort of “bobbles” the ball and I’m running as fast as I can to first. I’m running full out, and the third baseman is a woman from the Olympic Softball Team, Lisa Fernandez, and she’s telling this actor, “Give me the ball, give me the ball!” All the while, I’m still running to first as fast as I can. So the actor shuttles the ball off to Lisa Fernandez. I’m still trying to get to first, and she wind mills it underhand. Whoosh, and they get me by about and inch! So, I’m out and Steve Palermo, who like I said, is paralyzed partly, makes a big joke of me last year saying, “I think I could have beat you to first.” So this year, I go back and I show him this tape, and I say. “Obviously baseball isn’t really my forté, but check me out playing hockey!” They watched me skate and they laughed it up. Then I told them the story how I became the MVP. (laughs)
[Michael leaves to film a scene and returns to continue the interview.]
CC: You had just finished the baseball story.
MB: It’s funny, I’ve been telling my wife about how when you get into a position where you are doing a show like this, one of the best things about it is the opportunity to be able to go back and to share. Doing things like charity events can make you feel wonderful. but you never know what charity you will go to, but it just so happened with Steve Palermo with the Paralysis Foundation and now, with Chris, I see myself in a similar situation.
CC: I would imagine you have a different perspective of working with Chris since you knew him first through his charitable work and are now having the chance to work with him professionally.
MB: To me he’s amazing-his work ethic, his generosity as an actor and also the talent. He’s such a pro. He is always aware of what is going on and coming up with ideas. It is such an inspiration to work with him, you know, because you are really unaware that he has a dis ability. At the point in the story where he confronts his wife about the affair: I mean, just the way he did it was terrific. The fact he’s got a disability sort of goes away and that makes it even more inspiring to me to work with him. It’s not only a pleasure, but it’s really something special. I’m looking forward to seeing what is to come.
Whether you use a wheelchair or not, people are people. I think he’s great. He’s funny too, a real nice guy. I’m glad I’m getting to know him.
Interview with Carolyn McCormick
CC: Was this the first time you met Christopher?
Carolyn McCormick: No, I knew him before he had his accident.
CC: Really? Had you worked with him in the past?
CM: I did The Greeks with him at Williamstown Theater Festival back in 1981, and we became friends.
CC: Did that influence your being cast to play the role of his character’s wife in this episode?
CM: No, it really had nothing to do with it, but it was a nice coincidence. I’ve seen him since then: he’s come to see me in plays in the city and I’ve seen him at various functions both before and after his accident. I’ve known him for a long time.
CC. Have you seen much of a change in character from when you knew him before and today?
CM: I think that he has always had amazing discipline and he’s always been very driven. I still see that in him. and he still very much wants to be a good actor. It is really funny that after all that he has been through, that is still so important to him. This just shows you the hold being an actor has on people. I mean the desire to really perfect your craft-he still very much wants to do that. The thing I noticed the most about him was his serenity. I was so struck by the peace he seems to be in, that he is focusing all of his energies toward really trying to help people that have disabilities or use wheelchairs.
He has no self-pity, “Why me?” or any sense of feeling sorry for himself. He is really focusing on such positive stuff. His thoughts go toward, “What can we do to help other people out there?” It is just astounding to me. All the silent researchers that are doing so much work need funding. Not enough people are aware of what he’s doing for it to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind. I hate using the term “hero” because that is what everybody says now, but he’s heroic in the way he has attacked this particular area. You hope you would find that strength in your being if something similar happened to you.
CC: Do you know how active an advocate he was prior to the accident?
CM: I knew he was very involved politically, always. He was always very active in terms of the causes he believed in, but I never knew of him being involved in this area. He flew planes. He obviously was a big horse man. He was like a Renaissance man, always learning something new and taking on a new challenge. So it wasn’t surprising that when this challenge was presented to him, he just took it on as a new challenge that encompassed everyone else. It was in his being to do this. Whether or not he was specifically focused on people with disabilities, I don’t know. But it isn’t surprising at all that in his situation, he has risen to the occasion,
CC: How has witnessing his reaction to the outcome of the accident affected you?
CM: I’ve just become more aware than ever. I’ve always been aware of the need to be a generous human being toward everyone. He’s so at peace, in a way. because he knows he’s using his energies towards such good and I think it reflects in him. I think that if all people spent more time trying to find out what we can do that is good for the world, whatever our cause may be. there would be more goodness. I think it just keeps feeding on itself, that is what he just reiterated for me. Kindness begets kindness. His high profile enables him to do a lot of stuff politically and things to get people’s attention for a lot of other people who wouldn’t have that opportunity.
CC: He has certainly taken a very active role..
CM: Chris is constantly reiterating. “Just because you are in a chair doesn’t mean that you are invisible. It doesn’t mean you are a victim. It doesn’t mean that you are incapable of functioning, fully functioning.”
Spending all that time with Chris, I kept wanting to ask him-I never did because there’s always so many people around-how he sees the world differently. Now. because he just sits and observes so much of life, I am curious and would like to ask him, “Do you find yourself thinking thoughts that never occurred to you?” Thoughts about how people believe, what they believe, how they prioritize their life and so on.
CC: An interesting experiment is to borrow a wheel chair for a day and see how other people view you. Many management courses in major corporations will do that for awareness-building. Spending a day in a wheelchair is such a small, small glimpse of what living with a disability entails, but it really begins the thinking process. In the movie “Dead Poet’s Society,” Robin Williams stands on the desk and looks down on the students from a different vantage point. He tells the students to get on a desk and look around. You see things differently. I think it is something we should all try.
CM: As an actor, I think one often imagines all kinds of scenarios. You are constantly put into parts and you try to figure out how you would deal with the circumstances. With Chris, he is a disability advocate but he’s also moving toward hope. It is not a defeatist approach. He wouldn’t be such an interesting man if he was just sitting around feeling sorry for himself in a chair and not doing anything.
CC: As you may be aware some people are upset with him because, in the beginning, he was all about “the cure.” Many people with a disability basically say, “God made me who I am and I don’t need to be cured. I don’t need to walk to be a whole person.”
CM: It’s a lot like the stuff that came out with deaf people. There has been a lot of controversy with the cochlear implants. They feel the same way.
CC: The cochlear implant is still controversial to many.
CM: If you are born unable to walk, then you probably have a very different perspective from someone who grew up walking, because you wouldn’t miss it. Chris has a very different perspective on it.
CC: Some people still remember when he didn’t want to be a person with a disability. His whole focus was on walking again. He now calls himself a disability advocate and puts a percentage of the funds raised by the foundation to quality of life issues. It’s like any seven step program: one experiences an evolution of aware ness and maturity of the situation.
CM: I think you are right. It is a dilemma, but I must say I admire his fight. He’s very much discussing the insurance problem with people needing lifetime care.
CC: He’s doing much more good than some give him credit for.
CM: That is an enormous thing to bring to people’s attention. Some people have their insurance policy and think, “Well, I’m covered no matter what happens.” You aren’t. Chris is lucky he had enough money to get enough full-time help, but he’s advocating so that everyone gets the help they need, and they don’t have to be famous like he is.
CC: Well it was really nice speaking with you. Are you working on any other projects right now?
CM: I’m still doing Law and Order periodically. I used to do it as a regular, and now I do it every now and then. I just completed The Practice and did a Judging Amy at the same time I was in Los Angeles. The Practice really was such a great experience.
foreword by Romney Snyder