Danny, We Hardly Knew You
The Hollywood disability community is ridiculously small, given the huge population of actors, directors, and writers working or trying to work here. The entertainment industry employs very few people with disabilities in front of the camera and almost none behind it. In a slightly dated but no doubt representative study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild a few years back, less than .05% of all speaking roles in TV and film in a given year went to actors with disabilities. Even if, over the years, the figure has moved slightly upward, it would still be abysmally low.
Having said that, there are some sterling performers with disabilities (PWD) who have both worked steadily and at the same time, made giant contributions towards the inclusion of the disabled in Hollywood. One of the most beloved – and funniest – died of cancer last week. His name is Danny Murphy and though he never had a leading role in any film or TV show, he built a lengthy resume full of rich and memorable character turns.
Check out the mega-hit, “Something About Mary.” There is a killer scene where Danny berates Ben Stiller while Ben is moving Danny’s furniture into a new apartment. “It’s heavy,” Stiller says, to which Danny replies, “Heavy? What I wouldn’t give to know what heavy feels like, you insensitive %$&*^!” He then smirks and rolls away. On the back of his wheelchair, it reads “How Am I Doing? Call 1-800-EAT-S***."
When he was nineteen, Danny broke his back in a diving accident and remained a quad the rest of his days. An old friend, veteran director Peter Farrelly, introduced him to movie acting. Few if any characters actors with a disability have appeared in so many diverse TV and film roles as Danny Murphy. He appears in most Farrelly Brothers movies, including “Kingpin’ and “Me, Myself, and Irene,” and played a non-disabled role in three different films, including “Shallow Hal.” He later did a food review show in Del Ray, FL, called “Rollin’ With Danny,” where he identified himself as “kind of a famous actor.” He was a natural comic. It was his way of deflecting his disability. He joked about it.
His efforts to bring more performers with disabilities into the Hollywood fold were tireless. According to Robert David Hall, one of the stars of “CSI” and perhaps the leading disability advocate in Hollywood, “Danny gave 100%” in the cause of disability. He served as National Vice-Chair of the Screen Actors Guild Performers with Disabilities Committee. He co-founded the international multi-guild media campaign called I AM PWD. He co-founded a theatre company for performers with disabilities and produced and starred in the initial production, “The History of Bowling,” written by disabled writer, Mike Ervin. Personally, I never attended a disability event in LA where Danny wasn’t present.
Danny was also involved in many Reeve Foundation activities, including participating in an early Reeve-sponsored Locomotor Training program at UCLA. If you’re interested, there’s a great You Tube video about this starring Danny below.
I asked Jenni Gold, director of “Cinemability,” a brilliant documentary tracing the history of disability in film and TV, what she loved about Danny. (Danny was an associate producer on the film.) “Number one,” she said, “was his grin.” Danny had a mischievous grin that was half-sincere, half-sarcastic, and always beaming. That grin perfectly embodied the feelings of many people in his situation – a love of life while dealing with absurdity of paralysis.
Robert David Hall describes Danny in much the same way. “He had the best smile I’ve ever seen and an intuitive way of communicating. His most profound statements were often words unspoken. That’s what made him a fine actor and beloved activist.”
What defined Danny to many was his absolute fearlessness. In an interview after his death, Peter Farrelly said that Danny was “the bravest guy I ever knew in my life.” He appeared nude on stage, pursued the most difficult career path possible, was never once heard to complain about his condition, and was a mentor to a whole generation of up and coming performers with disabilities.
In a business that continues to shut out one of America’s biggest minorities, Danny was a pioneer and inspiration. His career, all put together, would be a great testament to his humor, his amazing versatility as a performer, and his spirit.
He was one of the best.
© 2014 Allen Rucker |
Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life