Disabled Character, Disabled Actor
Christopher Reeve, in a scene from Smallville. The wheelchair and respirator are not a prop.
For a long time in film, theater, and television, when a work called for a character with a disability, it was the norm to cast perfectly abled actors in those roles, especially if the role was one of the leads (you still want to cast a big name star in the lead role, despite the character's disability, after all). This was such a norm that the casting of authentically disabled actors as disabled characters has only become more commonplace since the late 1980s, though normally such actors are in supporting or background roles.
This is about when an authentically disabled person is cast, rather than an able-bodied performer.
Related to Cast the Expert
. See Written-In Infirmity
for cases where a performer became disabled during the run of a show and this was acknowledged in-universe.
open/close all folders
Films — Live-Action
- In I Am Sam, Sean Penn, of course, is not really developmentally disabled — but many of the actors who play his housemates are.
- The Farrelly Brothers movies often use real handicapped people to play handicapped parts (for example, the mentally handicapped Special Olympians in The Ringer). The Farrellys are heavily involved with working with organizations for the handicapped and disabled and portray them favorably as real, grounded, and likable people, but also without playing up their disabilities, with those characters accepting their handicaps as part of their everyday life, such as Hal's friend with spina bifida in Shallow Hal. This usually also highlights a dichotomy with their protagonists, who have grievances in their lives that seem very superficial compared to the physical and mental disadvantages their friends have.
- In Children Of A Lesser God, every deaf character is played by an actual deaf actor.
- The only role that Oscar winning actor Harold Russell ever played that was intentionally written as disabled was his role in The Best Years of Our Lives. He played a sailor who lost both hands during World War II (just as Russell himself had in real life). In all his other roles, he played men who just happened to be disabled, but the disability wasn't the point of the character.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest used actual inmates of the asylum they filmed in as extras.
- The 1932 movie Freaks featured many legitimately disabled actors, including "Prince Randian" (who was born without limbs), Simon Metz (born with microcephaly, a smaller skull and brain) and Minnie Woolsey (who suffered from Virchow Sekel Syndrome, a combination of skeletal malformation and dwarfism).
- In the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, a soldier who had just had his legs blown off was played by an actor who had lost his legs years before.
- The anti-drug Jesusplotation horror film Blood Freak has a scene where a guy's leg gets cut off, which they managed to make a bit more convincing by hiring a guy with a prosthetic leg to play the victim.
- In Monty Python and the Holy Grail they hired a man with only one leg to play the Black Knight after Arthur chops one of his legs off.
- The Evil Albino in End of Days was played the genuinely albinistic actor Victor Varnado.
- Jade Callegory, who played the disabled main character in Mac and Me suffers from spina bifida in real life.
- In the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), real amputees were used to play some of the zombies. The jogger zombie in the beginning, when the survivors are just arriving at the mall, has lost his arm in real life, and the zombie in the parking garage is actually missing both of his legs.
- In Soul Surfer it is both averted and played straight. Bethany Hamilton, whose life story the film was depicting, was played by AnnaSophia Robb in the dialogue scenes. However, when they wanted a stuntwoman to play a one-armed surfer they of course got a one-armed surfer. Guess who she was...
- In the 2010 film of True Grit, a woman missing her left forearm was hired to play the older version of Mattie (whose arm was amputated due to a snake bite near the end) in shots where her face is not seen. She wound up having more screen time than the actress credited with playing older Mattie.
- The Thing (1982) has a particularly infamous scene where a man's arms are suddenly bitten off by the titular monster. For two shots that each lasted only a few seconds, there was an actual amputee standing in the actor's place wearing a mask in his likeness.
- Deaf actor Russell Harvard plays an adult H.W. Plainview (rendered deaf from an explosion) in There Will Be Blood.
- The Belgian film The Eighth Day has Pascal Duquenne (born with Down's syndrome) playing an institutionalised man with Down's syndrome.
- The two eponymous martial artists of The Crippled Masters. Both actors had developmental disorders which had resulted in a lack of legs and a lack of arms respectively and both had since trained in martial arts despite their disabilities.
- The actor Jay C. Flippen lost a leg to diabetes in the 1960s. He plays a political operative in a wheelchair in The Seven Minutes, and in Hell Fighters, his character, Jack Lomax, is written in as a man who is in a wheelchair, having broken his back while fighting an oil-well fire.
- For The Toxic Avenger, Lloyd Kaufman hired an amputee so Toxie could rip his arm off. Unfortunately, the SFX team was too ambitious and added a fake stump to put over the man's actual stump, completely defeating the purpose of hiring an amputee.
- In Precious, Precious' child with Down Syndrome is played by a child with Down Syndrome, since it's quite hard to fake.
- In Resident Evil: Retribution, the deaf girl Becky, is played by Aryana Engineer, who is deaf in real life. The character Becky was not originally to be deaf, but after an outstanding audition, the role was given to her.
- In Spy Kids Juni and Carmen Cortez's grandfather Valentin is played by Ricardo Montalbán, who used a wheelchair in real life.
- In Four Weddings and a Funeral lead character Charles often has conversations in sign language with his deaf-mute brother David, played by real-life deaf actor David Bower.
- Ben Hur: One of the more memorable scenes in The War Sequence is a galley slave escaping with a bloodied stump where his hand used to be. The director noticed the man had only one hand, had it splashed with fake blood, and reshot the scene with him.
- In the 1963 film If A Tree Falls, multiple deaf characters (who played supporting and background characters) are portrayed by real-life deaf actors. It is the first movie of the 1960s ever to have actual deaf actors casted in the film.
- Shaun of the Dead also used amputees for several of the zombies, most notably a one-armed bridegroom, and a legless zombie Shaun and Ed accidentally run over.
- An in-universe example: In the novel Dream Park by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Stephen Barnes, during the course of an amazingly elaborate Live Action Roleplaying Game that utilizes high-tech special effects, the players encounter (among other things) a one-armed, one-legged zombie played by a one-legged, one-armed actress. The fact that she's real and not a special effect (most of the zombies are holographic) shocks one of the players into inaction enough to allow the amputee zombie to "kill" her.
- Pictured: Christopher Reeve's appearances as Doctor Virgil Swann on Smallville.
- Even earlier than that, Reeve appeared in a TV Movie remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
- His last film role before he was paralyzed ironically had inverted this trope, playing a man who faked the condition (the real life accident happened only five days after the film premiered).
- Clark Middleton, whose struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis retarded his growth and prevents him from having full range of motion, spent two years on Law & Order as Doctor Ellis, one of the show's Medical Examiners. Ellis's lab has access ramps, lower counters and examination tables, and is built to "little person" scale, something once remarked upon by Lennie Briscoe. Most of Middleton's other roles, however, were characters who just happened to be disabled.
- Geri Jewell, who played Jewel on Deadwood and Geri on The Facts of Life, actually has cerebral palsy.
- S. Robert Morgan, who played Butchie on The Wire, is actually blind.
- Corky from Life Goes On had Down Syndrome, as did Chris Burke, the actor who portrayed him.
- Darryl Mitchell: paraplegic in real life as well as on Ed and Brothers.
- Actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair regularly (though he can walk for short distances) can regularly be seen playing a doctor who just happens to be in a wheelchair on Private Practice.
- Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, based on the true story of a deaf FBI agent, features numerous deaf actors playing deaf characters. Most of them, excepting Deanne Bray in the title role and Sue Thomas in a cameo, act entirely in American Sign Language.
- Heroes would later cast Deanne Bray as the deaf character Emma, with her power of enhanced synesthesia being tied into her disability.
- Grandma Esther Walton was depicted as suffering a stroke on The Waltons, after Ellen Corby, the actress who played her, suffered one in 1976.
- During the fourth season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Captain Deakins suffered through a bout of Bell's Palsy and was forced to wear an eyepatch for several episodes. This was because the actor playing Deakins, Jamey Sheridan, was actually suffering through a bout of Bell's palsy and was forced to wear an eyepatch.
- This trope is both invoked and subverted in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Competence." The episode is about a young woman, Katie, who has Down Syndrome. She becomes pregnant after being tricked into having sex by her boss (she doesn't understand what's going on-he tells her it's "wrestling"). She wants to keep the baby, but her mother fears she isn't mentally capable of raising a child. While the actress who plays Katie does have Down Syndrome, her mentally-handicapped boyfriend is played by a non-disabled actor.
- All the major deaf characters in Switched at Birth are played by actors with some sort of hearing impairment, most being profoundly deaf.
- Breaking Bad: RJ Mitte has mild cerebral palsy in real life. Walt Jr. was conceived from the start as having it, and Mitte had to learn to walk with crutches and speak less clearly to portray the level of affectation that the show's creator had in mind.
- Robert David Hall, who lost his legs in 1978 when an 18-wheeler crushed his car, plays Dr. Al Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. His character's legs were lost when he was hit by a drunk driver; both Hall and Robbins walk using prosthetics and a cane.
- The only time in Hall's entire career that he was ever hired for a role because of his disability was when he played the amputee Mobile Infantry recruiter inStarship Troopers.
- Both CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI:NY have starred Deanne Bray and Marlee Matlin in roles as deaf characters. On CSI, Bray played the head of a school for the deaf and Grissom's ex-girlfriend, while on CSI:NY Matlin played the deaf mother of a murdered deaf girl.
- Similarly, there's Jim Byrnes on Highlander: The Series and Wiseguy; both he and his characters, Joe Dawson and Lifeguard, were double amputees.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation featured an episode called "Loud as a Whisper", about a deaf mediator named Riva. Riva was played by deaf actor Howie Seago, who had petitioned the producers of the show to make an episode about deaf people, mostly to dispel myths about them.
- In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk Gets a New Shrink," when Dr. Kroger throws in the towel and quits his profession after his cleaning lady is killed in his office, Monk is redirected to a colleague of Dr. Kroger's, Dr. Jonah Sorensen, who has an amputated right arm as the consequence of a boating accident (though Dr. Kroger appears unaware of this, given that in a later scene he states "I heard he lost some weight"). Dr. Sorensen's actor is an actual amputee, and the idea as to what kind of physical abnormality he should have was Tony Shalhoub's.
- Actor Mitch Longley was paralyzed in a car accident his senior year in high school. Despite this, he went on to be a very successful actor, with roles on several TV shows and Soap Operas, including one where he played a physician. He was written as "normally" as possible. Any difficulties in mobility were also incorporated into the show-a narrow-minded supervisor was reluctant to let him participate in a surgical rotation, and he was given a groundbreaking storyline in which his character embarked on a romance with another-it was made clear that his injuries had not affected his sexual abilities.
"My disability is a huge thing to some people, but to me it's just a personal characteristic like hair color. I'm hoping that in a few years, it won't even be an issue for me as an actor because it will be so commonplace."
- Actress Amy Ecklund, who was deaf, was hired to play deaf Amish girl Abigail on Guiding Light. She was given typical soap opera storylines, though an attempted rape was made all the more frightening by the fact that she could not hear her attacker creeping up on her. Towards the end of her tenure on the show, both the actress-and consequently her character-had a cochlear implant.
- Glee has both played this trope straight with one-off character Sean (played by paraplegic actor Zack Weinstein) and Becky and Jean (both actresses do have Down Syndrome) and (to much controversy) averted it with Artie. The supposed reason was one dream-sequence song where Artie got up and walked, which would not have been possible with an actually paraplegic actor.
- It also makes sense for Artie, where travelling for the shows with a paraplegic actor would be more difficult.
- One of the lead characters of American Horror Story: Murder House has a daughter, Adelaide, with Down's; she's played by Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome.
- In My Name Is Earl, Didi the one-legged woman that Earl slept with (and stole a car and prosthesis from) is played by an actress that does, indeed, have only one real leg.
- Similarly, Didi's unnamed boyfriend is played by an actor/motivational speaker who is missing both legs and one of his arms.
- Marlee Matlin also played Joy's deaf lawyer, who used sign language interpreters to help with her work. They playfully made a gag where Earl loved her "accent."
- Actor J. Grant Albrecht, who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal condition, plays an Assistant District Attorney on In Plain Sight who just happens to be in a wheelchair. His disability has never been mentioned on the show.
- Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas on The West Wing. Both Matlin and Lucas are deaf.
- On Sonny Spoon, the eponymous main character had a sometimes-sidekick who was (and was played by) a man with no legs.
- The Paul Reiser Show attempted this, with Paul's older son being played by Brock Waidmann, who has spina bifida. He wasn't in either of the two episodes that aired.
- Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's Disease and had retired from major acting roles, has returned to a lead role by playing a TV News reporter with Parkinson's who is returning to his news show after retiring when he was diagnosed.
- He's also been Louis Canning on The Good Wife, a lawyer who has a similar condition and shamelessly plays it up for sympathy before juries.
- Coronation Street has had a few wheelchair-using characters in its time, though previously they were played by able-bodied actors. Currently, however, both Izzy Armstrong and actress Cherylee Houston, who plays her, suffer from a rare connective tissue disorder, Type III Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
- New Tricks introduced Holly Griffin (daughter of retired cop Danny Griffin), played by Storme Toolis, in series 9. Both Griffin and Toolis are wheelchair users due to cerebral palsy
- In the Game of Thrones episode "Blackwater", the Baratheon lieutenant whom Tyrion surprises from behind by chopping his leg off with an axe was played by a one-legged war veteran with a fake leg for the special effect. In the commentary track, Peter Dinklage muses that he didn't feel particularly heroic, ambushing an 80-year-old cripple.
- Professional wrestler Gregory Iron genuinely has Cerebral Palsy. Most bad guys he feuds with will either mock his disability, or claim he's faking it.
- Professional wrestler Zack Gowen had his left leg amputated at the age of 8. He usually wrestles without a prosthetic.
- This trope is discussed in-universe and played with in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, where the disabled main character attempts to get cast in a film about a crippled boy. He doesn't get the part because the filmmakers would rather "cast a normal fella who can act crippled, than a crippled fella who can't act at all." It's also a moment of Leaning on the Fourth Wall, as the actor who plays Cripple Billy is almost always able-bodied.
- In a subversion of this trope (Abled Character, Disabled Actor) wheelchair-using actor David Adkins often appears in stage productions playing characters who aren't wheelchair users normally, and usually does so to rave reviews. He was even once cast in a production of Julius Caesar as Octavius, and performed the entire part from his wheelchair, which the rest of the cast simply pretended was not there.
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Trade Ya", one of the minor characters is a pegasus character with their legs fitted into what best could be described as a wheelchair for ponies. The character is a result of a Make-A-Wish charity effort for a teenager with spinal muscular atrophy, with the showrunners helping to design the teenager's character and the teenager supplying the voice.
- Peter Griffin attempted to invert the trope in Family Guy when he made his film Steel Vaginas, reasoning that Joe should be able to walk on camera "because your character can walk". He "encouraged" Joe with the use of a cattle prod, but ended up giving him extremely unconvincing CGI legs instead.
- Actor/musician Jim Byrnes lost both his legs in a car accident. Most of his roles are of the "a guy who just happens to not have his legs" type.
- In a notable inversion of this trope, the late great supporting actor and Hey, It's That Guy! alumnus Dana Elcar played a lot of sighted characters late in his career, after he went completely blind due to glaucoma (though he often played blind characters as well-most notably on MacGyver, when his condition was written into the show). He was just that good an actor.
- Another inversion: veteran British actor Eric Sykes went deaf in the early 1960s, and was registered blind in the early 1990s (his distinctive glasses had no lenses, and were a bone-conducting hearing aid). This didn't stop him appearing in post-2000 films like The Others and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and on the West End stage.
- Some of Michael J. Fox's later work skirts this territory. For instance, on his guest appearance on Scrubs, he played a character with OCD, which helped explain his somewhat twitchy movements.
- Fox has stated that his tics in recent work (most noticeably in The Good Wife, where his character has a similar condition) are actually the result of overmedication, as with too little he is completely unintelligible and he prefers to err on the other side.
- Kurt Dykhuizen, who was born deaf, played Jason on Barney & Friends. He shared some ASL, but his hearing aid never came up in conversation.
- Deaf actress Marlee Matlin is pretty much the go-to person when a female deaf character is wanted (although her deafness is often just a character trait and not the whole point of her being there-she has also inverted this trope by playing a hearing person at least once, in the TV movie Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story).
- Deanne Bray does a lot of this as well, although she tends to be cast if they require the deaf actress to do a lot of speaking.
- Ditto Shoshannah Stern.
- And more recently, Katie Leclerc.
- In fact, the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Sweet Nothing In My Ear brought all three of these actresses together. The plot was about whether Matlin's character's deaf son (played by another deaf actor, Noah Valencia) would get a cochlear implant.
- Alvin Law was born without arms. You may have seen him on an episode of The X-Files wherein he played a minister who... had no arms.
- Amputees In Action is a casting agency specializing in amputee actors and stuntmen, including the actor from the Saving Private Ryan example above. In their words, "The graphic reality of our amputations translates to stunning results on-screen."
- Actor Michael Berryman was born with Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, a rare condition which caused him to have no hair, fingernails, or sweat glands. His distinctive appearance led to a career in horror and science fiction movies, usually playing villains or monsters.
- Similar to Berryman would be Rondo Hatton, who acquired acromegaly from being gassed in WWI, and played a number of villains with his condition.
- Lionel Barrymore, from 1938's You Can't Take It with You onward, due to arthritis and hip injury requiring use of a wheelchair (he used crutches in You Can't Take It with You).
- The U.S. military uses real amputee actors to play wounded soldiers in training simulations, to accustom trainees to the shock of dealing with limb-loss casualties.
- Actor Don Stroud had his face mutilated by a mugger and then played many characters who also had mutilated faces.