Deep breath. About to step onto the stage of the famous Actors Studio and face Academy Award winners who will evaluate my work. That would make most actors pause. My buddy Charlie Dierkop, a star in his day, looks at me with compassion and asks, “Are you nervous?”
I smile and nod. He gently reassures me, “Don’t be. You have everything you need. Just TRUST.” And so I did. Trust. We know what we are doing. We’ve done our work, it’s time to just TRUST. As an actor, that may be the most important lesson we ever learn.
As I carry on in this crazy, unpredictable career, I can’t help but ask the same question as people do in every walk of life… Why are we here? Ever ask yourself that question? At what point do we figure out the purpose of our lives? The reason we were put on this Earth? Well, if you are one of those kids who knew they were “special”, like the little kid in “Simon Birch“, you are forced to start asking those questions a lot sooner, and then spend your life searching for the way YOU and your unique challenges are going to make a difference in this great big world. For me, this search led to Hollywood, and trust me, it has been FAR from the typical Hollywood tale.
Imagine being pulled from your loving Mother’s arms at four years old, left in a hospital, terrified. Your legs don’t work anymore, you’re hooked up to machines, they’re jamming big needles into your spine, IV’s into your tiny hands, you’re not allowed to go home to your family, and expected to endure all kinds of “ouchy” things that none of the other kids have to do. Even at a young age, it makes you ask… WHY?? Luckily, for me, my Mom and nurses told me it was because I was “SPECIAL”. They gave me my own nurse’s hat and told me they moved my bed out of intensive care and right into the nursing station because they LIKED me, not because I was in critical condition, unexpected to make it through the night. It was crucial to my survival and my future that I believed I was SPECIAL. Not terminal, broken, sick, rejected or ashamed to BE, simply because I was now “different”. Thank God my Mom knew that.
I did pull through and they said it was a miracle. I was full of life, excited to get up and moving, anxious to show everyone I was a normal kid again, but the imperfections left behind from a near fatal illness and paralysis were scary to a lot of people. I willed myself out of a wheelchair, believing that would make everyone happy again, only to find out that kids no longer wanted to play with me. I was left out, tormented and picked on, by kids, siblings, even adults and teachers and I was too young to understand WHY.
My brilliant Mom taught me that what I had here was a great judge of character: OTHER PEOPLE’S CHARACTER. They were not showing me what was wrong with ME, they were showing me what was wrong with THEM. So, I held my head high and marched back into that school every day, reminding myself they were only mean because I was “special” and they were not. They were afraid of ME! Here came my fire, here came my passion. I started standing up for myself, proving myself, and trying harder than everyone else. No one was going to stop me from doing every single thing all the other kids did. And the coolest kids respected it. I went from sitting in a wheelchair at my brothers’ football games to being the captain of the cheerleading teams. From being confined in a room with paint and crayons, to winning an art scholarship to The University of Florida. I learned that if you really want to make something happen, you could do it with hard work and sheer will.
In my early 20’s, as my beautiful Mom died from cancer, I followed my guts into a career I didn’t yet understand the purpose of, and suddenly, my past began to make sense. In an acting class in New York City, I found that all the bad things that had happened in my life could be put to great use. My experiences gave me valuable treasures no one else had! They made great stories, strong characters, and allowed easy access to emotional depth. I realized that if I shared my stories through my work, I could help people understand how it feels to be the one who is different, so they wouldn’t be so hard on the next round of kids who had to find a way to survive in this cruel world where everyone is expected to be perfect. I had found my life’s purpose!
Now I had to earn my “voice”. What a beautiful discovery! I found an industry where the fires ignited in me could create a worldwide impact. Through movies, TV shows, advertising and media, we influence the way the WORLD thinks! We reflect what is happening in society, raising awareness through our tales, inspiring courage, understanding, compassion, tolerance and acceptance. Through the eyes of a challenged child, I saw where we really needed to evolve.
The events of my life made me “different” and ultimately driven to create entertainment that would change our perception of adversity, so that no child would ever again feel the pain of being made fun of, bullied, kept out, or uninvited to the party because of physical challenges they did not choose.
It certainly wasn’t MY choice to be different, but here I am, stuck with MY life, so what am I going to DO with it? Change the world!! That’s not too much to ask, is it? In Hollywood, ANYTHING is possible!
Just like Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird“, Gregory Peck often stood up for those who were wrongly treated. He fought for equality in Hollywood and acceptance for all, regardless of their differences, creating a more open minded world that ALL of us now enjoy. Sean Penn enlightened audiences with his courageous work in movies like “I Am Sam” and “Milk” while turning down less inspiring blockbuster movies to go to Haiti and help starving people. Steven Spielberg reminded us of the horrors of the Holocaust in “Schindler’s List” so that we would never forget the damage, hatred and rejection created not so very long ago. But we still have work to do!
I believe the generations that follow in Hollywood have an obligation to pick up that torch and continue to shine a bright light on the injustices of our world today. I don’t know about you, but it lights me up to see the shining spirit of a child who has overcome cancer, or is learning to run with prosthetic limbs, or thriving in a foster home, hopeful for the possibilities that lie ahead. Because I know the trauma they endured, I really appreciate the smile now beaming on their faces, and can’t wait to see what they do next.
I love the stories of older people who found a way to keep their heart and life force, regardless of the adversity life threw their way. Old age should be celebrated! Wrinkles honored. Scars and battle wounds no longer hidden, but admired like trophies on our shelves. These are not negatives! These are PROOF that we SURVIVED, and now hold the greatest secrets of life.
We can create a world where children who endure life threatening illnesses are celebrated for their victory, honored for their battle wounds, cherished for showing the rest of us how to face extreme adversity, and welcomed into the adult work force. A world where people can grow old with dignity, still viewed as beautiful and valuable because they have LIVED and gained great wisdom to share with us all.
The power of Hollywood lies in our ability to tell our stories and share our painful experiences to help the next generations get through the challenges of life with a little more ease, grace, and happiness. We are ALL a part of each other’s journey, and I believe we can create a world where everyone is accepted, regardless of their age, difference, disability, or challenge. Differences are the SPICE of LIFE, and who really cares about a story with no spice?
Follow along on this journal and you will learn how my adventure is evolving, the battles we’re winning, and how we are changing this great world, one project, one story, one challenge at a time, using the magic of Hollywood, my Mom’s wisdom, and the power of storytelling.