A Paraplegic Viewer Reviews NBC's ‘Ironside': High Hopes Dashed

A Paraplegic Viewer Reviews NBC's 'Ironside': High Hopes Dashed

Guest review: The network missed a golden opportunity to take non-traditional casting to a higher level

“Are you really a cripple?” a suspect asks Ironside at the start of the new series named after him.

No, he's not — nor is he kidding anyone with this.

When NBC decided to reboot the 1960s series “Ironside,” I had high hopes. I grew up using a wheel chair, having been born with severe Spina Bifida. The iconic wheel-chaired TV sleuth was the only disabled character offered by the three major networks.

Also read: TCA: Why ‘Ironside’ Producers Didn't Cast a Paraplegic Actor

The illusion was never real because I knew that actor Raymond Burr was not disabled in reality. But I hoped the new Ironside might be.

So imagine the severe disappointment to learn that “L.A. Law” star Blair Underwood would reprise the role. Like Burr, Underwood is also an able-bodied actor in role that might have been offered to an actor with an actual disability.

NBC may boast that they've cast an African-American star in a role made famous by a Caucasian. But I'm afraid NBC missed a golden opportunity to take non-traditional casting to a higher level.

The pilot is typical of most network fare. “Ironside” doesn't break any new ground. Underwood's channeling of the gruff Burr feels like a pale Denzel Washington imitation, reminiscent of his “Training Day” role. Underwood's Ironside is a tough, brooding, sadistic cop on the edge who is willing to break the rules and the laws to bring criminals to justice.

Also read: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Star, Artist Turn to Kickstarter to Create Physically Disabled Action Hero

The opening segment should have been enough to turn me off. A suspect is dragged by his collar and tossed into the backseat of a car. Ironside moves from his sporty wheelchair to the backseat. He beats a confession out of his suspect, who reveals the license plate number of the car hiding a missing child. As Ironside's chief berates him for his unethical tactics, the child is found.

The teaser draws to its end as the suspect asks, “Are you really a cripple?”

For me, growing up disabled, the word “cripple” was highly offensive. But “Ironside” doesn't seem worried about offending its audience. “You tell me,” Ironside retorts.

Underwood and director Peter Horton are TV veterans with impressive resumes. There's no debating Blair's charisma, vocal acuity and, good looks, nor Horton's ability to tell a story. Writer Michael Caleo did some research and made some good updates from the original.

But what's missing is believability.

Also read: My SyFy Experience with Director Jim Wynorski

It's difficult to believe the New York City Police Department would reinstate a detective disabled in the line of duty, hand him a gun and place him back on the streets. Having never walked, I can't say for certain. But it seems to me that his two years rehabilitation is not enough time to regain his physical strength and mental stability after sustaining a life-changing injury.

The dialogue and plot are cheesy and too often rely on “Arrow”-esque grainy flashbacks of the formerly upwardly mobile Ironside. These scenes feel like justification for casting a non-disabled actor. Ten years past the WB used such a ploy when it cast Dina Meyer to portray Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl in “Birds of Prey.

In a previous Wrap article by Greg Gilman, “Sons of Anarchy” star Kurt Yeager is quoted as stating, “You need to start having disabled people playing disabled characters. Period.” I have to agree. Every actor looks for a big break. Imagine what a role like Ironside might have done for a guy like Mitch Longley, of “Las Vegas” and “General Hospital” fame.

Over the years actors with disabilities have heard a bevy of excuses. Producers cite insurance issues, or claim there aren't enough experienced disabled actors. It's the old Catch 22: Where can they get experience if not granted an opportunity to land these roles?

See photos: 20 Physically Disabled Characters Played by Able-Bodied Actors (Photos)

I would like to take NBC executives through their own personnel files, since they are bringing back stars like Underwood, Michael J Fox and Sean Hayes. There's Longley, the paraplegic star who spent six seasons on “Las Vegas.” There's Daryl Mitchell, whose credits include two NBC series, “The John Larroquette Show” and “Veronica's Closet.” “Christopher Thornton” was to star in The Farrelly Brothers’ “I'm With Stupid,” an NBC comedy that never made it to air.

No one is demanding we get the work due to our situation, by any means. We want the best actor to get the job. But it's impossible to say who the best actor is when so few actors with disabilities are getting equal opportunities for work as they should. I acknowledge and respect the work of Robert David Hall, R.J. Mitte, Jamie Brewer, the “Push Girls” and Danny Woodburn, but a little is not enough.

I have grown tired of the excuses. Other underrepresented groups have banded together and brought attention to the fact that they're underrepresented in the media. The disabled community, a fractured group of clandestine tribes, each with its own agenda, has yet to offer a unified voice. That allows shows like “Ironside” to happen.

  • Danney

    Daryl Mitchell also starred for NBC in “Ed,” made after his disabling cycle wreck.

  • rship19

    “Arrow”-esque flashbacks of Ironsides from before becoming disabled might indeed feel like justification for casting a non-disabled actor. Still, producers will likely insist on main protagonists being involved in action scenes, to please contemporary audiences.
    However, two-years rehabilitation does seem indeed quite short for Ironsides to regain his physical strength and mental stability. You are further more persuasive observing that actors with disabilities deserve more opportunities on TV than is the case today – just perhaps not on crime dramas.

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/vzepr1xp/index.html unsean

    Me. Romani raises some valid points, and offers a perspective worth considering. That being said, let's for argument's sake consider that — ignore for the moment that for this project to happen there had to be a disabled actor that would be influential enough that theis project would gravitate — the pool of disabled actors that Hollywood (and it's financiers) would trust to be the lead in such an undertaking.

    And while only time will tell if this new “Ironside” is a success, you want to start out as strong as possible, and I am not sure that casting an relatively unknown disabled actor would be the way to do so.

    • Larry N. Sapp II

      ANd you make a valid point too. I hear about it all the time. Especially when I am pitching my film projects where the feature character is a paraplegic and as a paraplegic filmmaker I can compromise on many issues to produce my projects but one I will not. I insist on hiring a paraplegic actor for my paraplegic character. And then the executives and the financiers site the excuse – I mean reason that you point out. But when will the unknown actors with a disAbility become known if Hollywood continues to refuse the hiring of an actor with a disAbility? AND what is the incentive for people with a disAbility to become actors – increase the Hollywood talent pool of those with a disAbility – when all they see on television and film is able bodied actors playing characters with a disAbility?

  • http://www.HallandaleBeachBlog.blogspot.com/ HallandaleBeachBlog

    “But I hoped the new Ironside might be.”
    Really, based on what? It's a primetime network television show in the year 2013, not a PSA.

    I guess you're in the same long line that's wrapped around the Complaint Office in Hollywood as the gullible people who really believed the corporate hype surrounding the heavily-promoted and heavily-covered coast-to-coast search for an unknown to star as “Selena.”

    They believed that Hollywood would obviously prefer a Mexican or Chicano actress to play the slain and beloved singer, and then were shocked to discover that New York-grown Puerto Rican dancer/actress Jennifer Lopez nabbed the part.
    (To my mind, the only decent non-major film she's ever been in where she is completely believable.)

    You state that “I'm tired of hearing these complaints.”
    Perhaps you are, but as you make your way to the back of that long complaint line I referred to, I strongly suggest you talk to the people at the front of the line and hear whether their complaints about Hollywood casting decisions are in any way similar to yours. I strongly suspect they will be.

    You see, last time I walked by that line a number of years ago, and spoke to some of the upset people who'd been waiting a long time for their day in the sun to tell Hollywood what they really thought, they were muttering something about their sense of outrage by those decisions by David O. Selznick to name two British actors as two of the lead parts of “Gone With The Wind” -Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard as Scarlett O'Hara and Ashley Wilkes, respectively. Not even American!

    In fact, I think Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were complaining about it just the other day on their radio shows, remember?
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Uke0ReS6e7wC&lpg=PA70&ots=F1kTj4T8KO&dq=Hedda%20Hopper%20and%20Louella%20Parsons%20on%20casting%20of%20vivien%20Leigh&pg=PA70#v=onepage&q=Hedda%20Hopper%20and%20Louella%20Parsons%20on%20casting%20of%20vivien%20Leigh&f=false

    FYI: A few feet from the back of the line you'll run into the still-angry film goers who are still upset at the casting of Will Smith as 1860's Secret Service agent James West in “The Wild Wild West,” the 1999 film that was so god-awful that it literally killed what could've been a very popular and very lucrative series of films over the next 10-12 years, with Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon.

    But in large part because of the unpopular casting of Will Smith, it was not believable even within its own narrow fictional universe and stunk, and with its sinking went many films that would've employed talented people and maybe even entertained us.

    Did you criticize the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis 25 years for 1989's “My Left Foot”? Just curious.
    I ask because the people in that long line of complainers who were going to criticize that bit of inspired casting at least had the good sense to leave the line for good a few minutes after DDL won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

  • differenttake

    Here's a suggestion, though star wattage is a factor, there is another that is always missed and/or never mentioned in these very well written and point worthy review of the able-bodied playing disable. It's the other money factor in terms of insurance for the production. Once that becomes a non-issue, then there will probably be more opportunities. But if the insurance is taking a sizable chunk out of your budget, then there is no way, no matter how much the above makes sense, that any production is going to go for it. And please don't look to CSI or HIGHLANDER or any other show featuring a disabled actor as examples to the contrary, they are not.

  • Dolores V. Sisco

    The excuses for not hiring less-abled actors sounds eerily similar to the excuses about hiring actors of color. Why “revive” an old television show in the first place? (But that's another story). No one thought about Daryl Mitchell for the part? Or, how about trying something original – an unknown, disabled actor?

    • Larry N. Sapp II

      Great points Dolores! And to answer your question – no they did not even consider Daryl “Chill” Mitchell or Mitch Longley or any other actors with a disAbility for the role. At first, NBC said that they would approve a pilot episode but it hinged on Blair Underwood being in the lead role. More recently, NBC said they hired Underwood because the story lines would include about 10% flashbacks in which the character would be able bodied. The use of “flashbacks” or “dream scenes” are a common “reason” ie; excuse and in this case they are using it to also coverup the FACT that they did not even audition one single actor with a disAbility for the role. NBC didn't even want to audition and paraplegic actors. —– As for your second point – I totally agree with. In 2005, I wrote a feature film called “London Time” about a paraplegic homicide detective name, Detective London. It is original story with a unique character in which I insist be cast with a paraplegic actor. Known or unknown. I have been pitching it and promoting it to be a new way for Hollywood to be more inclusive – that it would be entertaining, socially responsible, be critically praiseworthy, and commercially successful all they while be a “turning point” in American cinema – and bring Hollywood into the 21st Century in their claim to be inclusive for those with a disAbility in the entertainment industry. But instead – they make this refake television show. I am still pushing for my “London Time” but now with this show – anybody I take it to will say – “we already have a paraplegic detective on television – we don't need a film!” Where does this leave the original creative material and those of us with a disAbility to make our own inclusive mark or trail?

  • SkipB

    The networks could care less. This is solely about MBAs without a creative bone in their body recycling old TV shows in a desperate “spaghetti against the wall” gambling strategy. NBC shareholders and advertisers take note.

  • delaware_jack@yahoo.com

    Whoa ! This was a ” 10 ” on the ole’ Stink-O-Meter ” for sure !

  • Larry N. Sapp II

    Excellent article! I too have already seen the pilot episode and was not impressed. I want to be impressed – I want it to be solid entertainment that features a paraplegic character. This is for both personal and professional reasons. I am a paraplegic. I broke my back 18 years ago during a time when I was aspiring to take my career from a music video maker to being a filmmaker. I did not stop in that endeavor but Hollywood has dismissed, ignored and blatantly excluded me from providing my creative and business materials that would provide the means for original entertainment that authentically portrays and represents paraplegics – because I am a paraplegic writer and director and I insist that I am able to hire a paraplegic actor to portray my paraplegic characters. — For every obstacle – every objection – every question – every excuse that Hollywood has placed before me and others with a disAbility which prevents us from representing ourselves, I have an answer for. But they don't want to hear it – that is why they do not even consult with me or through my indie film production company Abilities United Productions – so they continue with their Standard Operating Procedures of exclusion rather than inclusion when it comes to paraplegics and others with a disAbility.

  • Tim

    And I guess straight actors should play straight roles and gay actors gay roles

    • Larry N. Sapp II

      I do not know how gay actors or gays in general feel about straight actors portraying and representing gay characters. I do know there are lot of gay actors working in Hollywood. And more and more are coming out as being gay everyday. But we are not talking about them – we are talking about paraplegics and others with a disAbility. We want to portray and represent all characters – able bodied and disAbled characters. BUT Hollywood will not change an able bodied character into a paraplegic AND they say that actors with a disAbility can only play roles when the character is already written as having a disAbility. SO here we are with one a the very few roles written as a character with a disAbility and who gets the job? They did not even audition a paraplegic actor – not a single one! I cannot pretend or fake being able bodied – I am a paraplegic and I am a filmmaker. So I write characters who are paraplegics and insist on hiring a paraplegic actor – but that is when Hollywood shrugs me off and refuses to hear anymore of my pitch – or look at my business plans for my films. Hollywood does not care. They think that disAbled means un-Able and they will not let us prove them wrong – or let us prove ourselves when it comes to portraying and representing ourselves.

    • greaser1977

      I'd say let the closet xcases in Hollywood keep playing the roles they are playing- THIS IS A BULLSHIT ARGUEMENT WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THE IRONSIDES TOPIC….the series is horribley flawed to begin with and an insult to anyone with a disability period.

    • OldBald06

      Tim, you just don't get it, being your comment is filled with idiotic references.

  • IHaveRights

    This show is just a to-hell-with-civil-rights Dirty Harry in a wheelchair and I find it offensive. It glorifies the beating and torturing of suspects by a wheelchair jockey and implies that his violent bullying is ok because he's disabled. Hopefully Ironside will be cancelled quickly because it espouses downright un-American ideals.

    • FactsSaveLives

      I felt the same way. All TV cops seem to bending the constitution constantly but this show couldn't even be bothered to bend it. It just set it on fire and spit on it for good measure.

  • Larry N. Sapp II

    You don't get it. Probably because you are an able bodied person and you do not work in the entertainment industry. —- For paraplegics and the countless others with a disAbility who want to be actors, writers, directors in the industry – after years of working tirelessly of going to auditions and pitch meetings, we are told over and over again that we are only good enough to play roles that are specifically written as characters with a disAbility. But the actors continue to try for any and all roles because they love their craft, they have the passion and talent of their able bodied counterparts. AND THEN a role that is “specifically written as a character with a disAbility” does come along and Hollywood hires an able bodied actor for it. In this case of “Ironside” NBC did not eve audition any of those paraplegic actors – I know them – I am not an actor but I am a paraplegic filmmaker and I read the “Ironside” producers admit they didn't audition any paraplegic actors. They use the all to often excuses – name recognized actor – flashbacks and/or dream scenes in which the character is able bodied, production schedules, production insurance, etc. – what about how we feel about it? Does that not matter? We do as Hollywood asks of us – wait for the role where the character is specifically written as a person with a disAbIlity – only to have them then hire the able bodied. Where is the incentive for any person with a disAbility to dream and work toward fulfilling that dream if the only opportunities that Hollywood says they are qualified for – are given to able bodied people? This is 2013 and Hollywood should make some concessions, some compromises to do the right thing – hire people with a disAbility to represent themselves. Of course not all disAbilities have the ability to represent the,selves – but many can – and as a paraplegic – I know we can. SO before you druge up the same old Daniel Day Lewis example which is so often told to us when we criticize who we are treated in TODAY's Hollywood – do as my mother always told me “Do not judge or criticize someone before you walk a mile in their shoes.”

  • songman

    I look forward to the comments when a white man plays, Martin Luther King Jr.

  • jonboy

    They could save millions in production costs by taking the negatives of the original ironside and printing them…Ironside was WHITE. For Christ sake think up another name and BE ORIGINAL. This re-do Sh*t shows absolutely NO CREATIVNESS

  • OldBald06

    I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Blair Underwood, yet another able-bodied person, playing the role of a disabled person… HELLO, we the disabled are OUTRAGED!!! Why do you continue to cast “able-bodied” people in roles that are “disabled-oriented”. I was fed up with Raymond Burr playing the original role, because I knew, from the days of “Perry Mason” that he was NOT disabled.

    I have been in a wheelchair for most of my life. There were no disabled people to look up to, when I was growing up. They were all physically able people “playing” disabled. Do you NOT understand how demeaning that is… At the end of the day, those of us who ARE TRULY disabled, can not get out of the wheelchair and get on with life. Our lives are lived IN the wheelchair!!! When are producers and directors going to COME TO THEIR SENSES and realize how OFFENSIVE it is for the disabled to be on the outside looking in. Is it NOT the very same as someone *who shall remain nameless”, dressing up in “blackface” and going to a party… THINK ABOUT IT!!! People were shocked and angered. Well, *WE* are shocked and angered that the disabled are treated with such disrespect!!

  • swehrm

    Did anyone even consider the reason Ironside didn't make it was partly because the time slot was against Nashville – a very popular show coming back for its second season