17 June 2008

Actors and Characters With Disabilities: RJ Mitte as Walter Junior on 'Breaking Bad"


The LA Times says that "although nearly 20% of Americans from the ages of 5 to 64 have some kind of disability, less than 2% of the characters on TV display one, and only one-half of 1% actually have speaking parts."

This year a new show on AMC debuted a great kid actor with a disability in a great role. The show is Breaking Bad starring Brian Cranston (who you may recognize as the dad from Malcolm in the Middle) as Walter White, a meek, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer. In desperation, Walter turns to creating and selling illegal drugs to get money for his treatment and to support his wife and son after his death. Cranston's portrayal is nothing short of incredible and I hope he gets an Emmy for his work on the show. Season One was fantastic, and I anxiously await Season Two in 2009. I would highly recommend this show to anyone (but it is DEFINITELY not for kids. Ok for teens though, with a strong anti-drug message).

Walter's son, Walter Junior, is a high school student with cerebral palsy. He walks with crutches and has somewhat slurred speech. Other than that, he is a typical kid, dealing with his disability and struggling to deal with his father's diagnosis of cancer. It is a strange world we live in when I can praise a show merely for having a disabled character who is realistic, not played for pity or tragedy, and portrayed by an actor with a disability, but there you go. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of how to have an interesting, well-rounded character with a disability.

The actor, R.J. Mitte, does a fantastic acting job in my opinion. He is believable and he has great comic timing. His character is sarcastic, in some ways immature, and in other ways wise beyond his years. Besides that, he has all-American boy good looks. I'd say he is a cutie-pie but if one were fifteen it would be fair to call him hunky. I'm hoping that we will see him in more roles after this one.

Watching the first episode, there was some debate in the Impossible Universe Household as to whether he had a disability or not. The matter was settled a few weeks later when I ran into him at a drugstore around the corner from my house (actor-spotting: a perk of living in LA, I guess). I wanted to tell him that he was great on the show, but I decided not to bug him because he's just a kid (14 or 15 I think). He was ahead of me in line patiently trying to buy a toy for his tiny outspoken sister, who was bouncing all around him making various demands. He did have CP, but a more mild form of it that his character Walter Junior-no crutches and somewhat clearer speech. So he does have a disability, but he is also 'acting' his disability. Unlike many tv actors, he was very handsome in person.

R.J. Mitte in USA Today
R.J. Mitte in LA Times
R.J. Mitte on the Breaking Bad website

I'll leave you with a quote from the LA Times article about him:
The people that are the guardians of storytelling in America claim to be the most creative people that there are. Yet, if you remember in elementary school and kindergarten, most kids had the eight Crayola box. That’s what most of the people in Hollywood are using. Eight crayons. They have the nice, handsome white guy, the beautiful white girl, sidekicks, a couple of others. I’m saying if you are really going to tell the story, you need the 64 Crayola box.

Image: R.J. Mitte as Walter White Junior. A handsome white teenager with shaggy brown hair looking away from the camera.

1 comment:

Erika said...

Great post. I wonder if he will do for CP what the actor who played Corky did in "My So Called Life" (I think it was) for Downs' Syndrome.