While 20% of our society has a disability, less than 5% of actors on screen are disabled. Jay is joined by actor, comedian, and activist for the disability rights movement, Danny Woodburn and together they shed a light on the multiple challenges of actors with disabilities in the entertainment industry.
Danny Woodburn – a veteran of over two dozen films and more than 130 television appearances, with regular and recurring roles. Danny is perhaps best known for Mickey Abbott, Kramer’s volatile friend on NBC’s Emmy-winning, history-making show, Seinfeld. A graduate of Temple University and a recipient of their 2001 Alumni Achievement Award, Danny performed in numerous plays. While serving on the SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disabilities committee he helped negotiate better terms for disabled actors in the recent contract talks, co-creating the SAG-AFTRA/AMPTP Joint Task Force. In 2009 he received congressional recognition via the Disability Rights Legal Center’s DREAM Award. In 2010 Danny was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Harold Russell Award.
Jay Ruderman: Hollywood takes pride in its recent campaigns for equality and inclusion. Actors of all colors, ethnicities, and genders. So how come they still ignore 20 percent of the population? It’s time to talk about it.
Announcer: All Inclusive. A podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman, and today we will address one of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries, the lack of equal representation of people with disabilities, 20 percent of the US population. The Ruderman White Paper on employment of actors with disabilities in television found that 95 percent of top TV show characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled performers. We also found out that most networks don’t even audition actors with disabilities. Why is that? With us today is actor, comedian, and activist for the disability rights movement, Danny Woodburn. He played most famously Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld and he has appeared in more than 130 television shows and has made 28 film appearances to date. He’s also recognizable by his dwarfism.
Jay Ruderman: Danny, thank you for joining us today on All Inclusive.
Danny Woodburn: Thank you, Jay. Thanks for having me.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s start from the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your journey in Hollywood, how you got started and where you are today.
Danny Woodburn: We’re going back now almost 30 years…I’m in my 30th year in Los Angeles. Hollywood, I guess you can say. You know, when I was in college, I did a number of plays. I did regional theater. I did some off-Broadway stuff. I think when I was in college I felt like a big fish because I had time to establish myself. People got to know me, they got to know what I was capable of doing on stage and so I never felt like my dwarfism was an issue in terms of my casting, in college. So I come to Hollywood and I knew it was going to be some kind of an issue, but I didn’t really necessarily know to what degree. I did a lot of pounding on the pavement and I finally ended up with an agent who represented a lot of little people. Her name was Cora Lee Junior.
Danny Woodburn: Cora Lee was very old school. Every year in Variety she would put a big picture of all of her little people clients in order of height. It is a picture that I never participated in, but you know, that was sort of the way she sold everybody. I got a couple of jobs through her and then moved on to other things because I knew the kind of career she wanted me to have was not the kind of career I wanted to have. It was not. I didn’t want to be a sight gag. I didn’t want to mocked onscreen or laughed at. I wanted to be in on the joke as an actor. I wanted my characters to be three dimensional and not just there as a prop. As so many types of little people roles had been.
Danny Woodburn: So I think after about three years in town, I landed the Seinfeld gig and that jump-started my career as an actor. And not so much as a prop or costumed character or extra. With that success, I was able to give voice to my concerns when I got in the room. And a lot of times it was quite useful to say, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be called that. I don’t want to appear in that fashion.” I would say 70 percent of the time it was met with a positive response because I had been able to show what I could do on Seinfeld, and of course, I had been asked back. And so I was starting to get respect from my peers and not just as an actor with dwarfism, but as an actor.
Danny Woodburn: That for me was the pinnacle moment of change.
Jay Ruderman: So do you feel like your disability has been an obstacle in the entertainment business or do you think it’s benefited you?
Danny Woodburn: Well, I’m a character actor. So I have friends that are character actors who I know are given more opportunities than I am because I’m still seen as a particular type. I still get feedback, like I could never be a doctor. I could never be this. I could never be that. And I played every kind of role there is from lawmen to aide to the State Department to dad to truck drivers. I’ve run the gamut on as many possible different types of roles. But that is a struggle to get to those spots where I can secure those roles.
Danny Woodburn: So my audition opportunities are definitely not the same as another actor of my experience and my resume. That actor will receive I think far more opportunities to audition than I do. So I do think it’s a hindrance, but I also think it helped in terms of my recognizability factor.
Jay Ruderman: One of the things I’ve always been really impressed about you, Danny, is that you have been really outspoken in your advocacy for disability inclusion in Hollywood and wrote some pretty strong pieces. Some op-eds and some research. Were you ever afraid of being blackballed or pushed out of the entertainment industry because of your activism?
Danny Woodburn: Well, you know, I haven’t heard anything in terms of feedback yet, as far as the possibility of being turned down because I might be considered problematic in that sense. But I know it hasn’t helped with certain things. Back in 1999, I had seen a breakdown. A breakdown is when the roles come out for a project and they explain what the role is and you know, they get into the specifics of the role. And then agents see these roles and then submit their clients on these roles. So a breakdown came down, the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And the breakdown specifically described how tall each actor should be. And at the end of the breakdown, there was a statement saying no little people. And that really kind of bothered me because I feel like this mythology about those kinds of stories is born out of the actual interaction with actual little people in our history.
Danny Woodburn: So I made a bit of a stink. I wrote a letter to Peter Jackson back in ’99 and he wrote me back and he explained that they didn’t have a no little people policy, but they were doing a certain kind of technical thing. Anyways, as you can see, it didn’t come to fruition that any little people got any roles on screen, were recognized as little people in those roles. And as a result of my letter, I, Billy Barty and one other actor whose name escapes me were brought in to audition for that casting director because of that letter. So I don’t know if it helped me or hurt me back then. Peter Jackson’s never offered me a job in 20 years. So not to say that he would or wouldn’t have, but I feel like he owes it to the little people community to put little people on screen in a project since Lord of the Rings. I feel like he should make up for that lack of diversity within those three films.
Jay Ruderman: I know many actors with disabilities who are commercially successful and they’re activists also, but their activism is tempered by the fact that they have to work, they don’t want to get blackballed. And you seem to be a little bit more courageous in your activism. So for that, I want to just give you some credit. Because I think your voice is heard within the entertainment industry.
Danny Woodburn: Well, thank you. I need that. I try hard not to single anybody out necessarily, although I might single out of production, but I don’t necessarily attack the actor ever, that I can think of. Because I’m going to come across people all the time and as you and I know, the recent controversy around Bryan Cranston and his portrayal in The Upside of a person in a wheelchair, is something I’ve commented on and I would comment on it and I’ve argued against the argument that was made. And I’ve worked with Bryan and I know Bryan. I even had asked Bryan to do a video for our campaign, disability as diversity, a year and a half ago. So it was sort of odd to me that that relationship was still with those events and yet this particular decision was made and it wasn’t investigated enough in my view to understand the idea behind their argument. That it was a business decision.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s talk a little bit about the movie, The Upside in which Bryan Cranston plays a quadriplegic. And Bryan’s been interviewed and brought up some real concerns about playing a disability, about where is the line. I’m paraphrasing, but as a wealthy, straight, white person, what does that mean? He can’t play someone that’s gay or someone that’s poor? And he says that he’s all in favor of increased inclusion of people with disabilities in the entertainment field, but he’s sort of questioning what is acting and where is the line. And so I want to talk to you a little bit about that because it seems to me that in the overall popular entertainment industry, there are lines.
Jay Ruderman: You’re not going to see a white actor play a character of Martin Luther King. Or you’ve seen the emergence of a more powerful African-American community in Hollywood and the Asian community. Where is the disability and how do you see this issue? You know, should all roles depicting disability be played by actors with disabilities? What are your thoughts on this?
Danny Woodburn: We have to look at whether or not all things are equal. And currently they are not. As you had mentioned earlier, 95 percent of the roles depicting disability are not going to people with disability. So I think I would be okay with the argument that I’ve heard many times, that it’s acting. If there was not a business aspect to it. And there is a business aspect to it. There is a disparity for certain groups in trying to get employment and in trying to get an opportunity and in trying to even get an education in their field because of that disparity. So all things being equal, I would agree with Bryan. But we don’t live in that society yet and so until we do, we have to balance the playing field at least to the point of equality. I’m not saying we need to make X, Y and Z happen, but we do need to create an arena that is completely equal for all persons to have opportunity. And that does not exist.
Danny Woodburn: And my 30 years of experience in this business tells me that does not exist. I have seen it time and time again. I have heard quotes, I have experienced personal things with regard to that disparity, so I know it doesn’t exist and if you are going to take a role … I think if Hollywood would have said, “Okay, we’re going to take this role, this lead role from a person with a disability, but in return, we’re going to get five others back, a role that maybe didn’t necessarily have a disabled character in mind.” Or there’s no focus on the disability. Or we’re going to give those roles back because we know there’s a disparity. But that doesn’t happen. I can’t get on board with his argument at this point.
Jay Ruderman: I think that as a society, we’ve progressed in a place where it would be socially unacceptable for a Caucasian actor to play a role that was specifically for a black character or an Asian character, Hispanic character. Even at the Golden Globe recently, Sandra Oh, who was presenting was sort of mocking a few recent films in which a white actress had played an Asian character. And Emma Stone who was one of those actresses screamed out from the audience, “I’m sorry.” So I think there’s a realization of the power of authentic representation for African-American, Asian, Hispanic actors. I don’t see that yet with actors with disabilities. I don’t know if societies are there yet in terms of seeing people with disabilities as a distinct class. There just doesn’t seem to be equality there.
Jay Ruderman: I would side with you. I think it’s an issue of authentic representation when you have 20 percent of the population with some form of a disability, yet less than three percent of the roles in entertainment have an actor with disability. There’s something wrong in the industry. Maybe you can talk a little bit about from your own experience, what are some of the obstacles that you see that actors with disabilities face when auditioning for roles in film and TV?
Danny Woodburn: Let’s start with the very basic. Physical access to a possible place of employment or an interview. You know, Hollywood casting houses are oftentimes in older buildings on lots that are historic. The Columbia Pictures lot which is now the Sony lot. Buildings there from the early 1900s still standing. And sometimes those auditions are held up on the second story of one of these two story buildings and it’s all stairs. And this is not uncommon even outside the studio, you’re buying temporary places to audition people and they might just be in an old Hollywood bungalow, which I’ve gone to before or some other unique little office that’s above another establishment. But it’s on the second floor and the third floor, and you have to go up stairs. I’ve seen specifically written down, “There is no elevator access, don’t use the elevator. You have to go up in the building and up the stairs.” Or whatever it is, but I’ve seen this still and I see it a lot. And so right away we’re closing that door to anybody with a mobility disability who can’t necessarily use the stairs in quite the same way.
Danny Woodburn: And this came very true for me after I had a knee surgery that was corrective and I had an audition, oh, maybe a week or two later. But I wasn’t ready for stairs at the time and so I had to single myself out by calling the entire passing team down to the first floor into another room with all the video equipment and producers to come to an audition. And so that has separated me from the path and has made me some other. And you had mentioned earlier about recognizing disability in the same way that, let’s say color is recognized. And I’ve come up against this in the discussion of inclusion, which is when I question organizations about their inclusion initiatives being exclusive to people with disabilities. That becomes the rhetoric about what inclusion is. And when I asked some of these organizations, “Why aren’t you including people with disability?” they said, “We’re just focusing on the cultural aspects right now.”
Danny Woodburn: That tells me that they really don’t have an understanding of disability because there is a culture around disability and they’re just not aware of it. It might not have to do with skin color but it does have to do with a bond that is ingrained in people with disabilities who see each other and come across each other. There is a distinct connection. I have felt it in the people that I have worked with and met because we all have a joint understanding of what each of us is up against in society. And that rhetoric of inclusion, “inclusion,” that kind of talk gets moved into programs.
Danny Woodburn: It’s moved into benefiting those particular groups and continue to be exclusive. I’ve seen laws in the state of New York, a program that benefits contractors that are people of color or women and I called on this and I said, “Why isn’t there any kind of extension of that benefit to people with disability?” And the response is, “Well, if that person with a disability is a woman or is a person of color, then yes, it’s extended.” And I said, “Well, that does not have the inclusion aspect of this work.” And they’re in disagreement with me. And that becomes a whole other fight and they say to me, “There are no disparity studies.” And I say, “All you have to do is to open your eyes and that’s your study.”
Speaker 2: You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more. View the show notes and transcripts at Rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
Jay Ruderman: Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you are listening.
Jay Ruderman: Danny, I know that they’re in the past three decades, half of the men that have won the best actor Oscar have won for playing a disability. The mere fact is that Hollywood, the entertainment industry, the general public sees the portrayal of disability by an able-bodied actor as great acting. It wouldn’t be the same if a white actor put on a black face or dressed up as an Asian or Hispanic character. There’s something fundamental in our society that I think Hollywood is reflecting.
Jay Ruderman: The stories of disability are interesting, but we don’t want to see characters or actors with those disabilities portraying it. That’s a huge challenge to move beyond and I’m just curious as to your thoughts of how we can move beyond that. I mean, I know you’ve been engaged in this advocacy for quite a long time. You know a lot of people in the industry. You’ve talked to them. How do you overcome that hurdle?
Danny Woodburn: Well, you said it’s three decades. If you’re looking at the past three decades and if you go back to three decades ago and you look at the Marlee Matlin’s win for the Academy Award and how much flack she got because she happens to be deaf, playing a deaf character and the premise was that she should not have received that award. So not only do we award or reward those actors without disability portraying disability, but the ones that actually have the disability that portray it, we punish. So until we have an understanding that that’s not acceptable, that’s going to be part of the hurdle. That’s going to be part of the pushback and I think Marlee’s done a fine job of bringing attention to that over the years.
Danny Woodburn: As you were talking, I was thinking about some of the reasons that it’s not looked at in the same way as playing another ethnicity. It’s because I, Danny Woodburn, will never be black. I can never be a black person. However, I, Danny Woodburn, can lose my hearing. I can go blind. All these things can happen to me that put me in that percentage of people with disabilities, so I think that’s part of the obstacle there. That these are relatable things that actors could possibly experience. But we still have to just come back to the basics of opportunity and employment and the access to education and employment.
Danny Woodburn: If we come back to that and only that and stop making the argument about acting, and what acting is, that’s what we can get past this because it’s not about, yeah, I’m in agreement with you. It is acting. And you can act these characteristics. However, you are pushing out and not helping to move forward opportunities for those that are actually these people who you are portraying. So I don’t think we can argue about the acting aspect of it because I think that the argument will continue. Actors are very passionate about that.
Jay Ruderman: I think the issue of stigma is a huge issue also. When you have, especially on the small screen, but also on film, when you have a personal interaction through entertainment of a culture that you may not come in contact with, whether it’s African-American or Hispanic or Asian or disability. It tends to reduce the stigma, tends to change attitudes. And it makes a difference and I think that that’s why the entertainment business more than almost any other business has a responsibility to consider representation. Because they do really have an impact on societal attitudes.
Jay Ruderman: So as we enter into 2019, what’s the push? How can we as advocates begin to change this industry?
Danny Woodburn: Well, I think the real thing too, and you do this in spades, Jay, is to talk about it. To make sure that the disability community and advocates are present at every turn when these things occur. So you know, I’m watching the changes happen. I’m watching things start to move and watching the needle start to move. The SAG Actor performance disabilities committee just had a meeting yesterday and we do an annual watchdog report that basically tells us, through our own reporting what roles came out for people with disability and who was cast in those roles. So if we look at television, the disparity is tipping in our favor. There are more roles now in television that are cast as people with disability. More people with disability being cast in roles that are specific to the disability. Even though the other thing still exists.
Danny Woodburn: Film, on the other hand, is not moving as much. If at all. Still, it’s a larger number of portrayals of people with disability by able-bodied actors. But I just know the pages are longer, so that’s good. But at the same time, there are more than three networks of the jobs now. There’s endless amounts of platforms popping up and that’s creating opportunity. We talked about this very prominent aspect of location scouting. Talking to members of the Location Scouting Union or whoever that group is and educating them about how easy it is to create more access for actors with disability in their location scouting.
Danny Woodburn: So we have to sort of break out each possible obstacle individually and address it. That’s part of the thing. But you know, we’re also in the process of discovering too, even after 30 years, how do we address this? How do we address that? And so things like location scouting all of a sudden pop up. We’re always working on casting and producers and all of that sort of thing. But if we can create a fully accessible place of employment and not without much effort, then that’s part of the [inaudible 00:21:37].
Jay Ruderman: Well, Danny, I want to tell you, I do think that the takeaway here is authentic representation. And it’s an issue of representation and not exclusion. I want to thank you for all of your important work and advocacy and thank you for joining me today for this important discussion. You’re really one of my heroes and I think you’ve had tremendous impact on our society, especially in the entertainment industry.
Jay Ruderman: We all know that the entertainment industry has a responsibility to tell inclusive stories, to present all people, all parts of society. And I hope it will finally take steps towards auditioning and casting actors with disabilities to play characters both with and without disabilities. In this year of 2019, there’s no room for excuses. And we, you and I and others will make sure of that. So thank you for joining me today, Danny.
Danny Woodburn: And thank you for having me, Jay. I just wanted to add this because it speaks to your point. We get really excited about those authentic portrayals. If we look at a film like Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther we get really excited about that kind of inclusivity. And so I think the more you and I get together and push the needle further, we can create that same excitement about that kind of inclusivity as well.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you.
Speaker 2: All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to Rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
Speaker 2: Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to Tweet @JayRuderman.