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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- October 08, 1984
- Vol. 22
- No. 15
A Gutsy Actress Lands a Role on Afternoon TV Despite a Crippling Childhood Case of Polio
If anyone had ever asked me, "Hey, do you want polio?" I'd have said, "No, that's okay. You can keep it." But, of course, it doesn't happen that way. I contracted polio when I was 6 months old, and I underwent physical therapy until I was 8. We lived in an affluent area of Lake Forest, Ill., and I grew up doing everything else most children do; I was always on the jungle gym or playing baseball, although another girl had to run for me after I hit the ball. My mother, who once modeled professionally, used to take us to live theater in Chicago, and early on I developed a love of theater and singing. I was always in children's plays. In my first play, at 10, I was an Oriental princess and was carried onto the stage in a sedan chair.
My early teens, when I attended a private school, were fine. But then I transferred to another high school, and it was bigger, less personal. I got very discouraged there. Since I had a wonderful first-soprano voice, I had been looking forward to junior year so I could try out for the musical-theater group. But when I reached the junior year, the rules were changed: Suddenly you had to be able to dance too. My mother, unbeknownst to me, called up to complain, but it didn't do any good.
I was 20 when I moved to Arizona, and things started to get better for me there. By then I had spent a year in college and, while working for a modeling school, I really began to gain some self-confidence. I was traveling to high schools in the state to give talks about personal grooming, and I got into the glamour thing. I learned makeup, clothes, hair, all that stuff, and it gave me more confidence in my femininity. But most important, I took acting lessons there and the teachers responded so well, and I enjoyed it so much, I knew I had to pursue an acting career. I made up my mind four years ago and moved to Los Angeles.
Unlike most singers or actors I could not take a part-time job like waiting tables because of my disability; and full-time jobs, such as secretarial work, gave me no time for auditions. So for a while I supported myself by making tote bags and papier-mâché dolls, crafts I taught myself. I even worked in Los Angeles as a carpenter, helping out a boyfriend. But then things started to click, somewhat. My first part—as a disabled secretary on One Day at a Time—was cut, but eventually I did get good parts. On Hill Street Blues I played a reporter, an able-bodied one, and on Dallas I was a receptionist and never had to walk. I was a wife and mother on one Quincy, and I had a recurring part on Ryan's Four.
Most of the jobs I've gotten have been on my own or through the Media Office, a group that serves as liaison between the entertainment industry and the disabled community. They put on showcases in which disabled people can be seen, and that's where I was spotted for The Young and the Restless by a vice-president at CBS. Certainly most agents in the past have not been that helpful. Recently one whom I respected and who I felt really believed in me was at one of these showcases. I actually overheard him say, pointing to the disabled actors, "No one will ever hire these people."
Discrimination is something you always come up against in this business, and you have to not take it personally, which I often do. Once, for a part in a series, I read for a woman casting director who said she was very supportive of me. The role was for a woman, attractive, postpolio—which is me. When she finally said I was not attractive enough and not a strong enough actress, my impulse was to rush out and get glamour photos and acting lessons, but in truth I knew I was attractive enough. I felt she just didn't want me because I really was disabled.
I find it real depressing that I'm held back from getting parts. I also find it a real drag that men seem not to be able to relate to me on a normal basis because of my disability. I guess beautiful women are too easy to find in this town. Sometimes I used to go to bars with friends, and guys would come on to me. Then I would get up and go to the ladies' room or something. I always wish I could have seen their faces when I went limping away, because a lot of them weren't there when I got back. Frankly I think they were turkeys. But I think it is sad too, because I have a lot to offer.
I remember once when I was in my teens, my mother was kissing my toes on my right leg, which is my bad one. And I was really embarrassed by it. I said, "Come on now, Mom, cut it out." She said that I would know that a man really loved me when he could kiss my feet or touch my leg and it wouldn't make any difference to him. I always thought, "Ugh!" I couldn't imagine that ever happening. But it has.
When I go out with a guy, I try to dress as nicely as I can. I always want my date to be proud of me. I like for people to look at the guy and say, "Hey, he's really lucky." As far as physical sex is concerned, though, I don't feel I have to make up for anything. My disability has never presented any special problems for me. And I've never had any complaints, so I would assume that I do just fine.
When I'm not working I get along just like anyone else. Driving is no problem, and I've never needed any special controls or anything. I wear a brace when I walk a lot or exercise, but not when I sleep or work around my apartment, a second-floor walk-up. I try to exercise as much as I can, usually two or three times a week on Nautilus machines. I can't jog, but swimming is a new thing I'm trying to get into. I don't like public pools. One of the things about any type of paralysis or polio is that your limbs are atrophied, smaller, misshapen. So it's really embarrassing for me to be around other people when I am wearing a bathing suit. I like to find someone with a private pool. When I swim, I don't kick. I use my arms. But I do try to do as many exercises in the pool as I can. My doctor has always said it was the most important exercise I could do.
Most of the disabled people on television are cast either as embittered types or as disgustingly sweet, inspirational types. On Young and Restless I'm not portrayed in this stereotypical, inspirational, gimpish way. I'm sure they hired me because I am disabled, and they wanted to see what they could do with that. But as Carol Rob-bins, I am allowed to act like a woman, not just a disabled person.
I really like to be on the cutting edge, to break the taboos. I'd like for my character to turn into a real animal, to have the hottest sex scenes on daytime television. I think it would be the ultimate if I could get into this hot and heavy relationship with my boss, which is what my fan mail keeps saying. My boss is supposed to be a real lady-killer and the letter writers think I should have an affair with him, then dump him. It would be great because it is not expected. Disabled people are not supposed to be sexual. So this would be a milestone.
I look on acting as a big responsibility. There are millions of disabled people in this country, and I am one of the very few working in television. So I am in a position to change not just how one person views me, but how millions view all of us.
Unfortunately the only time people relate to disabilities is when it affects them personally. It's time people start seeing similarities instead of differences. I am not a "disability," I am an attractive, talented woman, and I will succeed because I will not let someone else's prejudices stop me.
- Joseph Levy.
September 24, 2016
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