Paralyzed by a Falling Tree, Suzy Gilstrap Turned to Acting and Her Career Heads Skyward

updated 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Suzy Gilstrap starred last year in the NBC drama Skyward, her career took off like the peppy Christen Eagle she flew in the movie. Her performance as a paraplegic teenager determined to become a pilot was hailed as a triumphant debut by the critics, in part because it was so true to her own life: Four years ago she was paralyzed from the waist down in a freak accident that severed her spinal cord. This week Gilstrap, 15, returns to the cockpit in Skyward Christmas, a sequel to her hit show. If it proves as airworthy as the original, she could land in her own series early next year. Suzy worries about that. "I need to be thought of as a person, not a stereotype," she says, noting that her recent TV appearances on Little House on the Prairie and Real People have also focused on her disability. For the moment she accepts that occupational hazard on behalf of a greater good. "I've got an awful lot of letters from disabled people who say that I'm helping just by being on the screen," she says. "It gives them hope."

Gilstrap takes pride in banishing misconceptions about the handicapped in her profession. "There's this belief that wheelchair-bound actors are unable to move around the set and are likely to get sick," she says. "That's nonsense." During the filming of Skyward she proved her point to producer-director Ron (Happy Days) Howard. "She never slowed us down a minute," he says, "and the honesty she brought had a tremendous impact on the movie." Howard's Happy Days cohort Anson Williams, who is Skyward's creator and co-producer, agrees: "I think America is going to forget about the wheelchair and love Suzy."

If so, Gilstrap has only herself to thank. She was on a school field trip to an arboretum near Los Angeles when her life was suddenly, cruelly changed. "I was crouching by a pond, feeding the ducks, when a huge branch from a nearby eucalyptus tree fell on my back," she remembers. "When I woke up in the hospital I was really scared. I cried for my mom and dad." They told her then that she would never walk again. "Of course it was a shock," she says, "but I never really had time to get depressed about it." Within four months she was back at school, and she credits her classmates' loving support with helping her through the transition. In time she met America's wheelchair tennis champion, Brad Parks, who made her an avid player too—and who arranged for her Skyward audition. "He knew the casting director's secretary's cousin," giggles Suzy, who won the role over 50 other applicants.

Gilstrap's only previous acting credits had been in school plays. "I was very apprehensive," she admits. Small wonder: Her co-star was Bette Davis, who played her gruff flying instructor. Davis was understandably worried about working with a nonpro, and Suzy still recalls the moment that broke the tension. It came after Suzy had to shout angrily at the veteran actress in a scene. Davis suddenly barked: "You're good!"

Suzy is optimistic about the sequel and her future in the business. A sophomore at Irvine High School in California, she's struggling to maintain an A average, while daydreaming about a career in producing and directing. Up to now her father, a sales manager for General Mills, has driven her the mile or so to school every morning; she wheels herself home. Next month, for her 16th birthday, she's getting her own VW Rabbit convertible with special hand controls. "Independence!" she exclaims.

In what spare time she has, Suzy plays piano and guitar and occasionally goes sailing with friends. "There isn't much I really can't do," she says. "If a barrier comes up, I just find a way to overcome it." In that she has a lot in common with her Skyward character. For flight scenes so far, an off-camera stunt pilot has handled the controls. But if the show becomes a series, she promises, "I'll definitely try for my pilot's license."

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