For Chris Burke, the First Actor with Down Syndrome to Star on TV, Life Goes On in a Big Way
Burke had, in fact been trained as an elevator operator and was employed at a New York City school for the disabled until last spring, when he became the first actor with Down syndrome to be cast as a regular in a TV series. In Life Goes On, he plays the middle child in a working-class family, with Patti LuPone and Bill Smitrovich as his heart-of-gold parents. When ABC unveiled Life Goes On last month, critics smothered it with applause. "It would probably be condescending and patronizing to say Burke will steal the nation's heart," wrote Tom Shales of the Washington Post, "but he will."
"This show is a miracle," says the worn an who discovered Burke, TV writer Emily Perl Kingsley, whose son also has Down syndrome. "We're starving for this kind of realistic production. I hope it blows stereotypes of the disabled out of the water. It's so important to let Chris be himself: appealing, sexy, a real person and not just someone with a label."
Kingsley came to know Burke as a pen pal after he wrote a fan letter to her 10-year-old son, Jason, who had appeared in an episode of The Fall Guy in 1984. Three years later, when TV producer Michael Braverman was looking for a teenage boy with Down syndrome to play a small part in a pilot called Desperate, he contacted Kingsley, who recommended Burke. Desperate was not picked up as a series, but Braverman had Burke in mind when he fashioned the pilot for Life Goes On. "He has charm and wit and all these great attributes that separate him from so many other people, including many normal actors," says Braverman. "He's extremely high-functioning. He remembers his lines and hits his mark." Burke is equally fond of Braverman: "He's my dream maker," says Chris, "and I like his white mustache."
Braverman believes the nation's disabled citizens are not only underrepresented on television, but woefully misunderstood in general. "We want to show," he says, "what someone with a disability is capable of." One out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. has the abnormality, named after British physician John Lang-don Down, which is created by the presence of an extra chromosome and results in some degree of mental retardation (see box, page 67). Burke prefers to call it Up syndrome.
When Chris, the youngest of four, was born in 1965, so little was known of the impairment that parents of babies with Down syndrome often placed their children in institutions. "There was no way we could have done that," says Burke's mother, Marian, 63, a trade-show manager. "From the moment we saw Chris, we could not have let him go." Instead he was nurtured in a family that put a premium on self-reliance.
"My parents didn't tell us Chris was retarded until he was 6 months old," says his brother J.R., 35. "It wasn't, 'Gee, isn't that sad,' because it's impossible to be sad around that kid, he has such a great attitude." J.R. cites, for example, the time Chris ran in the Special Olympics at age 12. "I missed him in the 100-yard dash, and when I asked him how he'd done, he said proudly, 'I came in third!' So I slapped him five and hugged him. Only later did I learn there were only three runners in the race."
Unlike his TV character, 18-year-old Corky Thatcher, who enters a regular high school in the freshman class of his brainy but bratty sister (Kellie Martin), Burke was educated in schools for children with special needs. At New York City's Kennedy Child Study Center he made his theatrical debut at 8 in a "big, huge production of The Emperor's New Clothes. I ran in and said, 'Ha, ha, what a joke,' " Chris recalls. "After that I wanted to be an actor."
That is, until he moved on to the Don Guanella School in Springfield, Pa., wrote briefly for the Down Syndrome News and dabbled with the idea of becoming a reporter. There Burke began corresponding with Kingsley. "My son was starting to ask questions like, 'When is this Down syndrome going to go away,' and Chris was the only one I could turn to," she says. "The tough part for people with Down syndrome is the way others treat them. They know when they are made fun of, but they are less articulate in expressing their pain."
For Burke there has been little anguish. Only during a 1987 summer job at a beach near his family's Long Island cottage was he teased by co-workers. "Chris hasn't had a lot of that," says J.R. "He's aware enough to know what he can't do, which can frustrate him, but he never lets it get in his way."
Frankly, Chris is too busy with baseball, basketball, swimming and square dancing. He's also a practiced master at the art of lip syncing. His copy of Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" (while strumming a stringless guitar) took first prize at a neighborhood rec center in 1986. But one of Burke's best impersonations is of his mother when her son landed the role in Life Goes On. "She gave the best look with her hands folded on her face," Burke recalls, "and said to my father, 'Frank! [shrill female shriek] Chris is gonna go to Hollywood!' "
Burbank, to be precise. Burke and his father, a retired New York City police inspector, are currently bivouacked in a two-bedroom apartment near the Warner Bros. TV studio, where Chris works 12-hour days, taping episodes until December. His mother visits on long weekends. "I'm so thrilled with each new accomplishment," she says. "He's gaining in social graces and the ability to zero in on a subject." Years ago a doctor told the Burkes that Chris would plateau. They are still waiting.
In California, Frank, 65, accompanies his son to the set each morning and sometimes reads lines with him at night. "He used to get upset with himself when he missed a line," says Frank. "He didn't want to waste the others' time. Now he says we'll try again." Many of Burke's scenes are shot one line at a time, and a dialogue coach helps with memorizing and enunciation. "I want to be a professional," says Chris. "I want to be like my TV father, Bill Smitrovich. He's an easy, calm actor. I don't want to freak out."
There are no signs of distress as Burke learns to deal with a growing number of pleas for interviews and autographs. He also makes time to paste photos of his TV family in a scrapbook that chronicles these heady months. (He glued one special cast snapshot on a plaque, sprinkled it with glitter and presented it to executive producer Braverman.) The premiere's ratings were high, but if the series does not find its audience—it is scheduled opposite 60 Minutes and The Magical World of Disney—Wit will certainly go on for Burke. "The show has been a great opportunity for him," says Frank. "We don't have any lofty ideas about it." If, on the other hand, Chris Burke does steal the nation's heart, Frank knows just how to shrink an oversize ego. "When he's in his glory having his hair blown dry," says Frank, "I whisper in his ear, 'Just remember, Christopher, when we get home, you're still taking out the garbage.' "