When producer Bob Goodwin broached the news of its possible demise over dinner one night, Burke, then 27, "looked at him seriously, took a swig of his soda, and said, 'Well, then I guess life goes off,' " recalls his father, Frank, 77, a retired NYPD inspector. "Everyone at the table just laughed."
In fact life gets more enjoyable for Burke, who now serves as a goodwill ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society and editor-in-chief of its quarterly magazine—between touring with his three-piece folk band and taking on occasional TV acting gigs. Along the way he has acquired an enviable self-confidence. "When people say I can't do something, it doesn't make me mad," he says. "It makes me work harder."
"He's always had that determination," says his mother, Marian, 75, a retired trade-show manager. The youngest of four siblings growing up in New York City, Chris was 8 when he began attending special-education boarding schools. At 19, a year before graduating from the Don Guanella School in Springfield, Pa., he saw an episode of The Fall Guy featuring Jason Kingsley, a 10-year-old Down syndrome actor. Recalls Frank Burke: "Chris wrote a letter of congratulations to Jason," whose mother, Emily, a writer-producer for Sesame Street, wrote back and encouraged Chris's budding acting ambitions. Three years later she helped Burke, then working as an elevator operator, win an audition for a small part in Desperate, a series pilot. ABC executives rejected it, but in 1989, impressed by Burke's charm, they ordered up another series, Life Goes On, to be built around him.
It was a big coup—for any actor. "He was so talented and achieved so much, not just for a kid with Down syndrome," says LuPone. Adds Martin: "All those people in America who had never met anyone with Down syndrome got a whole new perspective." Burke's eyes opened too. Life Goes On "showed me all the options I had," he says. "I could make a difference."
Indeed, immediately following the series' end, Burke was tapped by the NDSS to speak at public schools, conferences and special events like walkathons to spread the message of inclusion and acceptance. Among those who have heard him speak is Chris Devlin, 34, a New Jersey factory worker with Down syndrome who has Life Goes On pictures on his bedroom walls. Last May, Devlin did a TV spot for Hallmark cards. "I have bigger dreams in my life because of Chris Burke," he says.
When he's not inspiring others, Burke serves as an usher at the local Catholic church near his Long Island weekend home. (He lives with his parents in New York City.) Unattached, he dotes on 10 nieces and nephews. "Being a son, brother, uncle and brother-in-law is all I care about," he says.
Well, not quite all. Burke plays 150 gigs a year as lead singer with his band, Chris Burke with Joe and John DeMasi. He met the DeMasi twins, 47, when he was 13 and they were music counselors at a day camp. After years of jamming together, they formed the band in 1990 and have since made three albums—"songs about love, friendship and inclusion," says John DeMasi. Onstage, Burke hams it up, switching from his TV alter ego, Corky, in his high school letterman jacket, to Chris "Cool Elvis" Burke, with long sideburns and shades. "The show centers on Chris's message," says DeMasi. "It's not about your disability—it's your ability that counts."
Burke agrees. "I have a motto on my bedroom wall: 'Obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off the goal,' " he says. "Giving up is not my style. I just want to do something that's worthwhile."
Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles and Caroline Howard in New York City