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A star is born?

For years I was aware of children with disabilities who had exceptional abilities ... those who could play an instrument, ice skate, do gymnastics, sing, read, or do math at an unbelievable level considering the odds against them. For years, I introduced all these activities, and more, to Blair, searching for his special talent -- the one thing that might bring joy, self-esteem and victory into his life. Today I find that his talent had been there for years, yet I wore my own prejudicial blinders and never really saw it. Blair wanted to be an actor and entertain others.

At four years old, Blair took his first bow. Completing a series of developmental tests with a psychologist, Blair turned to the observation wall (disguised as a mirror) and bowed to the "anonymous" clinicians seated in the next room. I had no idea that this simple bow was the beginning of Blair's passion.

The following year a school psychologist asked me if I had ever considered getting Blair into the entertainment field. I remember looking at the psychologist like he was crazy. How much work would be available for a five-year-old with Down syndrome? Later, as Blair was about to graduate from elementary school, another psychologist asked me if I had ever considered finding a way for Blair to pursue an acting career. My response was a little more positive this time. I said, "Sure, but how?" The psychologist had no answer -- it had just been a suggestion.

Special Olympic Runner

Blair was now a junior high student with a whole new world to become accustomed to. Little did we know that this new, special education school would offer a drama class. Blair was accepted into the class his first year and got to participate in the holiday program, A Charlie Brown Christmas. After all, Linus had to be a little guy to carry around a blanket and suck his thumb. What a great joy this was -- Blair was finally getting to act ! While Blair was busy learning his lines and we were putting together just the right costume for Linus, a very excited phone call came from our local Special Olympics office. Proctor and Gamble was casting a commercial and wanted a male Special Olympian, 10 to 12 years old, who could run. Special Olympics thought of Blair right away. Not only did Blair meet their requirements, but he also ran 400 meters, which meant he could endure the endless takes necessary to complete the few seconds of film that would be seen in the commercial. I decided to take Blair on the call.

The shoot was in a park not far from our home so it wasn't too intimidating. Twelve boys from the Southern California area interviewed that day. The casting company video taped each child running, turning and speaking briefly. Each had their own beautiful and special quality.

I came home and told my husband that I had no idea what they were looking for and didn't know when or if we would hear further. I was pleased to get a call-back for Blair. It meant one more adventure and even a little closer to home.

We went to a studio where commercials were being cast. Inside was a large (but crowded) waiting room for the hopeful actors. Around the room were several small audition studios filled with directors, producers, agency executives, corporation department heads and who knows who else. Several commercials were being cast -- one was for diapers, so there were lots of mom, dad and baby types. A dog food commercial was also being cast and there were big dogs to step over everywhere.

As we sat and sat and waited and waited, I got more and more irritable. Blair, on the other hand, was walking around making friends. He was very much at home in this new environment. I was just about to call it quits, get Blair and leave when the casting director called his name. Blair jumped up and ran in to take his turn. There I sat with the other parents whose more "professional" children had gone into various studios for their auditions. I was surprised that Blair would leave me so easily -- maybe even a little disappointed that I wasn't needed more.

Blair auditioned with five different actresses. The production staff gave him a ball, then a trophy. They thanked him and told us we would hear the next day if he got the part. Blair was in all his glory -- he had acted. He didn't care that it was in an audition studio; he just loved doing it. Something happened to me at that point. I suddenly turned into a "stage mother." I really wanted this job for Blair. l wanted to see him happy again.

The call came the next day. Blair got the job ! The day of the shoot was wonderful. Blair worked so hard running down the road over and over again. The wind started to blow and it got quite chilly. As the crew bundled up, Blair continued to run in his T-shirt and shorts with no complaints. He was acting ! At the end of the day the wardrobe lady made a very interesting assessment. She said that the world was so concerned with saving the environment, the dolphins and the whales, but their answer to Down syndrome was anmiocentesis and abortion. She said Blair had touched everyone there that day in a special way and asked me if l thought Blair and other children with mental and physical disabilities were a part of the balance of nature. I then realized this was bigger than I had first thought. This wasn't just about Blair wanting to act; it was also about society's acceptance of those with disabilities, and their portrayal in the media.

The commercial aired during the Christmas season. Friends and family were so excited to see Blair running into their living rooms. There he was, the little guy who weighed only three-and-a-half pounds at birth, and endured nine surgeries before he was five years old. What a celebration! The cards and letters poured in and Blair loved every one.

As time passed Blair was in two more plays at school. He won the part of Barnaby Tucker in Hello Dolly and Audrey II, the man-eating plant, in Little Shop of Horrors. He also did some personal appearances, promotional photos and a Public Service Announcement for the California Special Olympics. Blair was in demand and he loved it. He loved it so much that I began to check out what else might be available for him to do. I called several talent agents but they showed little interest. They all said they just didn't get calls for children with disabilities. They thought he would be more apt to get calls through school and organizations for people with disabilities.

Photos and Stars

Two dear friends whose daughter was fulfilling her dream as an actress wouldn't let me quit so soon. They suggested I try a different approach and recommended a photographer. It only took one phone conversation for me to decide that this would be a good start for Blair. The photographer suggested that we do pictures and a mailing introducing Blair to talent agents in the area. We scheduled a date to do the pictures. Blair again was in his glory. Following the sitting the photographer said she knew the perfect agent for Blair. She picked up the phone, made one call and Blair had an appointment to meet Gordon. Gordon thought Blair was great. He made no guarantees but agreed to represent him.

Blair had gotten pictures, representation, a resume and -- along the way -- an invitation to the 13th Annual Media Access Awards. Media Access is an organization that assists with and encourages the accurate portrayal and employment of people with disabilities in the media industry. The awards are presented yearly to celebrate and recognize television, film, radio, theater and print. At the awards we were introduced to the concept of "nontraditional casting," used to better represent the mainstream American scene -- something Blair could surely do.

It was a wonderful night filled with wheelchairs, guide dogs, people signing, "little" people, and best of all -- as far as Blair was concerned -- Chris Burke. Chris, one of the stars of ABC's Life Goes On, is Blair's hero and role model -- an actor who has Down syndrome. Chris was a presenter at the ceremonies. Blair got the opportunity to meet him and have a picture taken together. Blair and l left excited and charged by the evening ... ready to help gain acceptance for children with disabilities, ready for Blair to enjoy his passion.

Big Break

It happened! The unbelievable! One year to the day of the shooting of the first commercial, Blair was booked for a Macy's commercial. Gordon had done it, to the surprise of all of us. Blair was cast as a "Macy's Kid," wearing "real clothes for real kids."

Blair arrived on location ready to go. Schoolwork in hand, he checked in with the teacher along with 20 other children who would work in the day's shoot. As the children began their schoolwork together, it was fun to watch them watch Blair. Blair's work was so much simpler than the other children's. Slowly it began to click with the kids that Blair was a little different, but they continued to treat him as the same. (What a joy it was to his mother's heart.)

By the time they were ready for his scene, Blair had made many friends. He was one of the gang.

Blair had brought two pairs of flags to the shoot to entertain himself during the long waits. He had shared them with four of the little girls. Being the actor that he is (and the director he would like to be), Blair soon had a regular drill team of girls performing with the flags. The director of the commercial loved it and rushed his cameras over to film the children at play. Before we knew it, the director had asked the prop department for more flags. They made them by cutting up a kite which had been intended for the scene. The director then told the children to listen to Blair's instructions. Blair continued to direct for 45 minutes. The parents and crew stood by in disbelief- laughing and enjoying Blair, who was once again in all his glory. When the "real" director had filmed enough, he thanked Blair with a round of applause from the crew and asked him to once again return to acting. They went on to film the next scene.

A little while later, I saw one of the producers approaching me. I felt like 1 had been called to the principal's office. As she came closer, the parents around me backed away, leaving me defenseless to whatever she had to say. She asked if I was Blair Williamson's mother. I sheepishly answered yes. Then she became all smiles and thanked me for Blair. She said that Blair had brought a special spark to the day's filming. The director had been trying for three days to get some of the expressions on the children's faces that he was finally able to get that day. If this had happened sooner, they wouldn't have been running so far behind! What a relief! I wasn't in trouble after all. In fact, Blair had once again touched others' lives in a special way. As we were leaving, one of the other mothers said to me, "I look at all these talented kids and I see the 'Brat Pack' of tomorrow. Isn't it fun that Blair will have an opportunity to be there with them?"

Opening My Eyes

What a wonderful adventure we have had in just one year. I look forward to the years to come. I look forward to the time when people with disabilities are represented in the media more as they live daily -- in families, at stores, restaurants, work and play. We have the opportunity to see that it happens. What an honor and joy for this generation. As I need another job. And I like to direct."

Who am I to say this won't come true for Blair? I wouldn't have believed what has happened so far if I hadn't lived it with him. And it would never would have happened if those around me hadn't encouraged me to remove the prejudicial blinders from my own eyes.

For more information about Media Access, write 8121 Van Nuys Blvd., Ste. 214, Los Angeles, Calif. 91402, or call (818) 781-1093/781-1094 (TDD).

Gail Williamson lives in Sepulveda, Calif. with her husband, Tom, and sons Tim, 16, and Blair, 12. Williamson is the administrative assistant at the Susan Forward Therapy Center in Encino, Calif.
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Author:Williamson, Gail
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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