Fans of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” saw actor Robert David Hall go about his job in his role as Dr. Al Robbins, the county coroner for all 15 seasons of the hit crime drama. Hall portrayed the chief medical examiner in Las Vegas as a can-do guy who walked around his crime lab on crutches conducting his autopsies.
“Some people thought the crutches were a prop that made the character more interesting,” Hall reported. “But I’ve been very open about my prosthetic legs, the result of an accident when an 18-wheeler truck crushed my car and an explosion set it on fire.” Out of such a horrific event, burn survivor Hall has carved out a fine career playing a variety of roles that reinforces the fact that disabilities shouldn’t prevent talented actors from getting casting opportunities.
‘The accident took both my legs but didn’t take away my abilities, nor my spirit or creativity.’—Robert David Hall
Hall, who also had a nice career as a broadcaster and musician, said, “The car accident took both my legs but didn’t take away my abilities, nor my spirit or my creativity. I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way, and so can 56 million Americans with disabilities. I see no reason why talented, hardworking people, who are viewed as ‘different’ should be kept out of the entertainment industry, or any industry for that matter.”
Hall has become an advocate and a longtime board member for NOD, the National Organization on Disability, he said, “I am proud to lend my voice to NOD’s Look Closer campaign.” NOD’s goal as a non-profit is to increase employment opportunities for the 80 percent of working age Americans with disabilities who are not employed.
Hall explained, “Harold Russell who won an Oscar in Best Years of Our Lives (1946), didn’t lose his hands in the war, he lost them in a training accident. But Harold became the first person with that kind of disability to be shown as a human being. That was a big deal.”
TV and the media are critical to get the “abilities conversation” going because they do affect change. Hall believes, “The way we show ourselves affects us. CSI is on the air more now because of syndication, and when I’m out and about people still come up to me and say ‘I love your character,’ and they see me and say, ‘oh, that wasn’t a prop.’ That’s okay because they saw a man who was very capable.”
Hall continued, “The affect on TV, film or commercials matters when you see the diversity, old and young people, different nationalities out there, and people able-bodied and less able-bodied. There are more examples now and young kids are impacted by this stuff. If they never see someone like themselves on the screen they think they’re not a part of the future. It doesn’t just affect entertainment, because I think there’s some kid out there who’s going to cure some disease. That kid could be blind or deaf or a paraplegic, but I know I want them to have opportunities and not be devalued because of their disabilities. I feel strongly about that.”
We must look to our better angels. Hall recalled, “Someone once said that we should judge our society by how well we take care of the least among us. I certainly don’t think disabled people are ‘the least among us,’ but the reality is that we have barriers to overcome and problems to solve. If someone is able to take care of themselves, that’s great. But if someone needs a boost, I’d like to do something to help. That’s why I belong to NOD, and why I’m doing this Look Closer campaign to see people for what they can do, not for what they can’t do.”
NOD wants to encourage more people with a variety of abilities to go out for auditions for all sorts of roles. Hall said, “A role as a judge is ideal. I just want it to look more real.”
Recently, TV shows that have had characters of various physical disabilities include NCIS New Orleans, Speechless, Mom, Superstore, Breaking Bad, Switched at Birth, Glee, and The CW’s upcoming In The Dark (premiering Thursday, April 4) starring Perry Mattfeld as a blind crime solver. But Mattfeld is not blind, just like other shows that have able-bodied performers playing some of those rare roles, which is limiting the opportunities for actors with disabilities.
Margie Barron is a member of the Television Critics Association and has written for a variety of top publications for more than 38 years, and was half of the husband and wife writing team of Margie and Frank Barron.