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October 02, 2019

Thinking Different

Long before shows like Born This Way profiled persons with Down syndrome living productive lives, ABC’s Life Goes On cast an actor with Down syndrome in a regular role. The ‘90s family drama also broke ground with its HIV storyline, setting a new bar for the embrace of differences in primetime.

Jane Wollman Rusoff
  • The first-season Thatchers: Patti LuPone, Bill Smitrovich, Monique Lanier, Kellie Martin, and Chris Burke with Arnold the dog.

    ABC/Photofest

On September 12, 1989, Life Goes On made history when it premiered as the first major series to feature an actor with Down syndrome in a major role. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that debut.

Before Life Goes On, characters with disabilities were rare on television — and actors with disabilities were even rarer. For example, able-bodied actor Raymond Burr played the wheelchair-using title character on Ironside from 1967 to 1975.

(One significant exception: in 1980, NBC's The Facts of Life featured the first actor with a disability in a primetime series. Geri Jewell, born with cerebral palsy, played recurring character Cousin Geri on the Norman Lear sitcom.)

On Life Goes On, Chris Burke played 18-year-old Charles "Corky" Thacher, first-born child to a working-class family in the Chicago suburbs. Tony-winning Broadway star Patti LuPone played protective mother Libby, and Bill Smitrovich (Crime Story) portrayed Drew, his father. Kellie Martin played Corky's nerdy sister, Becca.

Two actresses played Paige, Drew's daughter by a previous marriage: Monique Lanier on the first season and Tracey Needham after that.

ABC had asked producer-writer Michael Braverman (Quincy M.E., Chicago Hope) to create a show for Burke, then a 24-year-old novice actor.

A high-functioning young man, he had appeared in Desperate, a 1987 ABC telefilm written by Braverman. After Desperate, Burke worked as an elevator operator at a school for children with disabilities. Then Life Goes On came along and changed his life.

Corky faced many struggles, including attempts to learn math and to drive a car. In one episode, he accidentally set fire to his dad's restaurant. In time, however, he became an usher at a movie theater and married a young woman (Andrea Friedman), also with Down.

Produced by Warner Bros. and shot on the studio's Burbank lot, the affecting, uplifting show had perhaps its biggest impact in season four, when Becca dated an HIV-positive boy played by Chad Lowe. Airing Sundays at 7 p.m. opposite 60 Minutes, the show ran four seasons and won two Emmys.

Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff interviewed Braverman — Life Goes On's creator, executive producer and director — and the principal cast about the groundbreaking series.

The Genesis

Michael Braverman: I have a nephew named Charles who has Down syndrome, so I was aware of how beautiful young men and women with Down syndrome are. There's a certain nobility in their honesty. In the interviews, Chris stood out. After [Desperate], ABC came to me, saying, "Let's do something with Chris" and asked me to come up with a bunch of ideas.

At the time, there was an outcry that there were no family shows on television. The studio heads had to testify before Congress. So they created Primetime Access, the hour before primetime, when they would run only family shows. I thought, "I'll write about my nephew." I presented the show to ABC, and they bought it.

Chris Burke: The show focused on the parents having a child who was born with a disability. It was about the ability of the parents and their support. Corky had a lot of challenges and struggles, but he never gave up.

Bill Smitrovich: The show had a message contained within the entertainment. It was funny. It was dramatic. It was informative.

Monique Lanier: We were doing something different. We felt it mattered. It was a special thing, so we thought, "Let's do it well."

Kellie Martin: The show had a purity of mission. It set itself up as this real look at a family dealing with a child who has significant challenges — and what the reality of that is. The show wanted to be very grounded in real life. They didn't want to present shiny, happy people.

The Actors

Patti LuPone: I was doing Anything Goes [on Broadway] and got a call from my agent to come in for a test for a television show. I was living in Connecticut, two hours north of Manhattan. The next day I woke up and thought, "I'm not going to the city this morning." So I canceled the test and came in the following day.

Before the test, I said, "I'm real sorry I canceled yesterday, but I wasn't feeling it." They told me that my talking to the camera like that was more interesting than the test and gave me the part. I was shocked, because I never get parts through auditions. It was the first time that I did episodic television.

Smitrovich: Patti and I auditioned separately, and then they put us together in a studio in New York. We did a couple of scenes beautifully. I thought we fit together really well, a compatible couple.

Martin: I was turning 13 and had about five auditions. For the final one, for the network, I decided not to wear my red glasses, which I'd worn for the first audition, because I wanted to feel prettier. But the producer said, "Where are your red glasses? We need those red glasses! Put them on!" So I put on my prescription glasses over my prescription contacts — and I couldn't see a thing!

Lanier: Patti was fantastic and very New York. She wasn't rude, by any means, but I wouldn't mess with her. I feel lucky that she liked me.

Tracey Needham: Patti is a huge, strong personality. She always knew exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it done. She was super-supportive and really funny, in a snarky sort of way. She played up the diva, but you could tell it was an act. It was done to keep everybody entertained and keep up their energy, because the hours were long.

Burke: Patti is a Broadway musical genius. She taught me a lot, because of her Broadway musical background and her film and TV roles.

Martin: Working with Patti for four years was the most incredible acting class. I learned so much from her. She's my second mom! She's so well trained, yet she's very spontaneous.

Braverman: There was nothing Kellie couldn't do. Every actor says, "I missed that. Let me take it again." Not Kellie. She never missed a line. It was astounding! Bill is the consummate professional. Without fail, Bill and Patti almost always instinctively made the right choices for the moment.

Needham: They brought me on to write off the character of Paige, but I ended up staying. I was so green to acting. The first couple of episodes, I affected an accent that I thought would make me sound smarter. I think Paige was originally sort of a hippie. But then she became awkward and dorkier. Maybe I added that because I can be a tiny bit awkward.

Working with Chris

Braverman: Chris was amazing. We wrote to his abilities. We didn't write heavy dialogue scenes for him. We'd prepare cue cards, but generally he didn't need them. At the end of the pilot, Corky recites a part of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." Chris had memorized that entire part of the poem. We had made up cue cards, but he didn't want to use them. We got it in one take.

Burke: Memorizing lines came easy to me. I went over them with my father, and I had two dialogue coaches.

LuPone: Chris was funny and sweet and joyful. I watched him mature as he was given more responsibility. Seeing him come into his own was really moving.

Smitrovich: Chris started out as a kid with Down syndrome who wanted to be an actor. By season three, he was an actor who just happened to have Down syndrome.

Martin: The gift of working with Chris is that he reacts to everything honestly. When you're doing a scene with him, you get a real reaction.

Lanier: Chris's enthusiasm to be an actor was so pure and not wrapped up in ego or defensiveness. Bill was like my dad off set too, kind of fatherly. He was kind and humble and available and very concerned about my career.

LuPone: One had to know how to encourage Chris in a scene to relax him, to make it as if we weren't acting. When you could get him to that level, it was fine. But he would have meltdowns if his nervousness got in the way of his focus. There were times when we had to do several takes because he couldn't pronounce a word or he'd get lost. That happens to a lot of actors.

He'd get really upset with himself. He'd try to say the line again, and he couldn't because he was tied up in a little knot in his head. The producers and writers weren't necessarily prepared to deal with this. The schedule was grueling. But Chris's wonderful father, Frank, and mother, Marian, were always on the set. Frank was always able to talk to Chris and calm him down and help him out.

Martin: Every once in a while, there was a line that Chris couldn't say, and some people insisted that he get it right. That was when we were not at our best, and the set was not a happy set. It was usually that someone was pushing Chris too hard.

Needham: It wasn't always easy for Chris, but he had this determination. He would tackle everything. A lot of times when performing with Chris, you wouldn't feel that he was connected, that his focus was elsewhere. But when you saw the scene on film, there was this magic in his eyes, and you thought, "I was mistaken."

Braverman: Chris's stamina was better than the adults'. He wanted very much to keep working and working. He wanted to be in everything. He was an amazing young man.

The Characters

Braverman: It was important to portray Corky as exceptional, because not every Down syndrome child is going to have the same capabilities as Chris. And it was important to show that not everything goes right when you have a learning difference. So Corky accidentally set fire to his father's restaurant, and it burned down. The whole question of that episode was telling the truth about how the fire started.

We showed that Corky had problems with math, which is difficult for people with Down syndrome, because it's conceptual. But we wanted to show Corky to be as independent as he could possibly be. So he became an usher in a movie theater. We wanted his life to progress. Marriage might have been a bridge too far, but we thought, "Let's give it a try."

LuPone: My response to my son who had Down syndrome was being a fiercely protective mother, whether it was written or not. But I found the writing lacking. I had a meeting with the [producers and writers]: "Give me three adjectives that describe Libby Thacher." But nobody said the same thing. I said: "There's your problem!" Libby didn't even react a lot of the time. She was silent. It was pedantic. It was mundane.

Braverman: I wanted to make sure we had working parents. I didn't want a hand-wringing mother. I wanted somebody who would do everything that was necessary. Patti had all of that strength. I would describe Libby as strong, resilient and compassionate. Notice that the first word is strong . Patti can do strong very welI.

Martin: Becca was earnest in the best possible and worst possible way. She worked hard at trying to be popular, but she just wasn't. She was very smart. Playing that character pushed me to try to live up to her. Becca ended up going to Brown [University]. My goal was to go to a school as good as Becca went to. I was competing with my own character! How strangely messed up is that? I went to Yale.

Becca loved her brother, but when faced with his going to her high school, it was devastating to her. When we meet her, she's having to adjust to her brother interacting with her friends. Becca was constantly teasing Corky. But God forbid somebody else teased him! She stuck up for Corky and protected him with her life.

Bill was such an anchor; the pilot and first season pivoted around the patriarch of the family. Drew's relationship with Corky was so important. The way Corky looked up to his father was pretty special.

Smitrovich: Drew was fun-loving and hard-working. This guy would do anything for his family.

Memorable Episodes

Braverman: At the time, ABC's Standards & Practices person was an ex-nun. She was really nice, but I would argue with her on the phone for maybe an hour and a half and then put [director] Rick Rosenthal on. We'd wear her down, and that's how we got most of the stuff we wanted.

In the final season, when we did the arc about HIV, the issue of how Jesse [Chad Lowe] contracted HIV went up and back between me, [coexecutive producer] Michael Nankin and S&P for a long time. I didn't believe that it was fair or proper to skirt over the issue that HIV was sexually transmitted.

To their credit, ABC ultimately allowed us to proceed with Jesse contracting HIV through sexual contact. That was an extraordinarily brave position to take at that time, especially for a family show in the primetime-access hour.

All the extras and some of the supporting actors who were in the HIV episodes actually had HIV or AIDS and [because of the show, they] were able to get SAG health insurance. I had told the crew [I planned to hire people who had the disease] and asked if anyone had objections. Not one person abandoned that set.

Martin: [The show] wouldn't let Becca kiss Jesse on the lips, so I kissed him on the neck. We hugged and slow-danced. There were a lot of rules we had to follow, because a lot was unknown about AIDS. There would be scene after scene where Becca was crying. Patti taught me how to cry. She may be the best crier I ever met! She said she has a suitcase full of sorrows and just draws on that.

Needham: The show was famous for breaking new ground on subjects that were taboo and placing them in an ordinary suburban environment. Paige became pregnant, but the father wanted to end the pregnancy. Paige wanted the baby. The universe decided for us, because she had a miscarriage. It was a heavy subject, but not heavy-handed in the way they wrote it.

Braverman: Even though we were doing a family show, I tried to write as many episodes with music as I could. Here I had Patti LuPone, a Tony-winning Broadway star, so why not capitalize on this magnificent talent? And that's what we tried to do.

LuPone: In a way, I wish I'd been stronger and said, "You want me to sing? That'll be extra money." But they didn't pay me to sing. And the producers didn't listen to me when it came to the songs I wanted to sing. That rankled me a little because they were asking me to do something I wasn't hired for.

Needham: In one episode, Paige was auditioning for a musical. She was terrible, but they were going to give her the part anyhow. So in one scene, Patti sings and shows me how to do it. It was one of my more humbling moments.

Life Doesn't Go On

Martin: The show was a critics' darling, but it never got high ratings. It always did just well enough to keep ABC happy. They probably kept it on because they were proud of it. I was 17 when the show ended. I felt my life was over. Those people I'd worked with for four years were my family. It was really hard to step away.

I went off to Yale and wrote all my college essays about Chris Burke. He was a spectacular person to spend four years with. It took a while to get my degree, because I kept getting acting jobs, but I kept thinking: Becca finished her degree, so Kellie had better finish hers!

Braverman: Why the show ended isn't something I can get into. Certainly, we released Patti so she could do Sunset Boulevard in London. But I think we could have gone on.

LuPone: They let me go to do Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps they knew that the show was up after four years. I don't think I was instrumental in wrapping the show. I think they could have killed off [my character] or something. Perhaps the show had run its course, and they knew it — so they let me go.

Smitrovich: When the show ended, I got very depressed. It was the most gratifying job I ever had, because it broke barriers and brought down walls.

Burke: I had a good, positive attitude when the show was over. But I want to go back and do more work in show business. I really didn't think about being famous. I'm not a big TV superstar. But I learned a lot. I learned one thing, which is very important to me: it's just a job.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019

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