Sunday, February 15, 2004

Actor pushes Hollywod film industry to measure up


Alive and Well

Debra Kendrick

If you're a Seinfeld fan, you know him as Mickey Abbott, Kramer's lovable friend who is feisty, funny, smart - and about 4-foot tall. Today, with those Seinfeld episodes plus numerous movie credits, and repeated appearances on CSI, Becker, Charmed, Baywatch, Early Edition and numerous other popular TV series behind him, Danny Woodburn is a rising star with standards some artists might deem too high to reach.

As a little person, Woodburn has known the sting of rejection and ridicule all his life. He knows what it is to be discounted because of his small stature and even to be mistaken for someone else simply because they happened to share the genetic condition of dwarfism. He's an activist, a spokesperson for little people everywhere, but carries his message packaged with his successful career as a comedian and actor.

In the 1980s, Woodburn explains, his college education was delayed due to a variety of necessary surgeries. Dwarfism (a genetic condition which, in Woodburn's case, occurred only once in his family) leads to a variety of orthopedic difficulties with hips, legs, spine, etc. He has had 15 surgeries thus far, and speaks with profound gratitude to the surgeon, Dr. Steven Kopits, who "made it possible for me to pursue my dream."

[IMAGE] Danny Woodburn spoke to Walnut Hills students last month.
(Enquirer file photo)
The wonders of science aside, it might be more accurate to say that Woodburn's amazing talent, intelligence, warmth and flair for cracking the right line at the right instant are the ingredients that have kept his name growing in Hollywood. His talent has sparkled in dramatic as well as comic roles, and the accolades for film and TV work are many. But for me, what is most wonderful about Woodburn is that he has never compromised his principles for a job.

Countless times, he says, he has had to turn down scripts where "every five pages I'm offended." He has read roles depicting a little person as pathetic, malevolent, ridiculous or some other misinformed stereotype - and has rejected them. "It's not admirable," he tells me. "It's essential. I think it's the responsibility of every one of us on the planet - to avoid harming someone else if we have that opportunity." And, he knows, to portray a negative image of a character simply because he is a little person is harmful to little people - indeed, all people with disabilities - everywhere.

The upside of his adherence to a personal moral stance is that sometimes he actually changes attitudes in the industry. He cites as example a script for Silk Stalkings, which was initially hugely derogatory. "The little person was a murder suspect," he recalls, "and everything about him (and the perception of him) was offensive."

To his surprise, Woodburn's changes and corrections were accepted. In fact, even though the final version no longer referred to the character's size at all, Woodburn was kept on as the guy to play it.

At 39, Woodburn says the most fun he's had thus far (and he stresses the "thus far") has been his role in Death To Smoochy (with Robin Williams and Edward Norton) and, of course, his work on Seinfeld. What he loved about his role in Seinfeld, he says, (aside from the fact that having 26 million viewers see him lent speed to his career) was the consistently positive portrayal of Mickey Abbott as a human being.

I ask him what he likes best about being Danny Woodburn.

"The best part of being Danny Woodburn the actor," he answers, "is actually booking a job. The best part of being Danny Woodburn the activist is making that role what it's supposed to be."

(Danny Woodburn was keynote speaker for the ninth annual Inclusion Award dinner on Jan. 29.)

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: dkkendrick@earthlink.net.




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