June 2008 - August 2008: Issue 27

People: Writing for Performance

Interview with Jim Troesh "The Hollywood Quad"

Interviewed by Janet Salmons
"Why not go for the moon, if you're going to do something?"

Jim Troesh is a comedian, actor and screenwriter with a rich and varied Hollywood career. When as a teenager an accident impaired his physical mobility, his sense of humor and thoughtful insight into human nature were not affected. In this interview for Opening Stages he shares experiences and discusses his sit-com pilot, The Hollywood Quad.

Can you give a brief background about how you got into your career and how you made the leap into television?

At fourteen I got electrocuted and fell off a roof— I was an electronics geek, putting up an antenna. After my accident I didn't like being in school and being stared at and told myself that once I got out of high school I would never go to school again. For two years after graduating I sat around watching cartoons and getting high. My doctor suggested that I take a class, so I took introduction to film. All we had to do was watch films and write about them. The teacher reading my papers said: you really need to move in this direction. In college, I took broadcast journalism, which expanded into radio, and I worked as a disc jockey. My teachers encouraged me to take acting classes, so I could work better in radio.

This was the early 80s, when the push towards people with disabilities was just beginning. I went to a lot of auditions and did some extra work, and had one line in a show called Aftermash, then got on Highway to Heaven. After the initial episode, Michael Landon expanded my role, and I worked on Highway to Heaven for three years. Someone on the cast suggested to me that I write an episode; so, I did, and Michael bought it.

Several years later, my career slowed down, and I immediately blamed it on disability: they're not hiring me because I'm a quad. But I had other friends who were big, strong actors, and they weren't getting work either. So, I realized it's Hollywood, not the disability. I went on with the attitude that talent would open the door.

I had success, and sold a script about a Black Jesus called Color of the Cross. I realized that everything I write doesn't have to be disability-related, with me in them. I figured, if I had a talent for writing, I could write about anything.

A year and a half ago, when video podcasts started, I thought, I can do that. I put a camera on a tripod and shot some footage and put it out there. It was well received, and people thought it was interesting. I called it The Hollywood Quad. It was about me and my pursuit of success in the entertainment industry. I did a total of six podcasts; altogether they have gotten a hundred thousand hits. I'm thrilled, and people keep asking me: what is next? So, I thought, why settle for doing something on the Internet, since I'm not getting paid for it? So, I wrote what is now the pilot episode for a television series called The Hollywood Quad, and that is the big thing I am sitting on right now.

I brought in a lot of comic, improvisor and actor friends who are very funny. I brought in Bryan Cranston and Burton Melrose. Melrose plays a network executive who does everything wrong around a disabled person. Everything in the show is based on my life—my girlfriend, my caregiver, my best friend, my girlfriend's mom (who disapproves of me). I shot a half-hour episode, got some funding, and put it all together.

I saw the pilot trailers on your website, and noticed you had a screening recently. How did that go?

I got a great response, full houses for every show. There is some network interest, and we're hoping to get this on as a series. I am thrilled that a well-known producer who saw The Hollywood Quad loved it and wants to be a part of it and is willing to help. This could be the culmination of years of hard work and training. If a network ordered a series of episodes, I would be able to gain more creative control over my work and would be freed from the restrictions of government disability.

I have another pilot that I wrote that doesn't have me or disability in it, and my features that I am shopping around. So, I don't have all of my eggs in one basket.

Thinking about potential roles you take as writer, actor, producer, what do you find most challenging in terms of disability issues—attitude barriers or other barriers?

One of the things I really have to push is the training. The time came and went when they'd give you a role because you are disabled. The big obstacle is the societal stereotype [about people with disabilities]. But I see the walls going down: I am a "glass half full" person. I see the light coming, the day when every show has a guy in a chair in it. I equate it with when Black people got into TV in the 60s—it took a long time for society to accept that. With talents like Diahann Carroll and Bill Cosby and a lot of others, things changed. That's why I have a real feeling that talent will break through in this situation, that people will grow to accept us because of talent.

The [higher-functioning] people with disabilities are getting most of the roles. For people with obvious disabilities, we're being accepted, but it is slower. It's not like you can just sit at a table and not have people notice that you have a disability. It is a huge part of your life. But we're starting to be seen, because we're all over the place in every aspect of life. But seeing us on TV is different.

God gave me a talent for comedy, and it's so unexpected from a quadraplegic guy. When I perform live people come in, and they go, "Oooh I thought this was a comedy, and there's a quadraplegic guy. What's up with that?" But hopefully, if I've done my job right, by the end they are laughing.

On your website, you said that your favorite roles are not written for a character with a disability. Can you talk about distinctions between having disabled characters written into plays/screenplays and getting people to think: why can'tmom be in a wheelchair, whether it was written that way or not? Why aren't we seeing people with disabilities cast in roles they play in everyday life?

The entertainment industry is about making money, so whatever position you are in, your number one priority is keeping that position. So, you are not going to take a lot of chances. My feeling is that casting directors and producers, who decide not to use people like us, are underestimating the public. They are not seeing that the public is ready for us. In fact, if a casting director recommends someone like me to the producer, and the producer goes to the network guy and he feels confident and takes a chance and puts me in a show, they are going to look fantastic. Instead of losing ratings, they might gain ratings. But they don't see that—yet.

Listening to you, I can't help but wonder about changes in public life and attitudes that will result when the veterans disabled in Iraq become more visible in communities.

Yes, we're going to have them and also the baby boomers who are hitting the 60s, and disabilities are starting to come in, so we will have potentially a huge market of people with disabilities and a wider range of people who know someone with a disability. Suddenly it will not be such an unfamiliar thing to have a guy with no legs or a guy with a brain injury next door. Then people could say to them: hey, there is someone like you on such and such a show, and he's funny or dramatic. It will inspire and teach people and make you feel like you are not such an oddball.

Most of the interviews I have done for Opening Stages have been with people working in theatre, who discussed their access issues. In your work in television, what access issues do you deal with and what changes have you seen?

When I got my first role after being an extra, I was excited to have a dressing room. Then, when they showed me my trailer I said, "That's nice, but it's right up those steps…?" So, for my dressing room I had to use the men's locker room -- not very glamorous. Last year I did a TV pilot, and they had a big room lined up and did their best to make me feel comfortable. It is a whole different world than it was 20 years ago.

TV is a young person's business, and many of the people I meet are in their 20s and have grown up with people with disabilities in school. They seem more open-minded about it. They seem to realize that being a quad isn't the most important aspect of my life. It affects everything but it's not what I am about.

See Jim's website (http://www.thehollywoodquad.com/ ) for links to his acting demos, YouTube video podcasts, and some prototype footage for his sitcom, The Hollywood Quad. top