By Osiris Gomez, Contributor
I speak for many in my generation when I say there is significant buzz around UB’s campus surrounding America’s edgiest TV series Breaking Bad. It’s not your American Idol, your Seinfeld, and your Grey’s Anatomy. It defies everything. That might be why the major syndicates, ABC, NBC, or FOX wanted nothing to do with it. But people love this show. Despite airing on AMC, it has attracted a huge following from fans and critics alike. Since its creation by Vince Gilligan in 2008, Bad has won six Emmy awards. And it continues to take America by storm with the premiere of its fifth season earlier this month.
Bad centers around Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and family man, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bored and uninspired by the American Dream, White’s world is suddenly rocked upon a dreadful discovery. After coughing up blood and collapsing, he learns from his doctor that he is terminally ill with Stage III lung cancer. With nothing to lose, he moves to start a secret robust fund to ensure the livelihood of his wife and teenage son Walter Jr., who has cerebral palsy. But with modest middle class means, he must think beyond the law. White uses his brilliant mind for chemistry to manufacture the highest grade methamphetamine, (aka crystal meth), on the illicit market, and embarks on a path of crime and peril. Bad captures his personal transformation: learning on-the-fly how to live a double life to maintain a stable nuclear family, and navigating nebulous and ever-changing definitions of morality.
In the same way the show transcends the norm, actor RJ Mitte, (who plays Walt’s beloved son Walter Jr.), defies latent boundaries in the entertainment industry. Like his character in Bad, Mitte has a mild form of cerebral palsy. And where the spunky, charismatic Walt Jr. doesn’t pity himself, Mitte doesn’t either. He just wants to be treated like everybody else. “That’s precisely how RJ wants to be viewed…we never wanted him to think he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted in life…he just hopes other people with disabilities set their goals high. He’s a role model. I’m very proud of him,” said RJ’s mother Dyna in an interview. RJ loved the concept of Breaking Bad when he first read the script: “It was a phenomenal script…my character has a disability, but that’s not his crutch. He has a life like everyone else, and he’s just trying to get through it.”
Mitte’s disability doesn’t compromise or downgrade his capacity and skill as an actor either. Actor Bryan Cranston, (who plays the role of Walter Sr.), spoke about Mitte’s ability in 2008: “He brings a sensibility to the work. There was an ad-libbed scene in the pilot where he threw out a line. I was nicely surprised. He’s got very good instincts.”
It was serendipitous for RJ when he got his first big break in Hollywood. He moved to Hollywood in 2006, when his sister was recruited by a talent agent back in the family’s home state of Louisiana. But where his sister Lacianne was too young for her promising future in print and commercial ads, talent manager Addison Witt found RJ to be actor material. He never thought he would make it big as an actor, but seized the opportunity when it came. “For many actors, the perfect role comes along. Mine came along quickly,” R.J. said.
Creator Vince Gilligan wrote the part of Walter Jr. in memory of a deceased friend who was disabled of his from college. “What I love about RJ is he’s like his character: He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s a teenager who just happens to have cerebral palsy.”
RJ is doing big things aside from Breaking Bad as well. He is the executive producer of a forthcoming documentary called Vanished: The Tara Calico Story. It is the real story of Tara Calico, a New Mexico teen who went missing at 19. Mitte, friend of Tara’s sister Michele, and head writer Melinda Esquibel hope that someone might come forward with the location of her body.
He has also appeared in the popular hit show Hannah Montana, played a leading role in a short film called Stump, and a forthcoming thriller film titled House of Last Things scheduled to release in theaters later this year.
Not only is Mitte a rising acting and producing star with a bright future, he is also an activist for the rights of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. He recently became the lead spokesman for I AM PWD, (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers With Disabilities). This campaign aims to demolish long-standing barriers for performers with disabilities. RJ told interviewer Tina Calabro: “About twenty percent of people have disabilities, but only about one percent of speaking parts in television portray disability…of those that do exist, far too many roles in television and film are conceived in stereotypical and even damaging ways. When a person with disability is featured, it’s usually a stereotype—the angry person, the victim or the helpless person who becomes a hero.”
I AM PWD has held summits with some of Hollywood’s major producers, talent managers, and directors. What’s refreshing to note is that progress has been made. Screen Actor Guild director Adam Moore, who is spearheading the campaign, spoke of the campaign’s effectiveness: “More actors are getting parts, more parts are being written, more minds are changed. We know we are helping because we get more phone calls for help before casting than complaints afterward.”
At 19, RJ Mitte is unapologetic, fearless, and ambitious—making him the perfect fit for a role in which he is the son of a man with nothing to lose and a world to conquer. And nobody is holding his hand. He is taking the industry by storm. He urges people with disabilities everywhere not to settle for anything less than the best. “You can do anything if you set goals,” Mitt told interviewer Gary Strauss. “You just have to push yourself.”
Gary Strauss (February 20, 2008). “For teen star of ‘Breaking Bad,’ real-life disability is no obstacle”. USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2008-02-20-breaking-bad-mitte_N.htm. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
“Tara Calico: Documentary to be made about missing New Mexico teen.” http://www.missingpersonsofamerica.com/2011/10/tara-calico-documentary-to-be-made.html. October 14, 2011.
Tina Calabro. July 3, 2012. http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/ae/tv-radio/campaign-pushes-for-more-roles-for-disabled-actors-238191/.