The compliment that Daryl Mitchell savors most these days is when people believe he’s acting the part of a man in a wheelchair.
No, that’s all too real. In his first substantive role since a motorcycle accident paralyzed him two years ago, Mitchell has brought a feisty energy to the NBC comedy “Ed,” and his character, Eli, is reaping the rewards of high-profile love story.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
“It makes me feel good that people aren’t looking at me as a disabled actor,” said Mitchell, 37, in an interview at the bowling alley on the show’s suburban New York set. “They’re looking at me as an actor.”
The Bronx-born Mitchell is a former rap artist who initially took some acting jobs, starting with the movie, “House Party,” seeking money and attention to advance his music career.
Gradually, the music receded and he became immersed in acting. Mitchell had a regular role in “Veronica’s Closet” and “The John Larroquette Show.”
Fortunately, someone witnessed the accident and help arrived quickly. When he woke up in the hospital and couldn’t move, he thought it was because he’d been sedated.
The awful truth of his injuries quickly became clear.
Mitchell brusquely began making plans to continue working, even reading scripts in the hospital. Christopher Reeve still works, he thought. So could he.
The brave face was partly an act, of course, but one that the father of three young children felt was necessary.
“When you first wake up and you try to move around and do certain things, you say to yourself, ‘How can I live like this? How can I make it happen?”’ he said. “But then you have three little kids who come to the hospital and make you do things, make you move and make you be a parent. That’s when you realize you can’t do it by yourself.”
Mitchell, his wife and family are still working through the emotional fallout.
“One thing you learn is, if your relationship is strong, this will expose it,” he said. “If your relationship is weak and troublesome, this will expose it. It will expose your strengths and weaknesses fully.”
He cultivated professional relationships while in Hollywood, and frequently attends boxing matches with Denzel Washington. Many of his friends came through for him.
Not defined by wheelchair
One contact, Viacom executive Perry Simon, called “Ed” producers Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman and asked them to meet with Mitchell.
The producers had no openings. If anything, they felt the show already had too many characters. They wondered how someone in a wheelchair would fit on a lighthearted comedy.
But Viacom owns CBS, which airs David Letterman’s “Late Show,” where Burnett is executive producer. It made political sense to take the meeting, if only as a courtesy.
Mitchell “immediately disarmed us, put us at ease and made us laugh for half an hour,” Beckerman recalled.
“I was nervous about meeting him,” he said. “I hadn’t met a lot of guys in wheelchairs and I didn’t know what I should say or shouldn’t say. The minute I met this guy, that all went away. One of the reasons I’m glad he’s on the show is that I hope he’s having the same effect on people who are watching.”
They called with a job offer before Mitchell had even arrived home from the meeting.
“What you quickly realize about Daryl is the wheelchair doesn’t define him,” Burnett said. “It’s a mode of locomotion.”
Mitchell said the producers “let me be me.” Usually, the wheelchair is tangential to the character. One poignant exception was a show that painstakingly illustrated the time and effort it took Eli simply to get ready for work in the morning, a scene that grew out of his real-life experiences.
He’s also grateful for Eli’s romance. “Ed” has forthrightly dealt with Eli’s worries about his ability to be intimate, and how Jennifer will react.
“A lot of times when they show people in my situation, they’re always going to get prostitutes because nobody wants to be with them,” he said. “We get to show that that’s not the case, that a person in a chair can be intimate, can be compassionate, can be romantic. It’s good for people to see that.”
Mitchell enjoys television and movie roles that appeal to as many people as possible. He had just finished acting in the Disney feature, “The Country Bears,” before his accident.
His goal is to be the lead actor on a prime-time network drama.
“I want it to be a drama with funny moments,” he said. “That’s what my life is right now — a drama with funny moments.”