The very time I became aware of autism, what it was and how it manifests was when I was in rehearsal for the 1st National tour of "The Who's Tommy". You see the character of "Tommy" was a high functioning autistic child who becomes a rock star. The creative team had professionals come in and tell us all about it, so that onstage our relationship with Tommy would be authentic and real.
About a year ago, I was chatting with my old friend Jonathan Freeman. He began telling me about a book by Ron Suskind called Life Animated and about his kid named Owen who was autistic. He revealed that Owen broke out of his autistic prison through watching Disney animated films. Now, this was fascinating, because both Jonathan and myself have a Disney connection. I played Shenzi in Los Angeles production of "The Lion King" for three years and Jonathan is the voice of "Jafar" in the Disney animated feature "Aladdin" and performs this role eight times a week currently on Broadway.
As life works, while at Sundance 2016, I found out Owen Suskind is now the subject of a documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams. When I tell you, I spent 90 minutes doing the ugly cry while trying to laugh...I really do not exaggerate!
At three-years old, Owen Suskind began speaking gibberish. After taking him to numerous medical professionals, he was diagnosed autistic. For those of you who don't know what that means, it simply means that these kids have a brain that is overly stimulated. They are brutally honest and don't know what lying or being polite is. They simply live in the moment...whatever that moment happens to be.
After one year of complete silence while watching "The Little Mermaid", Owen uttered what his parents Cornelia and Ron understood as "juicer voss". Owen was trying to say "just your voice" ( a line from the character Ursula). Now, as a 23-year old adult, Owen has transitioned into adult assisted living, had his heart-broken for the first time and secured employment at a local movie theater.
Life, Animated is one of the most inspiring, heartwarming and heartbreaking films I have seen in quite some time. It was truly a reality check. It reminded me that just when you think your life sucks, there is always someone else who has it just a little harder.
I wonder what Walt Disney would think about his films being the catalyst for a child who most people wrote off and were ready to throw in the towel on. Ron and Cornelia Suskind and their other son Walter NEVER gave up on Owen and continue to make his life as normal and easy-going as possible.
While saying goodbye to Jonathan, Owen and his family popped by and when we asked if he was tired of being a movie star, he simply replied "Yes, it will be nice to get back to me". One of my favorite moments of the film was having Gilbert Godfried pop by Owens' Disney Club and do a live reading of Aladdin for all the members along with Jonathan.
Thank you Jonathan for bringing Owen and his beautiful family to my attention. You and them have TRULY changed my life and mindset forever.
Life Animated opened in theaters on July 1st and remember you heard it here first...it will definitely be on the short list for the Oscars in 2017.