Braille Monitor November 1986
by Kenneth Jernigan
In the August-September, 1986, Braille Monitor we carried an article on ABC's television show "Mr. Sunshine." In one way or another most organizations and individuals related to the blindness field have expressed (either publicly or privately) opinions about this show. In the Summer, 1986, issue of AFB News the American Foundation for the Blind joins the parade.
Apparently the Foundation interviewed Jeffrey Tambor, the actor who plays the part of the blind professor, "Mr. Sunshine." Here is what the AFB News printed:
AFB Talks to "Mr. Sunshine"
by Fay Hava Jarosh
On March 28, 1986, ABC-TV set a precedent in network television viewing with a new prime time comedy series featuring, for the first time, a blind central character.
Produced by Henry Winkler/John Rich Paramount Network Television, the show stars Jeffrey Tambor. He plays Paul Stark, an ascerbic college English professor whose wit and ingenuity have brought him through many crises, including the accident that left him blind.
Tambor, who is sighted, is an accomplished actor whose 2 5-year career spans theatre, films and television, including the highly acclaimed "Hill Street Blues." He feels "Mr. Sunshine: is not about blindness as much as it is about one man's way of handling an obstacle in his life.
"Sitcoms are an integral part of our culture, and therefore it is appropriate that we feature a mainstream issue like bilndness," Tambor told AFB NEWS.
He said the depiction of Paul Stark as a witty and cantankerous character is essential to the show's point of view.
"A man could approach being blind from different perspectives--be it tragic, comic or apathetic. Stark chooses comedy and it is through his wits that he endures," Tambor said.
"The point of the show is that humor and ability to laugh at oneself are the ways to go in this life, whether or not you 've got an impairment."
Researching His Role
Tambor prepared for his role by studying and observing at the Braille Institute for the Blind in Los Angeles. Feeling "more like a voyeur than an actor " researching his role, Tambor said it was difficult to achieve an objective student mode. "I was emotionally moved by what I saw--people coping with their impairment without sentiment or pity."
Tambor was taught adaptive techniques at the Institute, such as traveling with and without a cane. Concerned about the accuracy of his physical portrayal of blindness, he reported that rehearsal periods were the most difficult sessions he had ever encountered.
When asked about some of the techniques he adopted, such as the way he moved about the set, Tambor said he did make some personal choices which may not have been "by the book."
"As an actor, I took some license in portraying Stark with his own unique personal style, something which everyone, blind or sighted has," he said.
"Mr. Sunshine" has had a profound impact on Tambor as an actor and a person.
"The intensive research period at the Institute taught me to listen in a new and more pronounced way and the encouraging outlook of the blind persons I studied inspired a more positive attitude toward life," he said. "More than anything else, 'Mr. Sunshine' prompted me to ante up my participation in life."
As frequently happens, it is hard to tell how many of the nuances of Tambor's comments the writer of the AFB article understood. Consider this passage, for instance:
"'A man could approach being blind from different perspectives--be it tragic, comic or apathetic. Stark chooses comedy and it is through his wits that he endures,' Tambor said. The point of the show is that humor and ability to laugh at oneself are the ways to go in this life, whether or not you've got an impairment.'"
Tambor says that a man could approach blindness from the perspective of being comic, apathetic, or tragic; but what he fails to say (and what the Foundation writer also fails to say is that there are other ways--more positive and, for that matter, more realistic ways. One could approach blindness from the perspective (assuming one got the right training and opportunity) of being simply one more trait in the totality of one's daily life. Blind people who laugh at themselves because of their blindness (just like fat people who make fun of their fatness or black people who make fun of their blackness) are not funny but pathetic. Of course, Mr. Sunshine can 't be simply an ordinary, realistic blind person. Otherwise there would be no drama, no conflict, no excitement--and no good salary or high ratings.
There would be no harm to it except for the damage it does to the lives of the nation 's blind. Try putting on a program like that about blacks or women, and see how far you get before the outrage and fury drive you off the air. The fact that there is not general public outrage because of "Mr. Sunshine" is as damning as any commentary one could make. It is not necessary to go beyond the name of the main character to make the point. Try naming the main character in a show about a black man "Mr. Watermelon" or "Mr. Shoeshine," and see what happens to you.
Perhaps the problem is the fact that Jeffrey Tambor got his training about what blindness is like from the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, a place which is certainly not noted for its pioneering outlook. Tambor says:
'"I was emotionally moved by what I saw--people coping with their impairment without sentiment or pity.'"
Again, the problem is with the nuances, the failure to comprehend. Properly understood and dealt with, blindness simply isn't like that. It requires no great courage to cope with the "impairment" without "sentiment or pity"--unless, of course, one is talking about the impairment imposed upon us by public attitudes--such as those being fostered by "Mr. Sunshine."
Then, there is that passage which reads: '"The intensive research period at the Institute taught me to listen in a new and more pronounced way and the encouraging outlook of the blind persons I studied inspired a more positive attitude toward life. . . . More than anything else, 'Mr. Sunshine' prompted me to ante up my participation in life.'"
If somebody wants to regard us as a source of inspiration and thinks it makes his life better, it may be all right; but not if he does it by making our lives worse--especially, if he does it so that he can get a lot of money and recognition out of it. That is not good acting. Better words would be hypocrisy and prostitution. One starts by trying to be understanding and fair about this so-called comedy, but as the message keeps sinking in and the detrimental results keep piling up, the mood changes. "Mr. Sunshine" is unadulterated trash, and what it says about blindness and blind people is an unmitigated lie. The fact that it tries to be funny simply adds grossness to it all. Let us hope that ABC has the decency to remove this throwback to the Middle Ages from the air. If they don't let us find a way to see that they do.