Callahan and Me
Gary Karp on the movie and the artist
Story by Gary Karp
In 1999 I met John Callahan, the brilliant, wonderfully sick-minded cartoonist who also happened to be quadriplegic. He liked to tell people he had been bitten in the neck by a shark (or some other such outrageous invention), rather than the true story of the drunk driving accident which put him head first through a windshield inJuly of 1972—just short of a year before I broke my back when I fell out of a tree.
I was asked to profile him for New Mobility Magazine and went to his house in Portland, Oregon, where we circled around each other in our wheelchairs in his living room as my mini-cassette recorder took it all in. He was plainly outspoken and I enjoyed and admired the clarity and originality of his world view, despite the occasional misogyny and rightist comments. I was there as a journalist, not to debate him. I saw him as an artist who could only do what he did by being on the edge. And I liked him.
Contrary to my normal practice, I agreed to let him read the draft, for which I had removed a considerable number of f-words from the transcript. When he called to tell me he liked the piece, he asked, “…but can you take out some of the ‘f**ks’?” I took some delight in telling him that I already had (but, yes, I took out some more).
I’ll leave it to you to explore the truly perverted stuff he drew (he demonstrated his two-fisted style of holding a pencil for me, the source of his shaky-lined drawing style), but I believe that his disability-themed cartoons hit the mark better than anyone ever had or will. Two detached heads on blocks of wood with casters, begging on a city street, one of them wearing an eye patch. The other says to him, “People like you are an inspiration to me.” Bam!
John was very proud that his autobiography, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” had been optioned by and was to star Robin Williams. Sadly, he never got to see that happen. Williams never got it done, and John died in 2010. Now, the just-released biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix has stirred up a lot of angry voices in the disability community because an actual actor with quadriplegia doesn’t play the lead role. Here’s my take:
I very much share the disappointment that more actors with disabilities are not working, and that more characters with disabilities are not written for film, television and theater. I share the disappointment that the ones we do see are in the likes of the truly horrible “Me Before You.” Talented folks with disabilities can’t possibly evolve in their craft—much less get recognized as stars— if they don’t get to work with the best directors, casts, and production crews. At least we have Peter Dinklage as a case in point. It’s a start.
On the other hand, most film producers feel safer investing in films with a star that will draw a paying audience. So, we have the Catch-22 that they need actors with fans, but we’ll never have bankable stars with disabilities if they won’t cast them. But I’m happy to see that John’s movie has been made. He was thrilled by the prospect of being played by Robin Williams, an actor with quadriplegia was apparently not what mattered to him.
For my book, “From There To Here: Stories of Adjustment to Spinal Cord Injury,” John did me the honor of writing this cover testimonial: “I emerged grateful for the bone crushing honesty of these stories. A far cry from Hollywood’s disability-of-the-week victim movies!”
He clearly cared about disability stories being told properly. Not having seen the movie yet as of this writing, I’m hoping it did a good job meeting his standard of honesty and that the Callahan I knew will be made reasonably visible to the world. For starters, they better have him using the f-word in proper proportion to reality.