In this story from June 1988, the Oscar-winning actor reminds us that our actions can touch the lives of others, even when we don't know it.
I have never forgotten a strange thing that happened to me years ago in Palm Springs, California. I had sprained my ankle while learning to play tennis, and it was giving me a lot of trouble. One evening at a friend’s house I was introduced to a carpenter from a neighboring area who was said to have the gift of healing.
He put a rough hand on my taped ankle for a few minutes, then lifted it. The pain was gone and the bandage had loosened. I walked around the room. No doubt about it, the sprain was healed. I was amazed, and in my gratitude, as tactfully as I could, I offered him money. He looked as though he could use it.
“Oh, no,” he said politely, “no money for a gift so freely given to me by God. And anyway, I’m made rich by what I give.”
That remark stayed with me, and never more forcefully than some 20 years later when I portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. That play is about the young FDR’s struggle with polio. It begins in 1921 when he first contracted the disease and ends in 1924 when he took 10 agonizing steps from wheelchair to podium to deliver the nominating speech for Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden. Those steps publically marked his triumph over his affliction.
I had to bring what skill I had to that moment. After a matinee in the pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia, I was leaving the theater through the orchestra when in the rear of the theater I saw a stocky young man still sitting in an aisle seat. I asked him if he was all right. He said, “I’m just waiting for everyone to leave. I’m going to try ten steps.”
I noticed leg braces under the bottom of his pants cuffs. He was a victim of polio. Like FDR.
Suddenly he pressed hard on the arms of his seat, pushed himself up, grabbed the railing behind the seat, then wobbled on his nearly lifeless legs. Slowly, with great pain, he took one step, then another, and counted aloud, “Three!… Four!…” until he yelled, “Ten!”
“So you see,” he said, “what your performance meant to me.” An older man entered pushing a wheelchair, which he hastily brought for my polio-stricken friend. On their way out, the young man waved a farewell. “You have a great gift, Mr. Bellamy. Thank you.”
From that day on I had an entirely new concept of the actor’s talent. It is a gift. The words of the carpenter echoed in my head: “I’m made rich by what I give.”
At that moment I never felt richer.
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