Actor, Advocate for people with disabilities Santa Ana College, California
Robert David Hall is not a doctor but he plays one on TV, namely Dr. Albert Robbins, the quirky coroner on the CBS megahit, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. If you've investigated CSI, you may remember him from episodes of West Wing, The Practice, L.A. Law, Superman, Touched by an Angel, or in the feature films The Negotiator, Starship Troopers, and Class Action. Robert David Hall falls into one of the happiest categories of man: a working actor.
Hall also belongs to an even more exclusive category: a working actor with a disability. He qualified for admission nearly 30 years ago after a serious automobile accident caused him to lose both of his legs but may laid the groundwork for future achievements. "Sometimes when you have these Waterloo moments, people say you can't do this and you can't do that," said Hall. "But I'm half Irish and stubborn, and I just didn't like being told I couldn't do things. Being told that acting was not a smart career choice for a person with a disability had a lot to do with any success I've had in later life."
Growing up in Navy family that lived in various places around the country, Hall aspired to be a musician, not an actor. After a less-than-stellar year at UCLA, he enrolled at Santa Ana College in Santa Ana, California, worked on the school paper, and had at least one life-changing experience. "I showed up a few minutes late for the final exam in English and the teacher, Mr. Milnes, said, 'Nice of you to drop by,'—and gave me an F," said Hall. "But now I thank that guy because I've never been late to a job or an audition in my life."
Back at UCLA, he dabbled in acting while earning a degree in English literature and theater but spent most of post-college years 20s playing guitar and traveling. He had already turned 30 when an 18-wheeler smashed into his car, causing his gas tank to burst into flames. "I spent eight months off and on in an Orange County burn ward, and I was in a wheelchair for a year until I learned to walk on artificial legs," said Hall. "I had been working in radio part-time, and radio seemed like a good place to be."
Although he landed a good job at a highly rated L.A. station, he couldn't resist an invitation from another actor with a disability to attend an audition. "I went with him to an audition, and I was hooked," said Hall.
Hall's first paid acting gig was on a peoples' court-type TV show called The Judge. "I was a bitter, angry, disabled tenant in a slum building," Hall recalled. "The judge had to order the bailiff to drag me screaming in my wheelchair out of the courtroom."
But subsequent roles were not forthcoming. "It was hard to get an agent, impossible to get a manager, and most of the interviews would be for a sappy disabled role—the bitter veteran or super-heroic disabled guy," said Hall.
After extensive training under acting coach Gordon Hunt, father of actress Helen Hunt, Hall hit stride in the early '90s, making innumerable appearances on TV and in films. One project provided particular satisfaction: Reservoirs of Strength, a film about burn victims. "That movie was shown for ten years to people in burn wards, and even today I get letters from seriously burned people who watched that movie in the hospital," said Hall.
Today, Hall spends much of his CSI downtime working on behalf of the disabled. He serves on the board of directors of the National Organization on Disability and is national chair of the Performers with Disabilities Caucus for SAG (Screen Actors Guild), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and Actor's Equity. "What we're trying to do is get the studios and networks and producers to wise up to the fact that there's a lot of talent out there," said Hall. "According to a UCLA study, 54 million people in America have disabilities, but on television less than one-half of one percent of all speaking parts are spoken by people with disabilities. There's something really skewed about that."
Contemplating his CSI afterlife, Hall plans to continue working and continue fighting. "I would like to act until I'm in my 90s," said Hall. "And because of CSI I will always have a platform to speak about things that matter to me—disability issues, amputation issues, burn survivor issues. They're important to me because they're personal."