“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” a film based on the memoir of cartoonist, trouble-maker, and disability-icon John Callahan, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19th. It’s scheduled to open in theaters nationwide on May 11th.
Callahan, who died in 2010, was a noteworthy power in American comedy. In the late 90's, his frequently clever, regularly disputable kid's shows were syndicated in more than 200 U.S. daily papers, a great accomplishment, considering the number of reader objection they received. In his eulogy, the New York Times portrayed Callahan as, "a quadriplegic, alcoholic sketch artist whose work in daily papers and magazines made irreverent, impolitic sport of people with disabilities and diseases and those who would pity and condescend to them.”
Perhaps Callahan’s most famous cartoon, from which both the film and his first memoir get their name, shows an empty wheelchair in the desert that has been come upon by a posse on horseback, one of whom says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”
The movie was directed by Gus Van Sant, whose work has received both standard and non-mainstream praise, including Good Will Hunting and My Own Private Idaho, among others. Both Van Sant and Callahan lived in Portland, Oregon, and Van Sant has been working to get this film made for a couple of decades now and initially had Robin Williams marked on to play Callahan.
In a move that is sure to cause controversy within the disability community, Callahan, who had C5-6 quadriplegia as result of a car accident, is played by the non-disabled Joaquin Phoenix. Van Sant, aware of the venom casting a nondisabled actor to play a character with a disability can unleash, argued for his choice at the Sundance Indiewire Studio, as reported on their website.
"This frequently thinks of a wide range of lead parts — who are the general population assuming the lead parts, do they have anything just the same as the part itself?" Van Sant said. "I certainly would have utilized a specific individual that was quadriplegic in the event that they were the correct on-screen character," he included, similarly as author Danny Elfman tolled in: "A huge piece of the story is before the episode, so to do that would have implied totally changing the story, since that is a noteworthy piece of the story — before and after the accident.”
It’s true that those looking for a full biopic treatment of Callahan, or even an in-depth accounting of his life with a disability will be disappointed. The film focuses narrowly on Callahan’s battle with and recovery from alcoholism, both before and after his accident.
Van Sant also argued that Callahan himself wouldn’t have wanted an actor with a disability to play him: “Honestly, if I’d suggested it to John, he would have said, ‘Fuck no.’ Because he wanted the most famous person in the world to play him, which was Robin Williams — he couldn’t wait.”
View the trailer here: Video