CSI star Robert David Hall wanted to be Neil Young, or at least a more musically gifted version of himself. But a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler forced the amputation of both his legs and started a chain of events that, surprisingly, led him to acting. All it took was someone saying he “can’t be an actor now.”
He’s since become one of the most prominent actors with a disability working today, having appeared in box-office hits Class Action and Starship Troopers, with television roles on West Wing, Beverly Hills 90210, L.A. Law, The Practice and Life Goes On. Hall’s work as national chairman of the Screen Actors Guild’s Performers with Disabilities Caucus has helped fellow actors find a voice in an otherwise unsympathetic casting industry. He’s been lauded by the United Nations and California state leaders for his awareness efforts. And he recently fulfilled a dream 50 years in the making by releasing his debut album, Things They Don’t Teach You in School.
Fans of the 10-year-running CBS crime drama know Hall as Dr. Al Robbins, the Las Vegas chief medical examiner who intelligently banters about blues music with his colleagues and occasionally croons while working in the morgue. It turns out there’s a story behind his voice. Hall spent his 20s thrashing out ’60s surf music for several bands in California. On a whim, he took an acting class at UCLA that later inspired him to seek a different kind of stage.
“I got caught up in thinking, ‘I’ll never be Neil Young or James Taylor,’ ” Hall tells SUCCESS from his Los Angeles-area home, so he broadened his creative efforts. “You forget you’re the only you out there. Remember, we’re supposed to learn from other people, not quit because of them.”
His retired military father disapproved of Hall’s creative pursuits, but Hall forged on, even skipping the law school into which he’d been accepted. A man of many trades, he worked early mornings as a Los Angeles disc jockey, mid-days as an advertising copywriter, afternoons doing voiceover work for commercials and evenings as a musician, while also occasionally pursuing acting roles.
Then, on July 10, 1978, when he was 30, Hall’s life took a cataclysmic turn. Early that morning, an 18-wheel truck barreled into his car, igniting the gas tank. Hall sustained burns over 65 percent of his body and had to have both legs amputated. “I spent eight very gloomy months recovering in the burn unit,” he says. After the accident, people told him he couldn’t be an actor. “But I’m half Irish and stubborn, and I just didn’t like being told I couldn’t do things,” Hall says. Although he had thought about acting since his college class, he hadn’t really made it a priority. Now, determination to disprove the naysayers fueled his fire.
“After the accident, I realized I had more strength than I knew,” Hall says. “I was forced to face up to reality, but facing such a reality helped me face any fears I had of taking risks.”
Breaking into Hollywood with a serious disability was a big risk prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The only jobs offered to me were ‘the angry cripple’ or the ‘superhuman disabled guy,’ but I just kept at it,” Hall says.
His breakthrough role was playing a burn survivor in director Michael Apted’s Class Action, which also featured Laurence Fishburn, who would, years later, join him on CSI. That role led to guest-starring roles in West Wing, Brooklyn South, Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven, and reoccurring roles on L.A. Law, Family Law, The Practice and others.
Walking comfortably today on two prosthetic limbs with barely a noticeable limp, Hall was a pioneer for actors with disabilities and a beacon of awareness for producers and casting directors who hadn’t otherwise considered people with disabilities for various roles. He resents the stereotypical roles and the overly sentimental stories about how sad it is to be injured or have a disease. “I hate when the media shows someone in a wheelchair with sappy music behind,” Hall says. “It’s time to get rid of the labels. And I think that’s finally happening. Success can be measured in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t have to be limited by disability.” The Screen Actors Guild says people with disabilities represent the nation’s largest minority. And despite 20 percent of Americans ages 5-64 living with some type of disability, the group is represented by less than 2 percent of the characters on television. That’s why Hall says people with disabilities need a positive voice and image.
“Now, understand, in Hollywood there are no guarantees,” Hall says. “All I’m trying to do is create awareness so that producers and casting directors include disability in their roles. The role of a mother could be played by someone in the range from a young-looking 28-year-old woman, to a maternal looking brunette mother, to a beautiful woman in a wheelchair. I’m just saying, broaden your expectations of who can play a role and give them a shot at it. And then cast the best person for the role.”
Hall has played many roles in his life, but now 62, he’s reprising the role he first played—music lover and musician. Growing up, Hall was taken with the twangy sound of singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He recently put his twang to use in his debut album, released in June.
In the title track, Hall, in a voice reminiscent of Willie Nelson, sings about life lessons not learned in a classroom. “I’ve learned the hard way, the good way,” he says. Thoughts about hardship and disability are missing from his lyrics. Instead, he sings blues songs about love found and lost, and how, on some nights, he feels “like listening to Hank Williams.”
“Music was the first art form I ever had,” he says. “I know that being on this hugely rated TV show has given me a platform, but as far as music is concerned, I think I can stand—no pun intended—on my own two feet.”
Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for SUCCESS.com. Before joining SUCCESS magazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.