‘Ordinary Joe’ Actor With MD Brings Life to TV Character With Disability

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by Hawken Miller |

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John Gluck as Christopher in episode 4 of "Ordinary Joe." (Photo by Fernando Decillis/NBC)

The show’s name may be “Ordinary Joe,” but this NBC drama series is proving extraordinary for its authentic depiction of a character with a disability, portrayed by John Gluck, 13, who has collagen VI muscular dystrophy.

The show follows Joe Kimbreau, played by actor James Wolk, in three different dimensions based on one decision he made after college graduation. Gluck plays Joe’s 9-year-old son, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) — which has similarities with Gluck’s type of muscular dystrophy — in each universe.

Gluck’s character has SMA in all three versions of reality. His character Christopher gets the most screen time, in the storyline where Joe becomes a nurse and is a full-time father dealing with a potential divorce. In another universe, in which the child with SMA, Zeke, is put up for adoption, Joe, now a rock star, has to track him down years later. And in the third reality, Joe is a police officer who doesn’t know that Gluck’s character, named Lucas, is his son.

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Gluck is excited to be able to contribute to an industry that traditionally has poor representation of people with disabilities. While it has improved over the years, the percentage of series regulars with a disability, according to a 2020 GLAAD report, was 3.5%, compared with real-world estimates of 26% of Americans living with a disability.

John Gluck, left, as Christopher with James Wolk as Joe Kimbreau in episode eight of “Ordinary Joe.” (Photo by Matt Miller/NBC)

“I hadn’t seen a lot of representation in the stuff I watch,” said Gluck, whose disease requires him to use a wheelchair. “For me to actually get to be one of the first authentic disability representations on TV a lot of people will see is incredible.”

Gluck describes his character Christopher as “free-spirited,” with an easy relationship with other characters, especially Joe. As an aspiring musician, Gluck was floored when he got a chance to sing on the show.

“[Christopher and Joe] are best friends, and they do everything together,” Gluck said. “And Christopher doesn’t want to see his world come crashing down because his parents are thinking of getting a divorce.”

This is the 13-year-old’s first paid acting appearance. He made short movies with his personal attendants starting in second grade, and he also appeared in some local plays. But “Ordinary Joe” is a big break for the young actor.

“It’s really exciting to see it all come together,” Gluck said. “Ever since reading the pilot script, I knew this was going to be a great show, and I just love the raw emotion.”

From his mother Jennifer Gluck’s perspective, there’s a lot of activities Gluck can’t do that other children can, like play team sports, ride a bike, or romp with friends, but he’s nonetheless been able to find his calling.

“It’s amazing because this is something he can do. And he can do really well,” she said. “Just getting to do it is a thrill for him. Therefore, it’s like a thrill for me.”

Show co-creator Garrett Lerner, who has a son Zeke, 21, with SMA type 2, knew from the beginning he wanted to cast someone with an actual disability, not simply have an actor learn to use a wheelchair. He solicited auditions from children across the nation through the SMA and social media community and ended up with an estimated 60 to 80 responses.

Gluck quickly shot up to the top three finalists, and his interaction and improvisation with the show’s star, Wolk, over Zoom sealed the deal for the “Ordinary Joe” team. Sometimes actors perform beyond the script, and it falls on their fellow actor to think on their feet.

“That’s so hard for a child and someone who’s never acted before,” Lerner said. “John was an absolute natural, and he was just riffing and having fun. It’s so obvious this kid is a star.”

Gluck is also using his newfound fame — his show gets over 2 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen — to raise money for causes that he cares about.

Gluck has signed up for Cameo, an app that allows celebrities to send video messages to individuals for a fee. To get a personal message from Gluck, individuals pay $10 and businesses $100. All those funds will be split between CureSMA and CureCMD.

Beyond improving the inclusion of those with disabilities in film and helping find a cure for SMA and his own condition, Gluck is focusing on the job at hand and relishing the opportunity to prove himself on one of the world’s biggest stages.

“Christopher has such a great relationship with all of the characters that he’s around, and I just love bringing that to life,” Gluck said.