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In life, film, quadriplegic welcomes pioneering roles

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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BRAINTREE — When Danny Murphy rolled into Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital this fall, heads turned as people recognized him from his supporting roles in the Farrelly brothers’ slapstick raunchy comedies “Kingpin,’’ “There’s Something About Mary,’’ and “Me, Myself and Irene.’’

Few people knew, though, that off-screen Murphy played the lead in the hospital’s story: He was its first patient 35 years ago, a 19-year-old who had broken his neck in a diving accident just nine months earlier.

And for several weeks, Murphy was the only patient, with a full staff at his beck and call.

“He was the star,’’ said Linda Savage, one of three original employees still working at the hospital, now as executive assistant to the chief executive officer.

Back then, Murphy — now 55, silver-haired, tan, and wiry with intense blue eyes and an easy smile — had no idea he’d end up in the movies, or a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. He had just finished his freshman year at Stonehill College and was spending the summer on Cape Cod working at the Country Club at New Seabury.

He and some friends had sailed to Martha’s Vineyard on their day off, and Murphy was telling newcomer Peter Farrelly about the ritual of diving from pylons on shore into Oak Bluffs Harbor. Farrelly was all set to dive into the water, when Murphy claimed seniority and went first.

“When I dove in, it felt like nothing had happened,’’ Murphy said. “But then I saw a big fish come by, and I realized it was my right arm and I couldn’t feel it. That’s when I realized I had a little bit of a problem.’’

Murphy’s friends didn’t know he was in trouble, until a woman on the dock yelled that he’d been in the water facedown an awfully long time and made them jump in to check. “ I don’t know who she was, but that lady probably saved my life,’’ Murphy said.

He vaguely remembers police throwing him in the back of a car and rushing him to a hospital, and then a helicopter taking him to Mass. General in Boston. He’d broken his neck, injured his spinal cord, and was paralyzed from the chest down.

He was in the hospital for nine months — two of them in traction, another month in a rotisserie-like, rotating contraption, and then a body cast. He wanted to go back to college, but needed to get stronger. His parents knew the owners of the new Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital, so that’s where he went next.

“It was a perfect match,’’ Murphy said. “It was so great to go from a big hospital to this brand new place that wasn’t even totally finished yet.’’

He remembers wandering in his wheelchair through empty halls, and meeting his friends outside in the parking lot for “cocktail hour’’ — activities that quickly led to the creation of new rules, he said. The rules were made for him, but became the code for all patients at the hospital.

“I have vivid memories of watching the Red Sox games on TV and people coming up to me asking what I needed. I felt like a king. It was like going to the Braintree resort and spa.

“When someone else finally did come, I felt like I had lost something . . . I had to share the wealth,’’ he said.

That wealth included therapists who not only helped him rebuild his strength — he’d been an athlete, golfing and playing hockey at Boston Latin — but also reassured him that he’d be able to lead a normal life.

“When I was injured the protocol was to tell someone with an injury like mine that you will never walk again, but my parents wouldn’t let them tell me that. My mother, bless her heart, didn’t think it was fair for a 19-year-old to get that message. To this day I thank her,’’ Murphy said. “I still don’t accept it. I’m in positive denial.’’

Murphy went on to graduate from college, get married, and get corporate jobs with Liberty Mutual and Lotus. He moved to Florida to escape the New England winters, got divorced, developed a passion for adapted sailing, and started working for a company that helped businesses comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

His acting career started completely by accident.

Farrelly and his brother Bobby had made the movie “Dumb and Dumber’’ and invited Murphy to the East Coast premiere. When Murphy gave them grief for not including an actor in a wheelchair, Peter Farrelly wrote a part for Murphy into the next film, “Kingpin.’’

“First time I ever acted in my life, I’m doing a scene with Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson,’’ Murphy said, wonder still echoing in his voice. “I was 40 years old, and it reminded me of Labor Day weekend on the Cape when you have to go back to school and you’re hoping the van won’t come because it’s just so much fun.’’

Murphy moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in show business, appearing in all of the Farrellys’ films and numerous television shows and theater productions. Disturbed by the lack of roles for actors with disabilities, he became active in the actors’ union as an advocate for change.

“I’ve been in L.A. for 11 years, figuring out how to break barriers for people with disabilities,’’ he said. “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the US, but in speaking roles [in film and television] they’re half of 1 percent. It’s ridiculous.’’

Frustrated by the industry, Murphy moved back East this fall, staying with his mother on the Cape and reassessing his options. He needed a local doctor, and that’s how he ended up back at Braintree Rehab a few weeks ago.

He could barely recognize the place — a new wing had added an airy lobby, as well as two pools and a gym with the latest in robotic and computer-driven equipment, including a machine that lifts people onto a treadmill for simulated walking and exercise bikes driven by electrically-stimulated muscles.

The hospital now has 187 beds, up from the original 166, and discharges about 2,100 patients a year, up from about 99 in the first few years, said CEO Randy Doherty. The hospital has a branch in Natick and eight outpatient clinics across the state.

The hospital’s focus has shifted toward people with more complex neurological conditions, Doherty said. Basic therapy remains the same, although technology has helped patients gain more independence more quickly, staff said.

Murphy was pleased that the receptionist who greeted him had a disability: “They’re walking the walk, no pun intended,’’ he said.

He didn’t realize it was the hospital’s 35th anniversary, nor did he know that the hospital staff wanted to find him to help celebrate. So he wasn’t prepared for the fuss that ensued when he casually mentioned he’d been the first patient at the hospital.

Linda Savage rushed from her office to give him a hug.

“He was the star,’’ she said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

Danny Murphy gave director Peter Farrelly (right) grief for not including an actor in a wheelchair in his movie “Dumb and Dumber.” So Farrelly wrote a part for Murphy — a longtime friend — into his next film, “Kingpin.”
‘First time I ever acted in my life, I’m doing a scene with Bill Murray (left) and Woody Harrelson. I was 40 years old, and it reminded me
of Labor Day weekend on the Cape when you have to go back to school and you’re hoping the van won’t come because it’s just so much fun.’