Real Life Inspires Son With SMA on ‘Ordinary Joe’ TV Show

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by Hawken Miller |

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John Gluck in episode six of the show "Ordinary Joe." (Photo by Fernando Decillis/NBC)

One of NBC’s newest TV shows, “Ordinary Joe,” is making a mark in the spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) community for including a character with the disease.

The drama series follows protagonist Joe Kimbreau, played by James Wolk, through three separate realities stemming from a single decision he made after graduating from college. Co-creator Garrett Lerner wanted to include a character that related to his own life; his son Zeke, 21, has SMA type 2.

And that’s how the three versions of Joe’s son with SMA come in, all played by John Gluck.

The character that gets the most screen time is Christopher in the storyline where Joe is a nurse and full-time father dealing with a potential divorce. In another universe, Zeke is the child with SMA put up for adoption and Joe, now a rock star, has to track him down 10 years later. In the third and final reality, Joe is a police officer who doesn’t know that Gluck’s character, now named Lucas, is his son.

The series’ initial creator, Matt Reeves, wrote the script more than a decade ago. When Lerner and co-creator Russel Friend decided to take up the project, he told them the show wouldn’t work unless they used their personal experiences as material.

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“We poured a lot of ourselves into it,” Lerner said. “There was a son character in the original script and giving him SMA allowed me to write from a much more personal lens. It’s a very personal human show.”

John Gluck as Christopher with James Wolk as Joe Kimbreau in episode six of “Ordinary Joe.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/NBC)

Gluck, 13, said in a phone interview with SMA News Today that he’s excited to contribute to an industry that traditionally has poor representation of people with disabilities. Despite efforts at diversity, the number of regular TV characters with a disability was 3.5% in 2020–21, according to a GLAAD report, far below the 26% of Americans estimated to be living with a disability.

“I hadn’t seen a lot of representation in the stuff I watch,” said Gluck, who has collagen VI muscular dystrophy, also known as Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, that requires him to use a wheelchair and has similarities to SMA. “For me to actually get to be one of the first authentic disability representations on TV a lot of people will see is incredible.”

Lerner, an executive producer on shows such as “House” and “Altered Carbon,” found out about Zeke’s SMA when his son was 14 months old. Twenty years ago there was barely any information about SMA, let alone treatments, but Lerner said things are getting better. Zeke has been treated with Spinraza (nusinersen), by Biogen, since shortly after its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2016.

Lerner watches the series’ episodes — which air at 10 p.m. ET on Mondays — with Zeke every week and is reminded of how having someone on TV who looks like his son can help to improve society’s view of the disabled community.

“To show proper representation was very important to me, but also just to get people to talk and remove some of the mystery of it all,” Lerner said. “It’s a lot easier when it’s discussed and normalized and people get to see it and talk about it. It’s not scary; it is what it is.”

It’s fallen on Gluck to bring his character to life. This is the 13-year-old’s first paid acting appearance, having only made mini-movies with his personal attendants starting in second grade.

Gluck describes Christopher as “free-spirited” and has an easy relationship with other characters on the show. An aspiring musician, Gluck was floored when he got a chance to sing on the show.

His mother, Jennifer Gluck, said that on face value it seems 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. Still, he’s 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.”

Lerner knew from the beginning that he wanted to cast someone with an actual disability, not simply have an actor learn how 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 to the top three finalists, and it was his interaction and improvisation with the show’s star, Wolk, over Zoom that sealed the deal for the “Ordinary Joe” team.

“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.”

What surprised Lerner about the process was understanding how 20th Television, rebranded last year from 20th Century Fox Television, would be with adding a person with a disability and accommodating Gluck. Lerner said the company went to great lengths to ensure Gluck’s trailer was accessible.

“I’ve been blown away by how little I’ve had to fight,” Lerner said.

Lerner said he’s written about SMA before, but writing it from the point of view of someone with the condition required extra assistance. He called in Shane Burcaw, a well-known writer, motivational speaker, YouTuber, and disability advocate to consult on the script and its portrayal of a person with SMA.

“I hope that the community enjoys the show and I hope they feel represented well,” Lerner said. “I feel like there’s a learning curve to getting it right [writing about SMA for TV]. And I’m hoping that I’m nearing the end of that curve, and I am getting it right this time and hopefully make it great.”