THE FARRELLY brothers, Peter and Bobby, were enjoying the fruits of their first major cinematic success, 1998's There's Something about Mary, when they approached the board of Special Olympics. They wanted permission to film The Ringer, a story about a man who feigns an intellectual disability to gain entree into a Special Olympics meet in order to raise some quick cash. At the time the Farrellys were (perhaps still are) the gross-out kings of Hollywood, having used about every low-brow gag imaginable in Mary, and their proposed star was Johnny Knoxville, of Jackass fame. Lips pursed. Heads shook. Minds reeled at how the brothers might insult persons with intellectual disabilities.
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue
For 15 years, however, Peter had been involved in the Best Buddies program, which paired him with an autistic young man named Scott Gasbarro. "We had a ball when we were together," says Peter. "Scott made my life so much richer." The Farrellys had created an intellectually disabled character, Warren, in Mary. (The actor who portrayed him, W. Earl Brown, is not intellectually disabled.) And the Farrellys argued that they saw the humor in people with intellectual challenges. "When you're around people with disabilities, yeah, there are some tears," says Peter, 51. "But there's lots of laughs too. They're not these little saints. Some are horrible pains-in-the-ass, just like any other group of kids."
After three years of negotiating, the board and the Farrellys reached an agreement that led to the 2005 release of The Ringer. The movie does not, to be sure, stand with Citizen Kane. But it has laughs and heart and succeeds in humanizing people with intellectual disabilities, of which there are about 150 in the movie, a half dozen with meaty roles. Some reviewers questioned the movie's taste, but according to Tim Shriver, there was no great outcry. "I think I received one complaint," he says, "and that was from a parent who didn't like the portrayal of the Catholic priest."
The scene-stealer is Eddie Barbanell, an intellectually disabled 31-year-old from Coral Springs, Fla., who plays Billy DeVore, a feisty foil to Knoxville's Jeffy. The script called for Barbanell, who has Down syndrome, to initially reject Jeffy as his roommate. "You scratched my CD, you know," Barbanell says, acidly, in what became one of the movie's signature lines. When Knoxville tries to sit down at the end of the scene, Barbanell ad-libs, in a raspy Jimmy Durante voice, "That's my chair." The line broke up everyone on the set and remained in the movie.
Peter continues his involvement in Special Olympics and took his wife and two kids to the World Games in Shanghai in '07. "Even though I had a fair amount of experience with intellectually challenged people," he says, "making The Ringer was a profound experience for me. What you must understand is that people with intellectual disabilities are minorities. They don't know other kids like themselves. But you put them in a world where there are other kids like them, and their self-esteem and all those other things that are hidden come out. You see them bloom."