By Marc D. Allan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Brad Cohen always makes his presence felt. Sometimes it's because of his involuntary verbal tics, or the puffs of air he blows, which can make a phone conversation sound like it's taking place in a wind storm.
Those are the result of Tourette's syndrome, which Cohen has called his "constant companion" since early childhood.
But his relentlessly upbeat approach to life is what gets him noticed. His story is chronicled in "Front of the Class," a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie on CBS that follows him from being a teased, misunderstood youngster to achieving his dream: becoming a teacher.
"I see this movie as a celebration," said Cohen, 34, who now works in staff development -- teaching the teachers -- at Tritt Elementary School in Cobb County, Ga. "I'm the voice for so many people who don't have a voice. I'm able to speak up for those people."
In 1997, Cohen was named Georgia's First Class Teacher of the Year. In 2006, his book, "Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had," earned him a guest spot on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
His life might have continued quietly after that, but in 2007 he and Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics, spoke at a diversity conference for high school students in Connecticut. After Shriver delivered his speech, Cohen took the microphone.
The audience "was laughing, then crying, then laughing, then crying, then cheering," Shriver said. "And at the end, they gave him a huge standing ovation."
When they rode to the airport afterward, Shriver suggested to Cohen that his story would make a meaningful film. Cohen agreed, and a year and a half later, executive producer Shriver and his team wrapped production on the movie. (Shriver, a Chevy Chase resident and son of 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate R. Sargent Shriver, described the movie business as "a hobby of mine." He's credited as a producer on "Amistad" and "The Ringer.")
Cohen had gone into the project with two reservations. One was that he wanted the movie to be truthful -- and it is, he said, although some details are sped up. In real life, for example, he met his wife four years ago; in the movie, he met Nancy in 1996.
The second concern was that he feared Hollywood "would take the Tourette's syndrome part and turn it into a monster."
"I set pretty high expectations for myself," he said, "and I thought that whoever plays me won't do a very good job, I wouldn't be impressed and I wouldn't be happy. But the reality is, the exact opposite happened."
Not that he was thrilled initially with the choice of newcomer Jimmy Wolk to portray him as an adult. "At first, I was a little upset," Cohen acknowledged. "I was happy for my mom -- Patricia Heaton plays her; she's great. Treat Williams is awesome [as Brad's dad]. But I had Jimmy Wolk and I was like, 'What?' "
Cohen exhaled, though, when he saw the effort Wolk (and Dominic Scott Kay, who plays 12-year-old Brad) made to re-create his vocal tics, jerking neck, twitching eyes and knocking knees. Shriver also marveled at Wolk's performance, saying, "I think this is the introduction of a star."
Wolk, 23, a 2007 graduate of the University of Michigan, was living in New York when he got the call to audition.
"I think I beat out a bunch of good people," he said. "I didn't get any names or addresses, but the way this industry works, I'm sure a bunch of great people went out for this."
He embraced the story, particularly Cohen's optimism in the face of almost constant rejection. "It mobilized my emotions, which makes it so much easier to act," Wolk said. "When you feel moved by the story, you want to tell that story."
And those involved with "Front of the Class" want viewers to take away a lesson. Wolk said he'd like to see people with Tourette's become more confident about themselves. Shriver hopes viewers will adopt a more positive approach to life -- like Brad Cohen's.
Cohen, meanwhile, said he'll be happiest if teachers realize they need to believe in students -- "Focus on kids' strengths and give them opportunities" -- and if parents do the same for their children.
"Kids are looking for someone to believe in them," he said. "If you lose faith in them, everybody else will."
"Front of the Class" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.