NEW YORK, AUG. 25 -- The deaf actors who auditioned for the eye-catching if minor role of Arturo Gallo in the new film comedy "Calendar Girl" were accustomed to producer mood shifts. But the subtle change in emphasis that eventually froze them out of the part was especially infuriating, and they discovered that the Silver Spring-based National Association of the Deaf was willing to help them strike back.

Outrage over Columbia Pictures' casting of the role -- which went to a hearing actor after a national search for a deaf one -- has caused deaf activists to put the film at the top of their list of targets. Their campaign began here tonight with a rally before a press screening of the movie.

"Hearing producers think hearing actors can learn our language {American Sign Language} in pre-production crash courses and instantly become fluent enough to project realistic portrayals of deaf people immersed in deaf culture," said Bobbie Beth Scoggins, NAD media access chairwoman. "This ultimate insult to the intelligence of deaf people proves continued Hollywood discrimination exploits our valued life experiences."

There have been 338 U.S. film and television characters who were deaf or hard of hearing since since 1913, according to a study by San Francisco State University historian Paul K. Longmore, and only 128 of those parts went to deaf or hard-of-hearing actors. Protests over casting and scripts by homosexuals and racial minorities are not new, but the disability rights movement, and particularly those organizations that represent about 20 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, have been slow to tweak Hollywood for perceived slights. The 22,000-member NAD has made "Calendar Girl" a "national priority" and plans protests in several cities, particularly Washington, when the film opens Sept. 3.

All of which disturbs the "Calendar Girl" producers, whose spokesman said they made a strenuous effort to find a deaf actor for the part. "We sought out in the top 50 markets of the country hearing-impaired actors," said Mark Gill, a senior vice president at Columbia Pictures. At least a thousand actors were auditioned, and "we even went so far as to have the producers pay to have one hearing-impaired actor flown from New York {to Los Angeles} to audition," Gill said.

The characters Arturo and Antonio Gallo are comic hoodlums -- bill collectors sent to track down the movie's star, Jason Priestley, who, in a story set in 1962, is seeking a date with Marilyn Monroe. The Gallos are on the screen only about five minutes, Gill said, but the Arturo role provides a possibly career-establishing opportunity for an unknown performer. So, deaf activists say, they were devastated when Columbia, and executive producers Penny Marshall and Elliott Abbott, decided none of the deaf prospects measured up.

Gill said the producers hired a skilled sign language interpreter to train the actor who won the role, Kurt Fuller. The interpreter remained on the set to ensure that the portrayal was accurate and did not put deaf people in a negative light, Gill said.

NAD, which operates out of an office building on Thayer Avenue in Silver Spring, says slippery language changes by the producers suggests a failure of nerve and imagination.

The first casting call had said the actor playing Arturo, the smarter of the two brothers, "should be hearing-impaired, but physically capable actors will also be considered." After the first audition drew 15 deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and hordes of others, NAD said, the producers revised the description: "Actor need not necessarily be deaf, but the role is a nonspeaking role."

Only one deaf actor and 16 hearing actors were called back for a second audition, the NAD said. Fuller was chosen and given an instructor who, the NAD said, promised to make him "look good."

Longmore said, "Deaf leaders have likened the hiring of hearing players to depict deaf people to having a white actor play an African American by rubbing burnt cork on his or her face."

Both Longmore and NAD acknowledged that television producers have made great strides in finding good deaf actors when they wanted them. "By any measure," Longmore said, "the casting of a hearing actor to play a deaf character in 'Calendar Girl' goes against the strong trend toward hiring deaf/hard-of-hearing actors."