Actor Joe Mantegna turns activist for autism


    There is a terrible fear that all parents harbor before the birth of their child: What if my baby is handicapped, disfigured, or limited in some way? Will I be able to handle it? Do I want to handle it?

    For Joe Mantegna, gifted and successful actor, that fear became a reality when his daughter was born 14 years ago with autism. He and his wife were placed in a daunting and terrifying position, raising their child with a mental disability. Mantegna said they felt very alone.

    “There is not a lot of [information] out there,” he said. “It’s not out in the mainstream so that people know about it and know how to deal with it.”

    Achievable Foundation, a fundraising arm for H.O.M.E, an organization set up to assist people with autism to lead independent lives, approached Mantegna to host its golf tournament fundraiser on May 7 at the Malibu Country Club.

    Organizers may have known that he was father to a child born with autism; they may have known he had previously lent his name to several fundraising events; but there is no way they knew the compassion and energy he would bring along with his clubs to the course.

    He was all over the place, talking with other celebrities about the Dodgers, joking with fat-wallet-golfers about the hazards he expected to drop in and doing interviews with journalists. He shifted gears seamlessly, the way he does in the movies.

    For Mantegna, a Tony and two-time Emmy award winner, it was less about “celebrity responsibility,” the supposed debt that a famous name owes to society, less about his personal relationship to autism, and more about the problem itself.

    “I don’t do this for, you know, the personal side of it,” he said. “It’s gotta be done. There is this hole, and if I can add to the solution by coming to play golf, or making phone calls, putting my name on whatever, then, great, that’s what I’m here for.”

    But Mantegna is resolved to the truth that there is currently no cure for autism and probably no way to prevent the disease. He understands that and still finds hope.

    “For my daughter, who will never see the end of this thing, the scientists working on all this [research for cures] aren’t going to help. It is about finding for her an independent life, getting her into the mainstream so that she can live just fine when I’m gone.”

    Bob Steiner, a board member for both Achievable and H.O.M.E. organizations, and also a father to a child born with autism, agreed with Mantegna.

    “It is the mainstream that we’re going for here with this event, and those like it,” said Steiner. ” We’re trying to get these kids to a place where they can function in society as independent people. And organizations like H.O.M.E. are the best avenues toward that.”

    The pragmatic approach Mantegna and Steiner are championing is also a hopeful one, a theory that takes into account the harsh realities of any handicap and the limits one must live with under those circumstances.

    Mantegna, subtly highlighting his own personal ties with autism, pushed this point throughout his conversation: “It would be so great to get the information into the mainstream, of course, with opportunity for help,” he said. “But especially the information, so that people know that there is some help that exists, so that they know they’re not alone.”

    Steiner said that he hoped Achievable could raise upwards of $60,000 and noted, “There is no absolute goal we’re shooting for. And there is no ceiling on what we would like.”

    The ceiling disappeared at $85,000 in donations to spread the word about autism.