It's the last day of filming for Ed's fourth season and Daryl "Chill" Mitchell is needed on lane 11 at Stuckeybowl. He wheels over to be at costar Tom Cavanagh's side as his eponymous character, Ed Stevens, exchanges vows with the now-attainable Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen). While the show's deliriously happy couple are starting a new life together, Mitchell, who joined the offbeat NBC drama just a year and a half ago, realizes that this is probably a series — not season — finale. (For more on that, click here.)
Mitchell has been at this juncture before with The John Larroquette Show and Veronica's Closet, but this time it's different. His role as Eli Cartwright Goggins III was his first gig since the November 2001 motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. "[You] fall in love with cast members," says the Bronx-born actor, "and when the show ends it hurts so bad. So I said to myself, I ain't doing that no more. But then you get to the point where you gotta physically depend on people. I've flipped this chair over on this set, scared these people to death so many times, but they pick me up. You develop a sense of commitment."
Back in 2002, the former member of rap group Groove B. Chill was more concerned about supporting his own Atlanta-based family, wife Carol and three kids. It was hard enough, he says, being a minority when looking for roles, never mind the added wrinkle of a wheelchair. Luckily, thanks to his Hollywood connections, Mitchell landed a meeting with Ed creators Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman, who offered him a part that very day. The only one happier than Mitchell was his mother. "I had Rob and Jon call her," he says, "They was, like, 'We just wanna let you know that your son has been cast on our TV show.' My mother's like, 'Thank you, Jehovah!' I can still hear her say it to this day."
At first it appeared that he was there to ease out Phil ( Michael Ian Black), Stuckeybowl's previous top manager, but ironically Eli's formidable presence had the opposite effect. "His arrival was actually a great blessing for my character," notes Black, who had worked with his new costar in regional theater in the mid-'90s, "because it allowed the writers to show Phil as vulnerable in a way that he hadn't been before."
But Phil's vulnerability was nothing compared to the way Mitchell has exposed the more sensitive aspects of disability. Last season's inspired episode in which we saw a time-lapse sequence of the considerable efforts it takes for Eli (and Daryl) to get dressed each day was surpassed only by last month's groundbreaking — and candid — story line that led to Eli having sex with his girlfriend ( Marcy Harriell) for the first time since a similar accident.
Mitchell's costars, however, are hesitant to fall into the "Isn't he so brave" trap when discussing the actor. "I wish there was a way I could say something that wouldn't lean toward cliche and hyperbole," says Cavanagh. "It's a somewhat disheartening experience because every time I talk about Chill, I never feel like I've done him justice. This guy is amazing. He truly is."
With Ed likely having bowled its last game, Mitchell is prepared for his next act, whether it's another show with Burnett and Beckerman or going back to producing music (he hopes to develop some rap and R&B acts). Nevertheless, on this big day, his thoughts are of his fellow Stuckeyville residents. "They literally saved my life," he says, "because without this show, I don't know where I would be in my mind. If this hadn't have come along at the time that it did, there's no telling where I would be. This show proved to me that I could still do what I love to do."