When “: Hawai’i” airs tonight, it will quietly make a bit of franchise history — via guest star . The episode will complete Yaeger’s full sweep of all four “NCIS” editions, which is believed to be the first time that an actor has appeared on every version (“NCIS,” “,” “NCIS: New Orleans” and “NCIS: Hawai’i”) in completely different roles.
“Given how long these franchises have been in existence, there will inevitably be some crossover with actors,” said CBS talent and casting exec VP Claudia Lyon. “We don’t have statistics on how often that happens, but I wouldn’t be surprised. There are many actors out there who do one or two of them. But what makes Kurt unique is that he’s done all four.”
But here’s what’s also notable: Yaeger is an actor/writer with a disability, having lost his part of his left leg in a 2006 motorbike accident. And he’s utilizing his acting and writing notoriety – including this “NCIS” record — to help champion opportunities for other performers with disabilities as well.
That includes the notion that actors with disabilities don’t only have to play characters with disabilities. On Monday’s episode of “NCIS: Hawai’i,” he plays MSgt. Strand, the father of Jane Tennant (Vanessa Lachey), in flashbacks. “The ‘NCIS: Hawai’i’ character has nothing to do with disabilities,” Yaeger noted. “It’s starting to change where people are like, ‘well, you can play any character.’ I’ve always been able to play any character. 95% of acting is from the chest up!”
Yaeger first appeared in the franchise on “NCIS” in 2014 as former Marine Sgt. Freddie Linn, who lost the use of his legs when a shattered body-armor plate hit his spinal cord, but later started a successful skydiving business. On the episode, he helps federal investigators to find the source of faulty body armor sent to overseas troops. In 2019, he guest starred on “NCIS: New Orleans” as Kevin Simms, a law enforcement officer “dealing with a life-altering injury.”
“We had the second-most number of disabled actors in a single episode of a TV show, and so it won a Media Access Award,” Yaeger said of that “NCIS: New Orleans” installment, which also featured Darryl “Chill” Mitchell.
But Yaeger’s most extensive appearance was on “NCIS: Los Angeles” in five episodes between 2016 and 2017, where he played a charming military vet and leg amputee named Sullivan. But later he was revealed to be the rogue CIA officer Ferris, seeking revenge against Kensi Blye.
“The characters were all completely different,” Yaeger said. “They had different vibes, different attributes and different means.”
Lyon said there was no grand plan to cast Yaeger in all four “NCIS” editions, “it’s just sort of the perfect storm. A lot of things that have come into play. First of all, Kurt starts with talent. He’s got this tenacity and perseverance where he is able to create opportunities for himself… and we’ve got producers who like Kurt, and have been interested in working with him after they saw what he could do the first or second or third time on a show. You’ve got casting directors who are really invested in Kurt as well. He’s a talent, so we want to support him. It’s pretty remarkable that he’s doing all of them.”
Yaeger lauds Lyon for her work in expanding opportunities for disabled performers, which has included a database for showrunners to find and hire talent. “I have to stress Claudia has been working her tail off,” he said. “The buck stops with her and she’s doing everything she can. She’s starting initiatives to get younger actors with disabilities through the system, making lists of people who write and act and sending that around to producers. Claudia is opening doors in other divisions in the business.”
Lyon helped last year to increase audition opportunities for performers with disabilities. “One of our main goals was to first of all, create more opportunities for performers with disabilities,” she said. “But the end goal was to really normalize having performers with disabilities considered for all types of roles. Part of our initiative is for every pilot that we do, we are going to send a list of performers with disabilities to audition for series regular roles in those pilots.
“When I look at casting, I think if we’re not casting the widest net possible, we’re not really doing our jobs,” she added. “Part of our job is to make sure that we cast authentically. We want to make sure that everyone gets invited to the party and that everyone has an opportunity to read for a role that they could be right for. And I found that that wasn’t happening for that community.”
An early success story from that initiative can also be found on this week’s episode of “So Help Me Todd,” which airs April 13. In the episode, Andrew Duff plays an autistic character; Duff himself is a performer with autism who was submitted to the show via CBS’ persons with disabilities database.
“As part of the initiative, we also did a series of workshops, and that’s how we met Andrew,” Lyon said. “We ultimately ended up suggesting him for this role.”
Yaeger said he feels encouraged by the growth in representation for disabled performers, but “there’s a long way to go. If you look at the numbers, it’s still not great. But I think there’s an awareness now with the people that are trying to figure out how to juggle it.”
Yaeger said he appreciates the work being done in casting by execs like Lyon, but added that it has to start with writers either including characters that are disabled, or broadening the idea of agreeing to the fact that someone who’s disabled can play a character that’s not specifically written as such.
“I’m not looking for charity,” he said. “I’m not looking for an opportunity because I’m disabled. I’m looking for the opportunity to act, to act well, in any role. To usurp the societal idea of what disabilities are and to contribute really amazing storylines that just don’t exist on television. Before I ripped my leg off and broke my back and the rest of it, I didn’t know anything about disabilities — just like most able-bodied people. I thought that it was only a sad existence, only misery, only inability. Afterwards, I realized how much I gained from becoming disabled. I gained empathy. I gained understanding. I gained patience. I gained intelligence. And it forced a change in my life that far outweighed any societal perception of what disabilities are.”