Reaching for the stars

Disabled man hosts TV show with help of celebrities

Shawn D. Lewis / The Detroit News

WEST BLOOMFIELD -- The first call came from Regis Philbin, the reigning king of morning television, in January 2006.

A week later, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel left a message.

And so began Jason Antone's transformation from a picked-on disabled kid to a cable television host whose fame is growing almost as fast as the list of big-time celebrities who call in.

By now the calls are nothing new. Some 50 celebrities -- from Ben Stiller and Carrie Fisher to sports legends such as Sugar Ray Leonard and a couple dozen professional wrestlers -- have left phone messages or e-mails of encouragement for Antone, whose "JROCK Show" airs on public-access cable TV stations in West Bloomfield and Grand Rapids.

The first call was hatched when Antone called Philbin's agent and asked that the TV star call and leave him a message. Philbin called twice, once chatting with Antone's mother Najiba before leaving a voicemail: "Hi, Jason. This is Regis Philbin calling from New York City."

"My legs were a little shaky when I realized he had called," Antone said.

With a stuffed white bunny as his sidekick, Antone, 25, laughs it up and talks off the cuff about his favorite subjects -- himself and the celebrities -- and plays his celebrity voicemails for viewers. The show is taped on his parents' sofa.

"This idea came from God in a dream," he said. "It is a blessing from God. Why should my disability stop me? No chance. I just want to do a good, clean show."

Antone suffers from an incurable neurological condition called Friedreich's ataxia, which causes cerebral palsy-like movements and progressive nerve damage.

Diagnosed in kindergarten, he was expected to be confined to a wheelchair by the age of 18, but so far still walks unassisted.

Antone dropped out of West Bloomfield High School in the 10th grade after years of taunts from other students. Even today, although he said he tries to remain positive, he rarely ventures beyond his parents' front door.

Instead, he focuses on the "JROCK Show." Antone's buoyant spirit caught the attention of producers of "Disabilities Today," a weekly program that airs on the Public Broadcasting System nationwide. The show's executive producer, Roger McCarville, interviewed Antone at his home; the show aired in December.

"He's my hero," said McCarville. "He started out with people making fun of him, quit school and then turned it around. He's showing that we all have something to offer."

Kellie Ashcroft, program manager from cable access station GRTV in Grand Rapids, gave Antone his first opportunity.

"I thought he'd send me maybe one or two tapes, because there's a lot of work involved," she said. "But he sent them to me continuously, and I was really impressed."

Antone admits he's a long way from Jay Leno. But some day he hopes to grab the attention of a major television market. He wants his cable show to teach others that a disability need not be a prison.

"I would like people to know that if you have a disability, pick yourself up, be tough, and go for it," he said.


jan 27 2007

JROCK 2007