For ‘Dawson’s Creek’ actor, a Yalie, loss of legs leads to new role
How do we respond when something terrible happens? For actor Obi Ndefo ’94 B.A., ’97 M.F.A., the answer was: “Grab onto whatever I can.”
Last August, Ndefo, known best for playing Bodie Wells on the TV drama “Dawson’s Creek” and Jaffa rebel Rak'nor on “Stargate SG-1,” was hit from behind by a drunk driver in the parking lot of a health food store in Los Angeles as he was putting away his groceries. He lost his right leg in the crash. His left leg, badly injured, was amputated shortly thereafter.
Suddenly, the actor, who had been an active yoga instructor for special needs kids, a community arts organizer, and TV writer, was thrust into an utterly new life.
“It was like being shot through a spiritual cannon,” said Ndefo, who immediately resolved to increase his already prodigious efforts at physical and mental health. “One’s connection to spirituality, or positivity, or humanity, keeps us uplifted and feeling good. That aperture just opened a lot wider. I saw a pathway to healing.”
Within weeks of the accident, Ndefo was practicing yoga again, doing pullups on a bar affixed to a doorframe, recommitting himself to his television pilot, “Juice Bar” — and inspiring everyone, including fellow Yale School of Drama alumni.
“He is an absolutely beautiful man inside and out, and he is rising above his circumstances,” said fellow actor Elizabeth Greer ’97 M.F.A., who first befriended Ndefo while they were drama school students. “He has become a hero.”
In response to a GoFundMe campaign set up to raise money for prosthetic legs and to make Ndefo’s home wheelchair accessible, alumni also sent words of encouragement and expressions of awe at his positive approach to a devastating event.
“I am overwhelmed by his spirit and his warmth of heart,” wrote alumna and Broadway star Melissa Errico ’92 B.A. who had co-starred in a Yale musical with Ndefo.
Other messages called him an “inspiration,” a “power for good,” an “amazing human.”
If Yale feels good about Ndefo, he also feels good about Yale. The L.A. native studied here as both an undergraduate and graduate student, during which time “I was exposed to an amazing mix of people,” he said.
It was through his Yale acting classes that Ndefo first grew interested in yoga and cultivated his innate abilities for a physical style of acting. And by studying Shakespeare and the ancient Greek playwrights, he came to know “what storytelling can do to human potential,” he said.
He was still in his hospital bed when he began to perceive the inspirational effect his story and attitude — a positive response to a horrifying and debilitating accident — was having on others.
“Orthopedic surgeons were crying in my hospital room,” Ndefo said. “It became a very spiritual place.”
When supportive responses poured in though social media, he realized he’d found a new dimension to his work. “When I saw how it impacted so many people, it gave me rejuvenated purpose as a storyteller and a teacher,” Ndefo said.
At the time of the accident, Ndefo was already hard at work developing “Juice Bar,” and meeting with studio executives about it. He returned to it with new determination.
The series is a send-up of workplace comedies and skewers New Age spirituality, the organic food movement, and the global search for consciousness. Ndefo said the series is full of magical realism, with plants, herbs, and berries coming to life.
“It’s like Willy Wonka or PeeWee’s Playhouse,” he said. “It’s fun, magical and childlike.”
He’s part of a team of actors working at the nonprofit Arts Alliance for Humanity at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Together, the actors are developing the pilot, and also offering acting classes to community members. A number of Yale alumni support the nonprofit, he said, including actor Gabriel Olds ’95 B.A.; Barbara Lee Bragg ’87 M.F.A., producer and lecturer at California State Polytechnic University; and James Burrows ’65 M.F.A., director and producer behind “Will & Grace,” “Cheers,” and “Taxi.”
“As actors, we often find ourselves doing work we don’t believe in,” Ndefo said. Through the Arts Alliance, he said, the actors have “devised a system to create a network of teaching artists.”
One of Ndefo’s career goals has been to expand opportunities for actors of all backgrounds and abilities — and to contribute to the ongoing push for more diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. “Juice Bar” is written for a multicultural cast, and includes a part for a double amputee — one written before the accident occurred.
“I was interviewing people to play this role,” Ndefo said. “Now, I can play it.”