Star Trek’s Kenneth Mitchell Opens Up About Continuing His Acting Career After ALS Diagnosis
Photo: Chloe Aftel
“I really wanted to keep inspiring myself,” says Kenneth Mitchell, who was diagnosed with ALS in August 2018 and has been using a wheelchair since last October”
Though he was hit with a devastating ALS diagnosis nearly two years ago, Kenneth Mitchell is not giving up hope.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the Star Trek: Discovery star, 45, opens up about how he plans to continue his acting career — and how his community of actors and producers are showing their support.
“I still wanted to work,” Mitchell says of how he felt after hearing his diagnosis in August 2018. “Here I was faced with something taken away from me — why should I stop something else? I really wanted to keep inspiring myself.”
After privately coming to terms with his diagnosis, Mitchell, who has been using a wheelchair since last October, slowly began sharing the news with his costars and acting community.
“It became really liberating not to have to hide what was happening to me,” says Mitchell, whose treatment includes occupational and physical therapy and breathing exercises
Kenneth Mitchell in Star Trek: Discovery Photo: Russ Martin/CBS
His Star Trek family, and colleagues on his other shows (including the CW’s Nancy Drew and the upcoming FX on Hulu series, The Old Man), have been nothing but supportive.
“Although it feels more challenging, people are accommodating and making it work,” says Mitchell. “They do it in a way that they don’t ever make me feel like I’m dragging things out or a hindrance or anything. It always makes me feel like I’m still an asset, and that’s really empowering.”
Says Dan Shotz, Mitchell’s good friend and executive producer of Jericho and upcoming series The Old Man, “While I have seen his physical transformation take hold, I have also seen his will, his spirit and his motivation to make the most of everything get stronger.”
“One night when I was visiting him, he said to me, ‘I must keep acting. I know I will be limited; I know most won’t want to cast me, but I just have to be working as an actor. I need my kids to see that I can and will keep doing what I’m meant to be doing for as long as I possibly can. I need that for me and for them,’ ” recalls Shotz.
After creating The Old Man, Jon Steinberg and executive producer Shotz were determined to cast Mitchell.
Kenneth Mitchell in The Old Man Photo: Courtesy Kenneth Mitchell
“Soon as we got close to shooting, Ken was starting to use a wheelchair regularly,” says Shotz. “So we spoke about it and decided that his character should be in a wheelchair and Joe Schmidt (an FBI agent) should have ALS. This was going to be the first role on camera where he was playing his current truth. It was really hard and really empowering. We didn’t even mention ALS in the story because we all felt it didn’t matter.”
“There are all types of people working in all types of fields with all types of conditions. We shouldn’t have to reference it, as there are people with disabilities everywhere. Joe, the FBI agent in a wheelchair, may not be kicking down doors, but why can’t he be in charge of the overall operation directing the mission at hand? So we did that and he is absolutely awesome. And for us, we got an amazing actor for our series, who gets to go toe-to-toe with the best of them,” Shotz says of Mitchell.
His Star Trek family has been equally accommodating.
“We absolutely adore him and would do anything to support him,” Star Trek: Discovery‘s co-showrunner Michelle Paradise says.
“The feeling was and is always: How can we make this possible for him?” Paradise adds. “How can we enable him to focus on the process he loves, bringing a character to life? It was deeply moving to see how much everyone wanted to make that happen.”
And Mitchell couldn’t be more grateful for his community of colleagues.
“They just make it work,” Mitchell says.
“It also just speaks volumes to the kind of community they have over there with that production,” he says, referencing Star Trek. “It does take a little bit longer to do the scenes when you work that way, but I just think that is a real testament to what can happen, and to not overlook people with disabilities because they have a lot to offer.”