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Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Disabled actress helps create role of "freak" to celebrate differences

By Greg Braxton
Los Angeles Times

Bree Walker has ectrodactylism, a rare genetic disorder that results in fused fingers and toes. She helped create the role of Sabina in HBO's "Carnivale."
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HOLLYWOOD — As Bree Walker sat alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere inside a large weather-beaten vehicle, the childhood taunt of her older brother returned to haunt her.

The two were teasing each other, trading insults the way siblings do, when brother Eryk spat out, "The only way you'll ever be able to make a living is as a freak in a carnival."

He meant no real harm with the remark, but it stung just enough for Walker to recall it decades later. She has ectrodactylism, a rare genetic disorder that results in fused fingers and toes. Many call it "lobster claw syndrome."

Now, while gazing into the harsh sunlight, her arm dangling out the window, Walker wondered what her brother would think if he could see her at that moment. Wearing a long blond wig and an ankle-length dress that looked and fit like an ornate orange snakeskin, Walker had transformed herself into Sabina the Scorpion Queen, a "freak" attraction in a traveling carnival that has seen better days. In a strange way, his words had come true.

For Walker, it couldn't have been more perfect.

Slightly more than a decade after leaving Los Angeles following a stint from 1988 to 1994 at KCBS-TV as one of the highest-profile — and most controversial — anchors in local news, Walker has gone from delivering news to delivering lines.

Bree Walker on the set of HBO's "Carnivale" with series regular Michael J. Anderson.
She is taking on the role of the mysterious, sultry Sabina in "Carnivale," HBO's eerie drama about a struggling carnival traveling in the Dust Bowl during the Depression. Walker is slated to appear in at least two episodes when the series returns in January for its second season.

Walker, a fan of "Carnivale" and its complex treatment of sideshow performers, has spent the past several years running her own production company and as an advocate for disabled people. She helped develop the character of Sabina with her friend Tracy Torme, a consulting producer on the show.

"It had occurred to me that if they had people on the show that actually had physical differences, it would add to the authenticity," Walker said during a break in filming in a remote mountainous region of Simi Valley.

Before the series, her acting was mostly limited to playing reporters or journalists in film cameos. Still, portraying a sideshow freak represents more than just a return to the spotlight for Walker, whose personal dramas often brought as much — if not more — attention as the news she anchored.

"I feel like I've been Sabina all my life," said Walker. "I've never felt like I've been anything but a misfit. I've spent my whole life trying to fit in and be normal, but inside, I know I'm not. So to be able to use this role as a way to celebrate my differences, and the differences in her, is just a great opportunity for me. It feels like I'm coming full circle with the person in the mirror."

Daniel Knauf, creator and executive producer of "Carnivale," said Walker had no trouble holding her own with more experienced "Carnivale" cast members, including Michael J. Anderson, Clea Duvall and Nick Stahl: "We auditioned her, and she was splendid. It was very easy to make the decision to cast her. She has an extraordinary look."

For someone used to the fast-paced world of television news, Walker demonstrated surprising patience during last week's shoot, even as the filming of one scene stretched on for hours in the grueling heat. It involved the breakdown on the road of Sabina's carnival company, which is a rival to the "Carnivale." Sabina repeated her one line to Anderson's Samson character ("Hey Stitch. You're not going to just leave us here, are you, sugar?") dozens of times while smoking a filtered cigarette. Her expression and his less-than-pleased response made it clear that the two characters are not exactly strangers to each other.

"She's tough, smart, a veteran carny," says Walker of Sabina. "Not much gets past her."

Walker, who quips that she "is about as close to 50 as anyone can get," is more than familiar with the double-edged sword of celebrity.

Physical limitations and deformed hands did not prevent Walker from becoming one of the most visible and respected anchors in L.A. during her years at KCBS. She was nationally recognized for her contributions to disability awareness and was on the President's Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped. She reportedly made about $800,000 a year. Even shock jock Howard Stern made crude but admiring jokes about her, commenting on her beauty.

Asked if her photogenic presentation helped take focus off her hands, she replied, "I've always tried not to have my hands noticed. I had to make concessions for the world that made it less convenient for me. And all news anchors are attractive people. I practiced as carefully as I could as a teenager to learn how to apply my makeup so that people would pay attention to my face and not my hands."

But there was a darker side to her high-profile job. Walker got caught up in an on-air scandal in 1990 when she became romantically involved with her co-anchor, Jim Lampley, while they were still married to other people.

When the anchors finally had their respective divorces and married each other, another firestorm erupted when Walker became pregnant. Jane Norris, a KFI-AM fill-in talk show host, blasted Walker for conceiving a child, given that there was a 50-50 chance that the child would inherit her condition. Norris then opened the phone lines for listeners to discuss whether they felt the couple had been irresponsible.

"Jim and I were on the set for the 11 p.m. news when I first heard about it," said Walker. "That evening I cried and cried. I was in disbelief. I went catatonic for a few days. Then I vowed to fight."

The couple filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against the station in an effort to get its license revoked, maintaining that the station violated the FCC's Personal Attack Rule by airing factual inaccuracies and impugning her character. The FCC ultimately rejected the complaint.

Aaron James Lampley, afflicted with ectrodactylism, was born in August 1991.

Walker resides in a gated community in Del Mar near San Diego with her children (16-year-old Andrea also has ectrodactylism). She and Lampley, who will anchor daytime coverage of NBC's broadcast of the Olympics in Athens, Greece, divorced in 2000 but remain a couple. Walker at times refers to herself as "Bree Walker Lampley."

Although Lampley, who also is a sportscaster for HBO, recently declared on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he and Walker would soon remarry, Walker expressed a little more caution about the future.

"There were lots of strains with a traveling spouse," said Walker when questioned about the split. "We were juggling our careers, and we both had some growing up and childhood issues to deal with. There was a lot of therapy," she said with a chuckle.

"We've talked about getting married again," she added quietly. "We're still working through our issues."

The two are still partners in their production company, Crystal Springs Productions, and its slate of documentaries, reality programs and movies. She said the company has about 14 projects in various stages of development. Among their projects was the critically acclaimed TV documentary "The Last Game," about high school football, and the 2000 film comedy "Welcome to Hollywood."

And although she is enjoying her new challenge in front of the camera, Walker insisted she has not caught the acting bug.

"This is a unique role," Walker said. "I can't imagine there would be that many roles for someone like me."

However, she is looking forward to one aspect of her new gig: "I can't wait for my brother to see me on the show!"

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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