Movie starring ‘Breaking Bad’ actor is a triumph for Lawrence writer — and for disability inclusion

photo by: Contributed

Lawrence resident Michael Coffey, right, is pictured with "Breaking Bad" actor RJ Mitte at a party in Nashville, where much of Coffey's movie "Triumph" was filmed. Mitte stars in the film, which is about a high school wrestler with cerebral palsy, a condition shared by Coffey.

Michael Coffey has been writing since he was a kid, extracting all sorts of drama from his lively imagination. The first story he remembers writing — in junior high — was “As the Clock Ticked On,” which he describes as a scary tale of suspense.

Decades — and many creations — later, though still drawn to thrillers, he has learned that the most compelling stories are often those drawn from everyday life.

His most recent storytelling venture is a screenplay about a high school student with cerebral palsy — a condition that Coffey himself has lived with since birth. Coffey’s screenplay focuses on the challenges of cerebral palsy, a condition — “not a disease,” he is quick to point out — that mostly affects physical development, though he notes it is sometimes sadly misunderstood as a kind of mental disability.

In the screenplay, which Coffey describes as “in the spirit of ‘Rudy’ and ‘The Karate Kid,'” the high school student, Mike, strives to become a wrestler despite his physical hurdles. Coffey describes it as a story about determination and “proving that facing your challenges will make you stronger as long as you never give up — and that you can motivate others to win from within, too.”

It’s a message that eventually got the attention of folks in the movie-making business, who were so taken with Coffey’s screenplay that it is now a movie called “Triumph” starring RJ Mitte.

photo by: Contributed

The actor RJ Mitte is pictured in a promotional poster for the film “Triumph,” which was written by Lawrence resident Michael Coffey.

Mitte, who played Walter White Jr. (aka Flynn) in the AMC series “Breaking Bad,” also has cerebral palsy in real life — and is an advocate for disability inclusion.

“I wanted a great actor who has CP to perform the semifictional me, so in 2014 I reached out to RJ’s reps and worked to get him on board,” Coffey says. “RJ’s performance is awesome,” he adds.

Coffey uses the word “semifictional” because the story is a little bit autobiographical and a little bit made-up. Coffey did not wrestle in high school, but he did, like his namesake Mike in the film, experience the pain of being different. He’s intimate with the feeling of being stared at, being misunderstood and being automatically thought unfit for certain activities.

“I hope ‘Triumph’ not only entertains people,” he says, “but also enlightens them about CP and the importance of disability understanding and inclusion.”

photo by: Contributed

Actor RJ Mitte, left, is shown in a scene from the movie “Triumph,” written by Lawrence resident Michael Coffey. In the film, Mitte, who has cerebral palsy in real life, plays a high school wrestler who also has CP.


Coffey was born in Ulysses, Kan. Like Mitte’s cerebral palsy, his CP was caused by complications at birth. In his case, the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and cut off his oxygen, which caused various speech difficulties and impaired motor control.

Though he gets around fine now — walking, driving, dancing, hiking — he remembers “having to wear ugly leather orthopedic shoes most of the time” as a kid and having to attend physical and occupational therapy sessions — memories that he incorporated into “Triumph.” He remembers that people weren’t always kind or accepting about the way he moved.

But his biggest challenge — then as now — in finding acceptance was his difficulty in speaking easily and clearly.

“I think some people are afraid that they might not understand my speech,” he says, “so they don’t approach me sometimes.” He quickly adds: “I like talking with people.”

photo by: Contributed

Lawrence resident Michael Coffey wrote and co-produced the film “Triumph,” which was inspired by his experience growing up with cerebral palsy.

Coffey, who describes his CP as moderate on a spectrum, credits his family with “making all the difference” growing up.

“My mom and especially my dad treated me normal and were strict regarding studying and doing homework,” he says. “I wrote a homework scene in which my dad is trying to teach me fractions. My senior English teacher, Mrs. Payne, encouraged me to keep writing. I wrote her into my screenplay, and the actress kind of looks like her.”

Coffey’s first cousin, Lawrence Fire Chief Shaun Coffey, remembers spending summers together in Ulysses, a town of a few thousand people in southwestern Kansas. He remembers hanging out “like cousins do” and “getting in trouble for laughing at the dinner table.” He remembers Michael “always writing stories and different things.” And, above all, he remembers how Michael’s family never viewed his cerebral palsy as a disability.

“He was not treated any differently. He was just one of the cousins doing everything with us,” Shaun says.


Now both men live in Lawrence, working or having worked for the city: Shaun as current fire chief and Michael in IT for many years.

It appears to be a toss-up on which one is the most excited about Michael’s forthcoming movie.

“It hasn’t quite seemed real. It’s very exciting,” Shaun said, noting that lots of family members would be making the trip to Kansas to watch “Triumph” with Michael on its opening weekend.

Michael’s credits on the film, which was shot in Nashville and Los Angeles, include producer as well as writer.

“I am equally proud of my producer credit due to the years of producer work I did to help make this movie,” he says, adding that he began working on the production seven years ago.

In that time he has noticed that society has become a little more enlightened when it comes to people with different abilities.

“I have noticed teens and young adults seem more aware and understanding these days,” he says, and he hopes that his film will “help even more with awareness … to help crush disability exclusion.”

photo by: Contributed

Actor Terrence Howard is pictured in a still photo from the film “Triumph,” written by Lawrence resident Michael Coffey. In the film, Howard plays a wrestling coach.

In addition to Mitte, the film also features actors Terrence Howard (“Iron Man”) Colton Haynes (“Arrow”), Johnathon Schaech (“That Thing You Do!”) and Grace Victoria Cox (“Under the Dome”). The film is set to screen in 200 Cinemark theaters nationwide, starting Friday. The DVD and streaming-service release is set for June 15.

While Michael is excited for the film to come out, he’s already looking ahead to his next project: a return to his beloved genre.

“I am planning to direct my supernatural suspense thriller (‘One Eye Open’) hopefully this year in Lawrence,” he says. “I have a great cast and an amazing 1800s house lined up.”


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