NEW YORK » Having played a singing elephant on stages across the country, Cleo Berry is well acquainted with the vagaries of show business. But he still was stunned to learn that he has unwittingly become an amputee in ads New York City is posting to warn of the dangers of diabetes.
Berry was a struggling young actor several years ago when he accepted $500 to pose for some photographs in a New York studio, he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles on Saturday. He had not given those pictures much thought until Friday night, when a friend alerted him that his image — minus one leg — was all over the Internet.
An advertising agency for the city’s health department obtained the rights to use the photo to illustrate its campaign against supersized portions of fast food and sugary sodas. To emphasize that consuming too much of those foods could lead to diabetes and the amputation of limbs, the agency edited away the lower half of Berry’s right leg and conjured up a pair of crutches.
"I was beyond shocked," Berry said, recounting his reaction to seeing himself portrayed as ailing and crippled. "I cried at my computer screen for, like, a minute."
Then, after studying the ad more closely, "I said, ‘Oh my gosh, they even gave me crutches. Come on, people."’
Berry, 27, said he supported the city’s efforts to educate people about the dangers of diabetes, but he disagreed with the use of a manipulated image of an able-bodied person instead of an image of a real victim of the disease.
"You are New York City for God’s sake," he said. "Give it to us the right way or we won’t believe you at all."
He said he had answered an ad for the photo shoot because the $500 it promised would help pay his rent. He remembered liking the photographer, Morten Smidt, but said he did not understand that the pictures were for a stock photo agency, Image Source. But he acknowledged that he had signed a standard release allowing the agency to alter his image.
After the modification of the photo was exposed last week, city officials defended the practice as common in advertising. Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor, wrote on Twitter that his grandmother had lost a leg to diabetes.
"She would not have appeared in an ad," Wolfson wrote. "Doesn’t make her loss less real to have it depicted by another."
John Kelly, a spokesman for the health department, said in a statement: "This issue isn’t about one actor but rather the 700,000 New Yorkers who struggle with diabetes, which kills 1,700 people a year and causes amputations in another 3,000. Advertising to warn the public about health concerns saves lives, and we will continue our efforts to warn New Yorkers about diabetes."
Although only the bottom of his face is shown in the ads, Berry said he was immediately concerned about the effect this depiction, which appears throughout New York City’s subway system, could have on his career as an actor. He moved to Los Angeles a few years ago and has landed some roles in movies and on television; he played a hotel concierge last season on the Fox series "House M.D."
Sure, he is large enough that he tends to play parts reserved for big and tall men, including Horton the elephant in a touring company of "Seussical," the musical. But he says he is healthy and agile.
"I’ve always wanted my photo in an ad all over the city, but I was hoping it would be for a TV show or something, not — this," Berry said.
He even offered to represent the health department’s archenemy, possibly for less than his usual rate. He said if a soda company "would like to call me so we can do a commercial, I’ll sing and dance for them and I won’t charge an arm and a leg."