Trying to research his role as a blind martial-arts superhero in the action flick Blind Fury, actor Rutger Hauer kept running up against a major stumbling block—the part’s implausibility. Then one day, while interviewing members of Los Angeles’s Braille Institute, he met Lynn Manning.
“It just so happened I came in that day,” says Manning. “We talked, and recognized that there was a bit of a parallel between me and the character.” That was a bit of an understatement. Manning, 34, who lost his sight in a barroom fight nearly 12 years ago, has since earned not only a brown belt in judo, but a slot on the 1988 U.S. team to the Paralympics, an Olympics for the physically disabled. He has also won the respect of those who know him for keeping his personal tragedy from becoming a handicap. “I wasn’t going to sit around and cry over spilled milk or visions lost,” he says. “I’d had a rough life up to that point and had lost a lot of stuff. I learned that you just get up and keep moving. I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me.”
He has hardly given them the chance to, One of nine children, Lynn was raised “a stone’s throw from skid row” in a Los Angeles household that included “several different fathers in the mix.” Manning’s family disbanded when he was 9, and he entered the first of five eventual foster homes. Except for a marijuana arrest at 14, he lost himself not in the penal system, but in the stacks of local libraries. Between classes at community college, he ran the projector at a local porno theater and corralled shopping carts at a department store. Later, Manning took a job as a counselor at a halfway house for juvenile offenders.
Then in 1978, during a pinball tournament in an L.A. juke joint, one troubled patron took a sudden dislike to him. “He was either ‘dusted’ on PCP or an over-the-edge paranoid schizophrenic,” says Manning. “He thought he’d been ‘told’ by Jesus Christ or Bruce Lee to teach me a lesson. I body-slammed him, dragged him out of the place and told him to beat it. He did, but he came back later. I turned around, and there was a gun in my face.”
The black circle of the leveled gun barrel was the last thing Lynn ever saw. The stranger, never apprehended, fired a single, point-blank shot. Incredibly, though it did not kill him, the bullet pierced one eye and lodged behind the other, permanently blinding him. During his hospital recuperation, “I was just trying to figure out what to do next. I’d cry here and there, but then you go on about your business.”
To counter a weight gain from inactivity, Manning, a karate buff, returned to his love for martial arts by enrolling in a judo program. “I was gone. I was hooked. That was it,” he says. “It pulled me through because it gave me an immediate way to compete with sighted people on an equal level. That was very important for me psychologically. It also let me get a lot of anxiety out of my system about losing my sight.”
Quickly mastering the sport, he competed in California tournaments, often besting sighted opponents. “Judo is done by feel,” says Michael Rotsten. a volunteer instructor at the Braille Institute. “The point is to overcome being tricked by what you see, and so to a certain extent, Lynn has an advantage. He has that extra feel that a sighted person might not have.” Manning’s national blind heavyweight judo championship led to a 1988 berth on the U.S. disabled sports team, which competed in Seoul. “I got my butt kicked,” he admits, “but I intend to go back in ’92 and redeem myself.”
His chance meeting with Hauer in 1988 led to a role as technical adviser on Blind Fury. “Lynn taught me how to unfocus my eyes, to react to smells and sounds,” says Hauer. “He could pick up the patterns of your breathing if you were upset.” During filming in Squaw Valley, Hauer returned the favor by teaching Manning to ski. “Once outside our hotel, Lynn called out my name and I answered,” says Hauer. “He hit me with a snowball from 50 feet away, just from the sound of my voice.”
Forced to give up his onetime aspirations as a painter. Manning now writes poetry, takes acting classes and continues work on his autobiography. “Hopefully, something will break, and I can make a living at my art,” he says. In the meantime, in addition to his earnings from the film, he has lived on a disability pension, the $10,750 he won as a 1984 contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid, and the salary of Judi Hixson, a writer whom he married in 1987. That leaves little left for the judo classes he needs to stay in competitive shape or the $1,500 he must raise to pay his way to the Netherlands for the 1990 World Games for disabled athletes.
Manning admits that there are occasional moments that haunt him, like the appearance of “phantom visions.” “If you have sight and then lose it, the brain continues to make pictures,” he says. “You have no control over it. You still see things—and they don’t go away.”
Yet it is not so much his disability that hampers him, he insists, as people’s misconceptions about it. “I’m a big, black, blind guy, and people are scared of that. Sometimes I feel fear from people, sometimes it’s pity. In Hispanic areas, I hear a lot of muttering of the rosary. It’s born out of some misbegotten reading of the Scriptures. Some people think you’re cursed by God. Others think you’re blessed.”
As a formidable man making his peace with misfortune, Manning appears content, it seems, to have found himself somewhere in between.
—Susan Schindehette, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles