Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome. And he’s a movie star

The story behind the film ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ is as unexpectedly heart-warming as the film itself. And it all started with the film’s star, Zack Gottsagen.

In town recently to be a presenter for the Media Access Awards, the actor posed for a photo shoot in the Beverly Hilton lobby. Songs from his favourite movie, ‘Grease,’ played in the background to help loosen him up. His mother Shelley said he’d watched it so many times as a kid, he wore out the VHS tape. Asked what part he’d most like to play, Gottsagen immediately replied, “Danny Zuko.”

When Gottsagen, 34, was born with Down syndrome, Shelley was told to put him in an institution because experts said he would never walk or talk. She refused; the experts were wrong and he’s been defying the odds ever since. He wanted to go to public school; she worked to make him the first child with DS to be mainstreamed in Palm Beach County. He always knew he wanted to be an actor and has been acting and teaching theatre for years back home in Florida, where he’s also in a dance troupe.

But it was at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp in Vermont for people with and without disabilities, that he got his big break. Or more accurately, he created it.

During his time there, Gottsagen met filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and told them of his dreams of movie stardom. They tried to explain, gently, that his chances were slim. “I would say to them, ‘Write and direct and then I could be the star,’” the actor explained.

So they did. Over the next five years, Nilson and Schwartz wrote a script and scraped together backing, not giving up even after becoming homeless for a year. “Tyler was in a tent and Mike was in a car,” Gottsagen said. Nor did they take a payday in return for not having to cast an A-list actor in the role they had created for their friend. Instead, they made history.

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