Alumnus Tom Sullivan learned about Shakespeare and jazz at Perkins, and then went on to have a remarkable career in show business
"Thanks to Perkins, I've had the most eclectic career a fella could ever have," said alumnus Tom Sullivan.
By Karen Shih
Tom Sullivan has sung the national anthem at the Super Bowl. He’s been nominated for two Emmy Awards. He even taught Ben Affleck what it’s like to be blind.
The 1965 Perkins School for the Blind alumnus has nearly done it all – but he’s not ready to slow down. After all, the 69-year-old has worked hard to carve out his own path in show business as a singer, author, actor and motivational speaker.
“I feel ageless!” said Sullivan, who’s writing two new books and working on an album of standards. “At this point, all that matters is legacy – not making a living. If my life has stood for changing the perception of blindness, I can be happy. I’d love to see the next young blind person come along and break into the world of news or sports or television.”
Born prematurely, Sullivan became blind after being given too much oxygen while in the incubator. He came to Perkins as a 5-year-old and said his years on campus changed his life. “Thanks to Perkins, I’ve had the most eclectic career a fella could ever have,” he said.
His biggest influences at Perkins included English teacher Tony Ackerman, who introduced him to Shakespeare and discovered his writing talent, and music teacher Hank Santos, who sparked his interest in the music of jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Sullivan also credits wrestling coach Richard Kamis, who encouraged him to go to summer sports clinics with sighted children and thrive as an athlete.
After graduating from Perkins, Sullivan attended Providence College, then Harvard University, but left when his singing career took off. He was discovered by actress Betty White while performing at clubs on Cape Cod to help pay for tuition. They’ve become lifelong friends: she introduced him to his wife of 46 years, Patty, and they even wrote a book together, “The Leading Lady,” about Sullivan’s first guide dog, who retired to live with White.
Sullivan’s career took off in the 1970s. He appeared more than 60 times on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and performed in Las Vegas and around the world. He even sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl X in 1976.
But Sullivan wanted more. Once he moved out to California, he found new opportunities in film and television.
“I wanted to act but nobody was hiring a blind guy, so I started to write my own scripts,” he said. That led to guest-starring roles in hit shows like “Mork & Mindy,” “Fame” and “M*A*S*H.” He became a special correspondent for “Good Morning America,” reporting on inspirational stories across the country. Again, he had to fight for that role. He paid to produce his first two segments to prove they were worth airing.
Sullivan was nominated twice for Emmy Awards, including once for an ESPN special entitled “Superior Beings” that showcased athletes with disabilities.
He entered the film industry when his autobiography, “If You Could See What I Hear,” was made into a movie in 1982. In 2003, he had the chance to consult on the film “Daredevil,” about a blind lawyer-turned-vigilante superhero played by Affleck.
“Ben is great,” said Sullivan. “He really wanted to understand blindness. We did all kinds of activities together, and he asked how I played golf and skied. He really got inside the question of the senses and how they work. He was wonderfully prepared, but it was a shame the movie was more about stunts and gimmicks.”
These days, Sullivan has stepped back from television and film to focus on writing – he’s written 15 fiction and nonfiction books already – as well as recording music and making motivational speeches.
But if the right role came up, he might get back in front of the camera.
“If I had one last wish in show business, I would love to have gotten the chance to play a role where my blindness wasn’t important at all,” Sullivan said. “You might see the guide dog or a cane, and I’m a lawyer, and you might see me working with a voice-actuated computer – but nobody would talk about it.”