Making the leap from home school to public school can be tough — but doing it with one leg presents its own set of challenges.
That’s the premise of the new Apple TV+ kids show “Best Foot Forward,” which premiered on the streaming service July 22. While not autobiographical, it’s based on the life of William & Mary alumnus Josh Sundquist ’06 — who, after losing his leg to childhood cancer, transitioned from being home-schooled to attending the public high school in his hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The show follows 12-year-old Josh Dubin as he navigates his first year at a public middle school, including making friends, joining clubs, playing on the soccer team, going to a school dance and even sneaking soda into a movie theater. The stories are universal, but they are portrayed through Josh’s unique lens of having a limb difference.
“The primary story engine is this new life situation, fish-out-of-water experience — and he also happens to have one leg,” says Sundquist. “I really like that perspective, and it felt very accurate to the way that I like to tell stories about my life.”
Sundquist is no stranger to sharing the details of his life publicly. Much of his professional life as a motivational speaker, stand-up comedian, and YouTube and TikTok star involves telling stories from his childhood. He has more than 3 million followers on social media and his videos have been viewed over 400 million times.
The show is based on a part of his 2010 autobiography “Just Don’t Fall,” which follows his life from childhood through his diagnosis and treatment for cancer, his transition to public school, his time at William & Mary, his training as a Paralympic ski racer and his experience representing the U.S. at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin, Italy. (Read the W&M Alumni Magazine feature on Sundquist in the Summer 2015 issue.)
Sundquist had always wanted to be a writer and felt his unique set of experiences would make a good book. Early drafts of the book were written while he was a student at William & Mary.
“I think that there is a very beautiful alchemy to being able to take negative stories from your life and tell them to other people and have those stories be meaningful to them, which turns around the original experience from being something that was inherently and only negative to being something that — while it still might have been an unhappy and dramatic series of events — is something that has created good in the world,” he says.
Sundquist says the TV show was a creative challenge as he took real experiences from his life and wove them into fun and meaningful stories that would be relatable for kids. For example, while the pilot episode follows his experience almost exactly — he really did memorize the yearbook, was tripped by a bully and was disappointed in the school lunch pizza — other episodes use Sundquist’s life to tell new stories, such as transforming a challenging incident where he wasn’t allowed to go on a theme park ride because of his disability into a humorous episode in which the character Josh has to sneak past a movie theater security guard to sit with his friends instead of in disabled seating. (He also really did smuggle soda into a movie theater as a kid!).
Sundquist is an executive producer of the show and was intimately involved throughout its production, from casting to being part of the writers’ room to being on set each day to reviewing footage in the editing process. He describes it as a “dream” for someone like himself who has always loved watching the behind-the-scenes extras and directors’ commentary for movies.
He also appears in the show, as the prosthetist who helps the character of Josh get a new prosthetic leg and dispenses some valuable advice when Josh’s prosthetic breaks during his school’s Halloween celebration. Sundquist had to audition for the role, even though he penned most of his character's monologue himself.
“I think we all, as adults, have that fantasy from time to time, to talk to our younger selves.
If I could go back and tell myself, ‘This was a trial but you’ll get through,’ or if I could go back and tell my freshman William & Mary self, ‘Chill out more and have more fun,’ I might want to do so,” he says. “To have the chance to talk to a 12-year-old me was really remarkable and special.”
Growing up, Sundquist never saw characters that looked like him in movies or TV. Research from GLAAD, which advocates for LGBTQ+ acceptance, in 2021 showed that the majority of TV characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors, and the organization’s 2022 report showed that just 2.8% of series regulars on scripted broadcast TV shows were characters with disabilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26% of American adults have a disability.
While the stories in “Best Foot Forward” deal with universal themes, Sundquist hopes kids with limb differences are excited to see themselves represented in the show. By following the fictional Josh’s parents and siblings as well, “Best Foot Forward” also shares an example of how a family is affected by having a child with a disability, and Sundquist has heard positive feedback from parents, too.
“I hear a lot from parents who have 6- or 7-year-olds who say watching this series as a family opened up conversations that they’ve never had before. It gave their child the language to articulate things that they had never been able to before: ‘I feel like Josh does in episode two — that's why I wear long pants,’ or ‘That's how other kids make me feel,’” he says.
It was very important to him that the character of Josh be played by a child who wears a prosthetic leg. He put out a call via Instagram for interested kids and found Logan Marmino, a 12-year-old who wears a prosthetic below the knee and had never acted before. Logan quickly rose to the challenge of being the show’s star, and he helped make sure that the way the character Josh talked and interacted with his friends is accurate for modern middle schoolers.
Sundquist was among five writers of the 12 in the writers’ room with a physical disability, and in a survey of the show’s crew, 20% identified as having a disability of some kind. In planning the show, he and the other executive producers sought out talented professionals with disabilities, from the person who wrote the theme song to the director of two of the episodes, who was then able to join the Directors Guild of America and have access to other work.
“In a show about disability, we should have disability in every department and create that opportunity for people who might, for various reasons, not have had it before, so that was a major priority to me as an executive producer,” he says. “I hope we can be a model for other TV shows and movies.”
He credits the many team projects he completed while getting his Bachelor of Business Administration at William & Mary for helping prepare him for the collaborative work of executive producing. He is also grateful to Sam Sadler ’64, M.Ed. ’71, who was vice president of student affairs while Sundquist was at W&M, for helping him be able to finish his degree at William & Mary and live on campus (he is an alumnus of Lodge 4) while also following his dream of skiing in the 2006 Winter Paralympics.
With so many interesting pieces of his life to choose from for the show, Sundquist is thrilled that “Best Foot Forward” is focusing on his public school experience.
“Our audience is broad and many are able-bodied people,” he says. “And for them, hopefully, it’s entertaining, but also it allows them to see a viewpoint from a type of character that they haven’t seen before.”