On Sept. 15, 1979, 22-month-old Joel Sonnenberg was burned on more than 85 percent of his body during a fiery car crash at a New Hampshire toll booth. Twenty-five years and dozens of operations later, Sonnenberg is completing a seminary degree, speaking across the country, and making his TV acting debut.
Joel Sonnenberg with cast of "Sue Thomas."
Sonnenberg guest stars on the Oct. 17 episode of PAX TV's "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye." The episode, titled "Skin Deep," revolves around a man (played by Sonnenberg) seeking vengeance against an eco-terrorist group whose violent actions years ago were responsible for the severe burns he now carries.
Sonnenberg's character must decide whether to embrace revenge or forgiveness—an apt theme for a show known for espousing positive values.
"Sue Thomas," now in its third year, was created by brothers Gary and Dave Johnson. The show is based on the real-life experience of Sue Thomas, a deaf woman hired by the FBI for her ability to read lips in surveillance situations.
Gary, the show's chief writer, is always searching for unique angles to episodes, and when one of the show's assistants mentioned a former classmate who had been severely burned, Gary paid attention.
Katie Taylor, an assistant to Dave Johnson, had gone to school with Sonnenberg at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.
"She told us about him and what a tragic thing had happened to him," Gary told EthicsDaily.com by phone, "but what a wonderful life he had made in spite of it and the kind of person he was."
That was in the fall of 2003.
"They're so busy with all kinds of deadlines," Taylor told EthicsDaily.com, "it was a couple months later when we finally got a tape in their hands when Joel had been interviewed by Bryant Gumbel."
The Johnson brothers were immediately hooked after viewing Gumbel's "Public Eye" segment, and Gary's storytelling gears started spinning. He also wondered if it would be possible to feature Sonnenberg on the show in some way. In fact, Taylor had come to know Sonnenberg through an acting class at college.
"He did such a great job in that acting class," Taylor said, and she knew he could make an episode work.
At first, Taylor said, they thought Sonnenberg might appear on another PAX and Johnson brothers show, "Doc," which is set in a New York City medical practice. But "Sue Thomas" proved a good fit as well.
"We had wanted to do an episode on eco-terrorism," Gary said, so they combined that idea with bringing Sonnenberg in to guest star.
"We put the two ideas together and came up with a story out of it," Gary said, adding that they wrote the script for Sonnenberg before they had even met him.
"It was fabulous," said Sonnenberg of his experience on the "Sue Thomas" set in Toronto.
He said it was his first time on a TV set as an actor, and he was bowled over by the amount of people it takes to keep the production moving forward. Sonnenberg said he walked gingerly around the set, trying not to disturb anything.
But when there was a break in filming, all the females on set converged on him with hugs.
"From that moment on, I just felt completely welcomed," he said. "All my fears were just hugged away."
Sonnenberg shot his scenes in about five days, and the experience made him want to act more.
"I'm very realistic about it in the sense that there are only so many jobs I can have as an actor," Sonnenberg told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from Columbia, S.C. Nevertheless, "If they're looking for someone like me," he added, "chances are they're going to want to pick me."
"I don't how it will be received," Sonnenberg said of his acting debut. "They took a big risk with me."
But Gary was quick with praise: "All the actors on set had so much respect for him and thought he was such an unbelievable person."
Taylor echoed the thought.
"At first you see the scars and that he has no hands," she said. "But the more you're around Joel, the more that just goes away. He's the first person to stick out his hand to shake hands, even though you're shaking this nub."
The burns to Sonnenberg's body killed the tissue in his extremities, forcing the loss of his fingers. Doctors were able to create a sort of pincer grip for his right hand.
"I actually like not having fingers, as strange as that may sound," Sonnenberg said. "It's part of my identity."
Faith is also part of his identity—the biggest part, in fact.
"I'm a faith-based individual," Sonnenberg said. "I believe in God and Jesus Christ."
That faith has sustained him through the equivalent of several years spent inside a hospital for surgeries and care. Sonnenberg writes about his medical care, faith and life thus far in a new book, Joel, just released from Zondervan.
"People ask me questions all the time, and one of the questions is, When are you going to write a book?" Sonnenberg said. "I was compelled to write it because it's such a great opportunity."
As is the episode on "Sue Thomas," where Sonnenberg embraces his character much as he has his own incredible life: earnestly, graciously, impressively.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The show's official Web site is here.
Joel Sonnenberg's Web site is here.