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Class act: 'Front' tells inspiring tale of award-winning teacher

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By Mike Hughes
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008
 

By all logic, Brad Cohen would spend his grown-up years far from any classroom.

"Classes were the toughest place for me to be," he recalls. "I had to sit still and be quiet."

That's something he simply couldn't do, as people will see in CBS' "Front of the Class."

Cohen has Tourette's syndrome, which causes him to twitch and blurt out sounds.

"I had no friends. ... They would stand around me and make noises," Cohen recalls.

What is Cohen doing these days• He's an award-winning elementary-school teacher.

"He's an amazing person," says Jimmy Wolk, who portrays him. "When you meet someone with that unbelievable optimism, it has an effect."

Like the guy he plays, Wolk faced challenges. Less than a year from college, with few professional credits, he leaped into one of the year's largest and most complex roles.

"It's like learning two languages," Wolk says.

On its own, the story has huge emotional moments. Alongside that are all the twitches and bursts, which increase during stress.

To master that, Wolk and Dominic Kay (who plays the young Brad) studied for weeks. "It was a little bit of Tourette's boot camp," Wolk says.

There was much to learn. The more extreme form, blurting out profanities, is rare, Cohen says; he has the more standard form, blurting noises.

This confounded people in St. Louis, where he grew up, he says. "I didn't have the greatest school programs."

The extreme, he says, was a 5th-grade teacher.

"She, literally, made me apologize. She made me get up there in front of the class and say I would never do it again. A few seconds later, I started making the noises."

In 7th grade, a principal had a program in which Cohen explained Tourette's. His life started to get easier.

Sports helped; so did family support. "His mother is unbelievable," Wolk says. "You can tell she loves Brad and his brother very much."

By college (Bradley University in Illinois), Cohen had friends, happiness and a goal: He would be the kind of grade-school teacher he never had.

The hard part was getting hired. Despite good grades and practice-teaching recommendations, it took him 25 interviews to land a job.

The result: He won an award as Georgia's best first-year teacher.

The key thing missing was romance. "We called it second-date syndrome," recalls Cohen, 39. "I couldn't get past the first date."

He met his wife Nancy on the Internet and found two happy surprises: She already knew someone with Tourette's and she was a fan of his favorite group, Milli Vanilli.

Most people deserted Milli Vanilli when they learned the "singers" were faking it, but Cohen still loves the music. "My friends have always known that. I guess now we're going to tell 15 million people."

Those people will learn much about him. They'll see Patricia Heaton and Treat Williams play his parents and they'll see Wolk as a passionate and charming Cohen. "He was up against some big-name Hollywood players," Cohen says.

Wolk, by comparison, had few professional credits.

He had grown up in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, eager to perform. "My dad was a fan of old Frank Sinatra songs. I'd always be singing, dancing, trying to entertain."

Wolk graduated from the University of Michigan and spent time in New York, almost getting jobs. ("I sharpened my skill as an auditioner.")

Then came the big audition. Wolk landed the dream role of a guy beating the odds.

Additional Information:

'Front of the Class'

9 tonight, CBS

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