Annena Shaffer briefly tested the waters of acting.
Her theatrical stint ended as quickly as it began, with a tryout for a high school production in her hometown of Terre Haute.
“I tried to do something on stage once at Schulte [High], but I think I got stage fright,” Shaffer recalled this month. “But I sure admire people who can do that.”
Topping that list is her young grandson, Atticus Shaffer, a 12-year-old child actor who’s never visited Terre Haute but has extensive roots in the city.
Atticus — named for the lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — co-stars in the ABC TV family comedy “The Middle.”
The show depicts a middle-aged couple raising three typical kids in Orson, Ind., a fictional town that looks to be somewhere near Greencastle, according to a map shown when “The Middle” premiered in September 2009.
The notably non-dysfunctional Heck family includes dad Mike (a quarry manager), mom Frankie (a used car saleswoman), and their children — Axl (a slightly rebellious teenager), Sue (a socially awkward early teen), and Brick (a 9-year-old who is “clinically quirky” as his teacher says). Atticus Shaffer plays Brick.
The setting isn’t a coincidence. The show’s producers, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, are Indiana University grads. The Hoosier connections don’t end there. Atticus’ paternal grandmother, Annena Shaffer, was born and raised in Terre Haute, attending Gerstmeyer and Schulte high schools. Atticus’ paternal grandfather, Annena’s husband Roy, lived in Terre Haute from his grade school years through early high school. Atticus has never visited Terre Haute, but still has more than 50 relatives living in and around the city, mostly from the Perrelle and Shaffer families, Roy said.
Roy and Annena, now retired, reside in Colorado Springs, Colo. Atticus lives near Acton, Calif., with his parents, Ron and Debbie Shaffer.
Atticus and his TV persona share similarities, Roy said.
“He believes he’s pretty close to the Brick character in ‘The Middle,’” Roy said by telephone. “He says, ‘That’s me.’”
On the show, Brick thinks of his ever-present backpack as his best friend and repeats the last word of his comments with a secret-sounding whisper to himself. In real life, Atticus gets home-schooling from his mom, tutoring on the set of the show, and enjoys pets (dogs, cats, birds, fish and a rabbit) and hobbies such as Scouting, chess and Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments, which he attends with his dad. Atticus is also learning German.
The kid also has appeared in movies (“Hancock,” “Leaving Barstow,” “An American Carol,” “The Unborn,” “Opposite Day” and “Subject: I Love You”), commercials (for AIG, General Motors and Burger King), and on other television programs “Good Morning America,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” “My Name is Earl” and “The Tonight Show.”
“He’s pretty busy,” Roy said of his grandson. “He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to himself.”
Roy and Annena make a handful of trips a year to California to see Ron, Debbie and Atticus. While the two oldest children of Roy and Annena were born in Terre Haute, son Ron was born in Japan while Roy was on active duty with the U.S. Air Force. After the family settled in Colorado, Ron finished college, moved to California, married and Atticus was born in Santa Clarita.
Atticus was born with osteo imperfecta (commonly known as “brittle bone disease”) and has to avoid situations that might lead to bumps or falls. Thus, “you never see him running and playing with a ball” on the show, Roy said. Though he’s dealt with broken bones, Atticus told the New York Times in 2010 the disease doesn’t define him. “It just adds to my colorful personality,” he quipped.
The boy handles himself confidently with adults, Roy said; as a 9-year-old, Atticus insisted on meeting with network executives on his own. The theatrical agent who initially signed Atticus to a contract “was very impressed with this child’s mental capacity and speaking ability,” his grandfather said. “He’s impressed most everybody he’s met.”
During that New York Times interview in May, Atticus was preparing for a scene with guest star Betty White. Unfamiliar with the 89-year-old comedienne, Atticus read her resume on the Internet Movie Database a few days before the taping, and then was determined to be at his best. “Apparently, she’s a TV legend,” Atticus told the Times reporter.
White said, “I’m just the old broad. He’s the star of the show.”
In response, Atticus said, “People just like Brick because he follows the beat of his own drummer. He’s different, and he’s quirky, and people seem to think that’s adorable. Trust me, because I know. It’s my life.”
His relatives (and their friends) tune in to watch Atticus every Wednesday night at 8 o’clock. “When I go to meetings, I’ll mention ‘The Middle’ and [other people] are always very impressed and tell me how much they like him,” said Annena.
The cast includes Patricia Heaton, best known for her long-running role as Debra Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Heaton portrays Frankie, the frazzled but loyal and loving wife and mother who’s right where she wants to be. “Of course, I watch it because of Atticus, but I like it that they’re such a normal family, and because it’s in Indiana, and because it’s funny,” said Flo Callahan, one of Atticus’ cousins who lives at St. Mary-of-the-Woods village.
Callahan’s father and Atticus’ grandmother Annena are siblings. She last saw Atticus four years ago at a family wedding in California. Ironically, Callahan’s St. Mary-of-the-Woods neighbors include a family named Heck. “I told Ron that, and he thought that was hilarious,” Callahan said.
Someday, the youngster may move behind the cameras. He’s expressed an interest in becoming a director.
In the meantime, Atticus continues in his role as Brick on “The Middle” — which has been renewed for a third season. With Atticus’ studies at home and on-set tutoring, Roy thinks his grandson may earn a high school diploma early, perhaps before he turns 15.
“I might be a little ambitious there,” Roy said, “but he’s quite talented.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.