Meet James Martin, the first actor with Down syndrome to win an Oscar

When James Martin was born with Down’s syndrome, doctors told his parents he may never speak. 31 years later, Martin proved those doctors wrong by standing on the stage at the 95th Academy Awards, where he accepted an Oscar for acting in a film, later singing the Belfast song “I’ll Tell My Ma” to reporters before heading to hobnob with A-list celebrities at the Elton John after-show party.

Keep reading to learn more about this inspiring young man!

On the big night of the Oscars, James Martin was celebrating his 31st birthday and a nomination for the short film, An Irish Goodbye.

Wearing his father’s leopard print suit jacket, the Belfast actor stood on the stage at the Dolby Theatre and clutched his Oscar as the first person with Down’s syndrome to win the highly coveted award.

But more important than the Oscar, was the star-studded serenade.

Hollywood A-listers sing Happy Birthday to James Martin as An Irish Goodbye picks up Oscar

A room full of Hollywood A-listers sang Happy Birthday to James Martin as An Irish Goodbye picked up Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. 🏆🤩💫👏He threw a thumbs up to his good pal and supporter Colin Farrell from the stage. 👍Happy birthday James! 🥳

Posted by Belfast Telegraph on Monday, March 13, 2023

Instead of the usual acceptance speech, Tom Berkley and Ross White, the producers of the black comedy film, started an audience sing-along of “Happy Birthday” to the young man, who couldn’t stop smiling. Seen in the first few rows was fellow Irish actor, Colin Farrell, who gave Martin a thumbs up.

“This award is actually the second most important thing about today, because it’s this man’s birthday,” Berkeley said while hugging Martin onstage. “He’s out here in Hollywood, wearing a leopard-print suit jacket. We’d love to use the rest of our time up here to sing to James.”

Watching the awards from her home in Belfast, Martin’s childhood sweetheart, Barbara Norris said she spoke with him right before winning the award and tried to relax his nerves.

“I had to help him relax, from the very, very beginning, he had some butterflies in his tummy, he said to me he needed my voice to relax him, and then afterwards he got confident and said he had done what he had to do,” Norris said.

A couple for 14 years, Norris explained that Martin encouraged her to join the Babosh Drama Group in Belfast, that he’s been a member of 20 years. She hopes his successes will open doors for her and others with Down’s syndrome.

“It’s pointing that out to society that people who have multi disabilities can be looked upon as actors and actresses, and people can do things like that,” Norris said. “It sends out a positive message to the disability community because it shows society that more people like him should be doing more things like this, and have greater opportunities, to show that people like us can do them.”

Ross White, James Martin, Tom Berkeley, Seamus O’Hara, winners of Best Short Film (Live Action) award for ‘An Irish Goodbye’, at the 95th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball held at Dolby Theatre on March 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images)

Only six days before his Academy appearance, Martin was presented a plastic Oscar from Babosh, which psyched him up for the real award.

“I was convinced he was going to win, I felt it in my waters,” said Frances Nelson, of Babosh, who teaches acting for adults with learning disabilities, whom she prefers to call “an amazing bunch of adults who have ability and do drama and come to socialise.”

When she saw him holding the Oscar, Nelson said, “Last week at drama we gave him a plastic Oscar which cost about ($2 USD) and sang him Happy Birthday. But just watching it–he went from Belfast to Hollywood.” Nelson continued, “There’s a story in all of this; all of these adults have an incredible work ethic. James listens and wants to do better, he wants to learn his craft. He seizes the opportunity and gets great support from his parents.”

“It doesn’t matter if you have [Down’s] syndrome, as long as you’re doing what you do…I do what I can to be funny,” Martin told the BBC

In his post-Oscar interviews, Martin, an outspoken ambassador for Mencap–the learning disability charity–thanked the group that he campaigned in favor, against EU funding cuts and potential job losses.

James’ father, Ivan Martin–a sports reporter–beams with pride and boasts that his son “has spent his life pushing the envelope.”

“People are very good at saying, ’You can’t do this, and you can’t do that’… He’s done it, and he does it consistently,” said the senior Martin, adding that his boy’s achievement is “something that nobody can ever take away from him.”

Tom Berkeley, James Martin, Ross White, Seamus O’Hara and Pearce Cullen attend the US-Ireland Alliance’s 17th Annual Oscar Wilde Awards at Bad Robot on March 09, 2023 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

He said: “When you’re the first to do anything, it’s there for life and that’s how it is with him. All I ever wanted for James was that he’d be happy and, I tell you what, he’s happy now.”

And, the actor–who’s credited with a leading role in the BBC drama Ups and Downs–isn’t letting his celebrity get to his head. Working at Starbucks for the past 10 years, he said he’s excited to return.

“I help out with all the customers,” Martin said of his job at Starbucks, that supported his Oscar nomination with good-luck posters across its stores in Belfast. “I’ve been doing that a long time. It’s nice.”


Congratulations to James Martin! We can’t think of a better birthday gift for an actor to receive than an Oscar!

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