More MS news articles for Feb 2002

Latest role for TV's Squiggy: raising MS awareness by telling his own story

Sun, Feb. 24, 2002
By Julia Prodis Sulek
Mercury News

In the early 1980s, David Lander was at the height of his career, playing goofball Squiggy on the sitcom "Laverne & Shirley." But a year after the show's end, the physical shtick that made him a celebrity was failing him.

His legs wobbled. He stumbled.

In 1984, he was told he had multiple sclerosis -- a diagnosis he thought would end his career, a diagnosis he kept hidden from Hollywood for 15 years.

On Saturday, more than three years after he revealed his secret, he spoke to some 300 people with multiple sclerosis at the Santa Clara Marriott.

"I'm in my 18th year, and here's what it looks like on me," said Lander, who is 53 now and walks noticeably stiff-legged. He wrote an autobiography in 2000 and has traveled the country as a "goodwill ambassador" for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Back in 1984, there were few treatments for the progressive nervous system disorder that could cause loss of balance, vision problems and memory loss, and Lander didn't want producers to assume he had to use a wheelchair or couldn't remember his lines.

The crowd reacted with vigorous nods and "yups" as he chronicled his everyday struggles -- stepping up on a curb, navigating a cobblestone walkway, falling out of bed.

"It seemed like my body was out of sync, like a badly dubbed Hercules picture," he wrote in his 2000 book, "Fall Down, Laughing."

Lander is best remembered as Squiggy, pals with fellow character Lenny, on the Penny Marshall spinoff of "Happy Days" from 1976 to 1983. Squiggy had a dark spit curl and black leather jacket, and despite his nasal voice and goofball antics, he considered himself "God's gift to women."

Lander said he didn't even reveal his secret to his best friend, Michael McKean, who had played Lenny to his Squiggy since their college days.

"I made a decision," Lander said. "I wasn't going to tell anyone -- especially anyone in showbiz."

But when a role called for great physicality, he worried. He remembers spinning a story to a director about why, instead of doing a scene that would have him jumping over a couch and running around it, he should just fall immediately on his rear end. He promised it would get a bigger laugh.

In a scene with comedian Harvey Korman, a conversation that was supposed to take place in a coffee shop was changed to a jogging track. "I thought, `oh no.' But we did it, and I amazed myself."

On the Chicago set of a play, "The Nerd," he was fired. "It's your drinking problem," one of the producers said. Lander said he was relieved they thought he was an alcoholic.

Sometimes, he couldn't disguise the symptoms. In the late 1990s, in roles on "Nash Bridges" and "L.A. Heat" that called for running, he fell down, often. His career was taking a nose dive.

In 1999, he went public in an interview with People Magazine and became a motivational speaker. He also has had numerous voice roles in animation, including as one of Cruella de Vil's gangsters in Disney's "101 Dalmatians" and most recently on the "Oswald" children's cartoon playing Henry the penguin.

Lander doesn't regret keeping his disease a secret, except for the toll it took on his wife and daughter, who were forced to make excuses for him as well.

But revealing the truth has had disadvantages. On the set of "Scary Movie" two years ago, when he argued about a wardrobe choice for his satirical professor role, one of the moviemakers told Lander's agent, "He's lucky to have a job."

But mostly, he said, "my career now is more working for the MS Society, which I find far more creative than playing Squiggy in `Scary Movie.' "

More than 400,000 people in the United States live with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system.

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