All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2004

As acting jobs dwindle, Teri Garr takes up her pen

Wednesday, January 7, 2004
Edward Guthmann
San Francisco Chronicle

There's a reason we haven't seen much of Teri Garr lately. It's very simple, she says. "My agents have me in the Actors' Protection Program. It seems to be working very well. Nobody can find me."

Ta-dum. That's a funny bit -- one that Garr told on "Larry King Live" and at the Independent Spirit Awards. The real truth is that Garr has multiple sclerosis or something very similar to it -- doctors can't agree -- and hasn't worked much lately.

"The whole MS stuff put the kibosh on my career," she said by phone from her Los Angeles home. "And I sort of let it go. I even have a friend who went to CBS and said, 'I want Teri Garr to be in this series,' and the head of the network said, 'Oh no, she's got MS.'

"So I'm sort of out of the business because of that. And it makes me mad. Because I could do a lot."

Mad, yes. Depressed, no. Indefatigably upbeat, Garr keeps busy as a lecturer for MS LifeLines, an educational support service funded by drug companies Serono and Pfizer. Serono and Pfizer are manufacturers of Rebif, a form of interferon designed to slow the progress of MS that Garr injects three times weekly.

She lectured last month at an MS convention at the Burlingame Hyatt Regency -- "It's like stand-up comedy; I get standing ovations" -- but had to cancel a New Year's Day appearance at the Castro Theatre, where Francis Coppola's "One From the Heart," in which she starred, is having a premiere revival engagement.

"I feel really guilty (about canceling)," she says. "I get this thing every once in a while that I call 'ESS': emergency sleep situation. I'll get like lead, really fatigued, and I can't move. And that's what happened. I went, 'I can't do this.' "

MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system and manifests in symptoms -- fatigue, stiffness, loss of balance, slurred speech -- that are unpredictable, sometimes temporary and highly variable from person to person. An estimated 400,000 Americans have the disease.

One of Hollywood's most popular players of the '70s and early '80s, Garr brought effervescence, crackerjack timing and an air of daffy neurosis to the girlfriends and working moms that she played. "Young Frankenstein'' kicked off her peak movie period career, followed by "The Conversation," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Mr. Mom" and her Oscar-nominated role as Sandy, a girl "who gets suicidal at birthday parties" in "Tootsie."

Although Garr had MS symptoms as early as 1983, when she started to trip while jogging, her case was so unusual ("I went to, like, 11 doctors") that she wasn't diagnosed until 1999. By that time, she'd been limping on her right side for years, and the Hollywood rumor mill had made its own MS diagnosis. In October 2002, Garr spoke about it publicly for the first time on King's show.

"Some people have MS their whole lives, and it's not debilitating," she says. "And whatever I have, this neurological something or other, it's going very slowly." She still has weakness on her right side, and wears a brace on her right leg. "It makes me walk better, but I have to wear long skirts or pants. I have really great legs, but nobody knows."

Divorced from contractor John O'Neil, Garr lives in Los Angeles with Molly, her 10-year-old adopted daughter. She doesn't reveal her age, but given the fact that she was dancing in Elvis Presley movies as early as 1963, it's a safe bet she's in her late 50s.

It's tough not getting jobs, but Garr knows that MS is only part of the reason her phone stopped ringing. Any actress older than 40, even the best and most celebrated, has a hard time staying in the game. For that small minority, Garr included, who age naturally and shun face-lifts, the possibilities are even narrower.

"I think I look pretty good," she says. "And I know there are human beings my age who look the way I do. There must be stories about us -- not just about people who are young and good-looking."

Garr did a guest shot on "Life With Bonnie" last February and some voice- over work on a cartoon. For the most part, she admits, "I've just sort of rolled over and played dead," as far as her career goes. Speaking engagements pay well, but she's hungry to act again and made a New Year's resolution to find an agent who'll go to bat for her.

"Y'know, Ellen DeGeneres came out and said, 'I'm gay.' And people said, 'You're out, your series is off, forget it.' And yet she has talent and she hung in, and now she's got this talk show and people love her. I think if you've got talent, you come back, no matter what the prejudice is."

Some folks might be vanquished by an MS diagnosis, but Garr sounds as upbeat, vital and girlish as ever. "I have my moments," she says. "But I'm from show business, and one of the things you learn is that there's highs and lows, and you just ride them out. You always make the best out of something."

Instead of feeling sorry for herself in the absence of movie offers, Garr is writing her memoir. She's got some rich material to draw from: a vaudevillian father who changed his name from Eddie Gonnoud to Eddie Garr; a mother, Phyllis, who danced professionally and became a wardrobe mistress for movies and TV; a stint as contract player to Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, when she worked in "The Escape Artist" and "The Black Stallion" and had to dance on concrete in the beleaguered "One From the Heart."

"I had a big, long run," Garr says. She started her career in ballet, took go-go dancing gigs in Elvis Presley movies and rock 'n' roll shows like "Shindig,'' became a regular on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" (she was Olivia to Cher's Laverne) and worked with the best directors -- Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Mel Brooks and Sydney Pollack -- after transitioning to movies.

Garr is writing her book with Henriette Mantel, an actress and stand-up comic who helps with her MS LifeLines speeches. "I was thinking of calling it 'Do I Look Fat in This Wheelchair?' " she says, "but since I'm not in a wheelchair I probably won't -- but it might be a chapter heading.

"I just keep thinking of funny stuff 'cause there's a lot of funny stuff about MS. And funny stuff about my life. My life has always been funny, and that's what I think will be appealing about the book. I hope."

Copyright © 2004, San Francisco Chronicle