Actor speaks of long-secret fight with the disease
05/16/2001 - Wednesday
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By Ellen Mitchell. Ellen Mitchell is a freelance writer.
FOR MONTHS NOW the creators of NBC's popular TV series "The West Wing" have been wrestling with just how Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president of the United States, should come clean and admit he suffers from multiple sclerosis.
During tonight's season finale, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is expected to divulge that he's been lying to the American public.
While few people with chronic illness face the prospect of congressional hearings or an angry electorate, Bartlet's dilemma is all too familiar to the more than 2.2 million people worldwide who have MS, an incurable and often disabling disease of the central nervous system.
Actor David Lander is among them. Lander is best known as Squiggy, the shorter half of the wacky team of Lenny and Squiggy, on TV's hit series of the '70s and early '80s, "Laverne and Shirley," starring Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams. He was diagnosed with MS in 1984 and spent the next 15 years keeping it secret from all but his immediate family for fear of destroying his career.
Last September, Lander published a book titled "Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody" in which he shares his MS experience. The actor, who was named Ambassador of the Year 2000 by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, now tours the country speaking on how he copes with the illness.
On Saturday, he will speak at 1:30 p.m. at a National MS Society program at the Huntington Hilton in Melville. The program, which is open to the public, runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information, call 631-864-8337.
When "West Wing" producer Aaron Sorkin introduced multiple sclerosis into the script, he did not intend to explore the disease. Rather, he has told reporters, the story line called for the president to be ill and in bed, and "I didn't want it to just be the flu." The decision to have the president hide his illness turned out to be more like truth than fiction.
According to a Harris poll released last week at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, nearly 40 percent of MS patients hide their diagnoses from family, friends and colleagues for fear of what it will do to their personal and professional lives.
The poll also found that 42 percent of MS patients do not take medication, although drugs now exist that can halt the progression of symptoms, which include numbness in the limbs, paralysis, and loss of vision and cognitive difficulties.
Lander has been taking medication since 1996 and today, at age 53, he has occasional loss of balance and leg weakness. He admittedly misses things he used to enjoy, such as running, but he has learned to cope.
Not so at the beginning.
"I was making a movie in Mexico and I had a severe bout of flu. Then my balance was off, and one morning I got out of bed and fell flat on my face. I had no feeling in my legs," Lander said.
"When I was first diagnosed, Michael [McKean] came to the hospital. I told him it was a chronic back problem," Lander said. McKean, who played Lenny to Lander's Squiggy, had been Lander's best friend since college.
"And then I said to myself, 'Oh, my gosh, I really am gonna lie about this.' If I wasn't telling Michael, I wasn't telling anyone." Lander struggled with the deception for years, hiding his problem as best he could, even when his balance was so poor he was fired for being a drunk.
"I was frankly relieved they thought I was an alcoholic rather than that I had MS," he said.
Marshall eventually learned the truth. She and Tom Sherak, former head of 20th Century Fox, whose daughter also has MS, convinced Lander to go public.
Today the actor finds the roles that come his way are often less challenging than he would like. But, he is happily rid of the stress of living a lie. His acting gigs and voice-overs keep him in the Screen Actors' Guild, and that pays the medical insurance.
As a goodwill ambassador for MS, Lander relates his own story. He does not preach to those who prefer to keep their illness a secret. After all, he did the same for 15 years and believes he'd probably do it again, were it not that today there is treatment to stave off major disability.
"I tell people not
to handicap themselves, which comes easy when you're being told all the
things you can't do anymore. But, that's living down to people's expectations."