Omaha World-Herald- November 13, 2001
We caught up with David Lander, who played Squiggy on "Laverne and Shirley." He spoke last week in Omaha for the Nebraska chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Lander is an actor and an ambassador for the society.
Diagnosed with the disease in 1984, he first kept his illness secret out of fear that Hollywood would shun him. Since going public in 1999, he has written a book and talked candidly and comically about his disease.
Lander, 54, cracked jokes, detailed his difficulties and expressed shock that some people don't like Squiggy.
Q. How are you doing now, and does it vary from day to day?
A. I'm on a winning streak. I haven't had any exacerbations in about three years. The last bad one I had was when I was finishing up the book. They gave me only two months to write it, and I was under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress.
Q. You wrote the book in two months? That had to be hard.
A. Toward the end, the worst part was getting photos for it. They constantly wanted more and more photos. It was like, "Hey, can we have a photographer handy when I'm getting diagnosed with MS?"
Q. I read that when you decided to go public, you gave People magazine an exclusive interview. What happened from there?
A. I had finally decided to go public, but I couldn't talk about it till the story came out in People. The story was planned for (the spring of 1999), but then Columbine (school shooting) happened. So I got bumped! It was like, "We're sorry, you don't get MS for another month." I was left wondering, "OK, when do I get to have MS?"
Q. Give me an idea of how difficult this has been to deal with.
A. I describe it in my book as a whole series of little car accidents. You lose feeling in your legs. So you grab onto a door. But then the door closes on your fingers. At one point, I had a walker. I started to lose feeling in my legs, so I grabbed that, and the whole thing flipped over. It was a mess.
Q. How tough has it been to get acting jobs?
A. I still work, which is good. But there are times I'll be at a job, and I look at the guy playing the lead and I think, I would be in that gig if they didn't know I had MS. Instead, I'm in this part because I have MS.
Q. You recently played Squiggy in "Scary Movie." What was that like?
A. Squiggy was going to be the principal, like Henry Winkler was the principal in "Scream." They wanted me to do it with a leather jacket and a purple shirt. I said I'll do the spit curl, but I'm not doing the leather jacket and the shirt. They called my agent and said, "David better do whatever we tell him because he's got MS and he's on death's door, and he's lucky to have this job."
I thought, "Well first of all, you're wrong - it's not a fatal disease." Then I thought, "And people wonder why I was keeping this a secret for 15 years?"
Q. Have you ever considered that had your character on "Laverne and Shirley" been named Kenny, you wouldn't be known as the guy who played Squiggy?
A. It's funny that you mention that because we originally were going to be "Lenny and Anthony." But Garry Marshall (the show's director) decided we had too many Italian names in the show already. So we came up with Andrew "Squiggy" Squigman. I often have wondered if people would have remembered "Anthony."
Q. There's a Web site that lists the most hated characters from television shows. And you'd be happy to know that on "Laverne and Shirley" the Big Ragu was the most hated, and Squiggy was the second most hated.
A. What do you mean they hated Squiggy? ... I don't pay attention to that stuff.
Q. But isn't it true that people either loved or hated Squiggy?
A. I don't know. I'm really just now going out and meeting my audience for the first time ... My (former) agent hated the whole show. He would be like, "Can you believe people watch Laverne and Shirley?" I was like, "Um, you know I'm on that show, don't you?"
Q. Has the "Squiggy" name helped in terms of recognition?
A. I don't know that it has helped me in my acting career. It has helped me a lot in my speaking about MS. I don't know whether I would have the ability to go in all these different cities and draw a lot of people if it weren't for Squiggy.
Q. Is it inappropriate for me to still wear my hair like Squiggy?
A. It's coming back. I'd wear my hair like that - if I had enough hair.
Q. How do you approach your speaking engagements?
A. I feel a certain responsibility to make people laugh. I figure, if I don't get at least five laughs, they might as well have the doctor talk longer.
Q. What message are you trying to send?
A. The main message that I'm trying to get out to people is it boils down to early treatment. I was diagnosed in the dark days of the disease, when there were no drugs. The advice I got was, "Stay out of hot weather and never take a cold shower." We're seeing some things happen with medicine.
Q. What have you learned as you travel the country and speak with other people who have MS?
A. We are not
alone. We're all in this together. I see people who have it much worse
than I do. I don't know why I'm not in the wheelchair and others are. Every
day is a challenge, but we have to continue on.
(C) 2001 Omaha World-Herald