Teri Garr — Before Ms And After

Circa 2007

Many people would attribute Teri Garr’s success to sweat, dedication and raw talent. But she gives top billing to a Beverly Hills numerologist, who convinced her to alter her name. “It was the best $35 I ever spent,” the actress and public speaker declares in the pages of her memoir, Speedbumps. There, the artist formerly known as Terry Ann Garr, dishes dizzying details of her start in Hollywood, from her commercials for Doritos to dancing roles on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, to her part in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, which earned her the Palm d’Or nomination at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. She followed that with Young Frankenstein, Oh, God! and One from the Heart, before hitting the jackpot with Tootsie, where her part as the spurned girlfriend, Sandy, led to an Academy Award nomination.

From the outside, everything appeared sparkly. But during much of her career, Garr experienced mild symptoms that would turn out to be multiple sclerosis: tingling, tripping, muscle weakness, fatigue. The side effects were annoying, but not as much as the gossip-mill. Acting jobs began to disappear. Yet Garr pressed on. In addition to her role as an inspirational speaker, she’s recently been in a number of movies, as well as on the TV series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. On top of that, she’s a full-time parent. In her book, she reveals the wit, passion and determination that fuel her fire:

I couldn’t wait to finish high school because classes got in the way of my career. At the end of my senior year, I auditioned for the cast of the Los Angeles Road Company production of West Side Story. The movie starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Rita Moreno had just come out and was a raging success. Most of the dancers from the original Broadway cast and from the movie wanted to work in Hollywood, so they decided to be in the LA production to see if they could get some attention from the industry. As a result, the producers needed only to fill one or two spots in the supporting cast. So I went to a rehearsal hall somewhere in Hollywood with my friend, Lynn, and a bunch of other female dancers my age, to try out for a part as one of the Jet girls.

I was eliminated right away. Didn’t make it past the first round. Out. Finished. Good-bye. I was crushed.

The dancing in the audition had been a breeze, but I guess my acting had hit the wrong note. I knew I was good enough for the part, so I stayed around and watched who they were choosing. It seemed to be nonsmiling tough chicks… I could do that. Then my friend Lynn told me she’d been called back. The second round of auditions was the next day. Perfect! I said to Lynn, “I’m going with you.” Lynn said, “Teri, you were dinged. You can’t go back!” To which I brazenly replied, “They’ll never remember me. Besides, I know what they want now.” I was convinced that they didn’t choose me because I smiled too much. So I went to the callback, and I was cast as a Jet girl. And Lynn, despite her legitimate callback, wasn’t. Apparently, that’s showbiz. I don’t think she ever forgave me for that.

When it came to my burgeoning career, I wasn’t going to accept rejection. If they didn’t realize how great I was, I had to give them a little “nudge.” For their own good. Of course.


Soon enough I got a part in another movie choreographed by David Winters. It was Pajama Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. I was, as you might’ve guessed, a pajama girl. We had just started rehearsing several musical numbers, one of which was a Watusi with Dorothy Lamour (don’t ask), when the assistant director came up to a bunch of us and said, “Who can do stunt dives?” From my experience on movie sets, I knew that stunts meant more money. We pajama girls looked around at each other. No one responded. I shrugged and said, “Sure, I can do a stunt dive!”

He said, “Oh yeah? What can you do?”

I was on the spot. I’d never done a dive in my life, much less a stunt. So I said the first thing that came into my head. “I can do a… Blonya.”

He said, “What’s a Blonya?” Good question. What was a Blonya? I had no idea. “I can’t explain it. It can only be filmed once because I go up to the end of the board and I do this… thing.” I was clearly a brilliant, articulate, stunt-driving pajama girl.

He said, “How much do you want for it?”

Now we were negotiating.

“Five hundred dollars.”

He looked at me. I weakened.

“All right, I’ll do it for two hundred fifty.” I had no idea what I was doing, but I could see that if I was smart and aggressive in this business, I could get further faster. So when they said, ‘Okay, we’re rolling… and, ACTION!” I ran off the end of the diving board and did what felt like a double reverse somersault with six and a half twists. It ended in the most painful belly flop of my life, but that part of the dive didn’t appear in the movie. When I got the $250, it felt like winning a prize.

A couple of months after I finished One from the Heart, I heard about a new movie that Sydney Pollack was dong with Dustin Hoffman. Every actress in Hollywood was auditioning for Tootsie, but my agents couldn’t land me an audition, despite the fact that I’d just wrapped a starring role in Coppola’s big new movie. Even my exercise teacher at Jane Fonda had an audition! But I couldn’t get one. I was outraged. Then the great Elaine May did a rewrite of the script. I had once done a reading of one of her plays at the Phoenix Theatre in New York, and she must have liked what she saw because, apparently, when she turned in her version of the script, she told Sydney Pollack that Teri Garr was the only one who could play the role of Sandy.

Aha! Now the tables were turned, and they wanted me for the movie. But it wasn’t even the lead role. As far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late. They’d have to do their little movie without me. Except… it was Sydney Pollack, a great, talented, and powerful director. So I agreed to have a meeting and talk about it. (Nice of Queen Teri, huh?)

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On my way to the meeting with Sydney, I gave myself a pep talk. “I’m gonna play the game,” said I to me. “But I’m really saying no. I’m trying to build a career here.” I guess Sydney had anticipated my reluctance, because before I could even begin to demur, he charmed me. He explained that Elaine May had championed me, and he admitted that he was persuading me for her sake. I appreciated his honesty. He was so straightforward and charismatic that I was curious to see what it would be like to be under his direction. And I like the way he talked about my character. He wanted her to be more than just a put-upon girlfriend. He knew the movie would walk a tightrope through the feminism of the day (it would be released in 1981) and explained that he believed I could make Sandy a complex character—believable, funny, and just sympathetic enough, without making Dustin’s character seem like a jerk.

Sydney was a straight shooter. The more I talked to him, the more I wanted the chance to work with him. Besides, he showed me some scenes from the script, including one in which Sandy had a line that cracked me up: “I had a wonderful time at your party. Do you have any Seconal?” Plus, really, was I going to say no? Here was my chance to make a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack! So I squelched my inner diva, who had said she’d only accept the lead, and took what turned out to be one of the most rewarding roles of my life.

I first met David Letterman when I was doing a promotional tour for Young Frankenstein in 1974. Twentieth Century Fox sent me to 10 cities in 10 days. As part of the tour, I was a guest on the Indianapolis radio show Dave was hosting at the time. We hit it off right away. Eventually, he got his own show on NBC, at 12:30, after Johnny Carson. That was Late Night with David Letterman. In the early ‘80s I went on that show every chance I got. Sometimes it was planned, sometimes—not so much. Often, I would get a call from Robert (Morty) Morton, Dave’s producer at the time, asking if I could be in New York for the next night’s show. I always asked, “Who died?” and then hopped on a plane anyway. At first I did it to promote the movies I was in, but as my rapport with Dave grew, I just did it for fun. And I mean fun in the masochistic sense of the word. Dave reminded me of my older brothers; he was always trying to get my goat, and he usually succeeded. Every time I went on the show I wound up exasperated. He’d make fun of me for being “ill prepared,” or he’d goad me into telling some story—like my story about going to the party at Elvis’s—when I had no desire to tell it. I’d toss my hair and threaten to storm off the stage, but then I’d stay for the abuse and come back for more. (It wasn’t really abuse, it was comedy. There’s a fine line.) I guess what it comes down to is that I was happy to entertain, even if it was at my own expense. I liked being in front of the live studio audience. That immediacy, the same immediacy I’d gotten used to on Sonny and Cher, was missing in the movie world.

One November night in 1985, Dave decided to do a show from his office. Not the studio, mind you, but his actual office, upstairs from the studio. It was the “Too Tired to Do a Show” show. I was the first guest to appear that night. We sat in his office. There was no audience, so there was no laughter, live or canned. He said, “This is my office. I have my own bathroom. Do you want to see it? Do you want to take a shower?”


Did I smell bad? Was my hair oily? Was he nuts? Oh yeah, he was, and so was I. I told him I had no need for a shower. He asked again. And again. He must have asked me twenty-five times. When I was little, my brothers would browbeat me like that. They’d say, “Go drop this soda off the roof.” I’d refuse, but they’d keep at it until I caved. I had this same dynamic with Dave, and I knew he wouldn’t shut up about the shower until I relented. “Okay, fine.” I got in the shower, closed the door, stripped down to my underpants, and turned on the water. Dave had won. He’d beaten me down, and across America, every guy who’d ever tried to talk a girl into doing something she didn’t want to do, must have felt a small sense of victory. I thought of it as locker-room humor.

We continued to have a conversation while I showered. We were shouting back and forth; the water was on; the mike was wet. I know it sounds tame now, but in those days it was as scandalous as Janet Jackson flashing her breast during the Super Bowl. The last words you heard as the show ended were from me, yelling over the shower: “I hate you, Dave!” After the show I walked home to my apartment, 30 blocks in soaking-wet underwear. Yes, I walked. I always refused the limos they offered; I thought of myself as too down-to-earth for limos. Except this time I was walking home with damp drawers and wondering if this is how Katharine Hepburn had started.

Hollywood has its own culture, so the initial inquiries about my health ranged from caring to catty. But that wasn’t the real problem; the gossip had an immediate and devastating effect on my career. I was still reading scripts, and I still felt like I was in the game. But what might have been a lull or the beginning of a slow dropoff, became much worse as soon as word hit the street that I had MS. My work opportunities fell off a cliff. It was a done deal. The phone was ringing with inquiries about my health, but when it came to inquiries about my availability for roles, it was adios amigos. The press was hungry to know more, but the industry was sated.

After the publicity blitz surrounding my announcement that I had MS, my job as a spokesperson for [the MS drug] Serono went into full swing. It turned out to be one of the greatest jobs I ever had. I attended MS seminars called MS In Balance, where a doctor would explain the scientific data about MS, after which I’d give my hilarious (yes, you heard me) 30-minute speech about living with MS. For the first time in my life, I got to play myself all the time. And the character of me was going to need a lot of expensive costumes.

I loved the idea of trying to make even a small difference in someone’s life. Hopefully, my stories would help other people with MS connect, and make them smile. I thought I could show what a difference a positive attitude could make. I thought people could benefit from that. In conjunction with drugs and medical treatment, a positive attitude and a sense of humor go a long way. In fact, more and more, science is discovering this to be true.

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As I stood at the podium to give my first speech, I looked at the crowd of people in front of me. More women than men, old, young, in business clothes and in jeans. Slender canes punctuated the rows of chairs like exclamation points, and there was a scattering of wheelchairs. This crowd had its own appeal. They were real people—people from all walks of life. But there was more than that to this crowd. These were people who shared something very personal with me. They all had MS, or were there to support their friends and loved ones who did. I’d been to a few MS events in the past, but this time it really hit me. All the craziness of my body wasn’t my own singular nightmare. These people knew what I’d been through. They weren’t all shooting movies while they struggled with their symptoms, but they were filing law briefs and having children and waiting tables and paying bills and trying to make their lives whole, as they fought their own armies of symptoms. I know it’s a cliché, but I wasn’t alone.

I hadn’t known what to expect in giving my first talk. Would I feel exposed and vulnerable? No. It felt nothing like that. It felt like I was conquering years of mystery and misdiagnosis. The first time I gave a speech, I knew it had worked. I was making a connection with this audience, my MS peers, or “my peeps,” as I like to call them. There are certain things that might sound shocking to a civilian audience (non-MSers), but with these people there was a real, honest camaraderie. We could laugh about tripping on the corners of rugs and similar mishaps. Not only was I making people laugh, I was feeling better myself. I think it was because I didn’t have to explain myself to them. They understood me, and I understood them. This stage performance wasn’t about acting, it was about truth.

In my speeches, I tell the audience that when I meet scientists and researchers who are working on a cure for MS, I always tell them to leave no stone unturned. I quote Norman Vincent Peale and say, “You should always shoot for the moon, because even if you don’t get there, you get a lot of other good stuff along the way.” (Look, they were researching high blood pressure when they discovered Viagra. I’m sure a lot of you men are happy about that. And I’m not unhappy about it.) I wrap up my speech by thanking people for coming, and telling them I hope to see them on the way to the moon.

My body had given me a great life, and now it was time for my mind and my spirit to return the favor by sharing my feelings with others. But it was more than that. For all my life I’d loved being onstage, and it was about more than being the center of attention. I wanted to perform, to do what I did best, to use my voice and body to tell a story, and, in doing so, to engage the people who watched me. The skills I learned as an actor came in handy in my new career.

We don’t make the rules. One of the only things we can control about any affliction—and life in general—is our attitude toward dealing with it. I’ve never met anyone with perfect health, a perfect marriage, perfect kids, and a perfect life. If you’re alive you’ve likely got issues, and still you find a way to lead a productive life. I remember the words of an 84-year-old friend of mine who has had MS for fifty years. Over time she’s decided that it’s just a lifelong annoyance. That is one of the best things I’ve ever heard about MS, and it’s the way I have chosen to deal with it—an annoyance that I’ve learned to live with, like bunions. It may not be pleasant, but it’s a part of who I am.

by Jacob Wascalus

Wascalus is a writer, MS advocate and has MS


EDITOR’S NOTE: When ABILITY’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper arrived at Teri Garr’s house on Dec. 21st for a scheduled interview, her daughter Molly, invited him into the living room, and said, “Let me get her, I think she’s still in bed.” Twenty minutes later, Molly returned with disappointing news. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but it looks like she’s too tired and is not going to come down.” It turns out that Teri Garr had a brain aneurysm that day. After a non-invasive procedure to treat it, the actress is recovering nicely. “She’s alert. She’s sitting up. She’s talking,” says Heidi Schaeffer, Garr’s rep. “The prognosis is very, very good.” So good, in fact, that the actress celebrated the New Year by tackling a New York Times crossword puzzle. (no mention yet of her trying ABILITY’s new crossword puzzle)

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