Let’s begin with a little TV history: back in the 1970s and early ’80s, there weren’t dozens of cable networks doing original programming, or YouTube, or Facebook, or iPods, or a thousand other means of mass distraction. There were three TV networks, a nascent PBS, and radio. Back then, primetime network television was watched by everyone, and everybody knew their favorite theme songs and characters.
In 1978 and ’79, the number one rated show in America was a slapstick working-class sitcom called Laverne & Shirley. Created by Gary Marshall, it ran on Tuesday nights at 8:30 and an average of 23 million viewers tuned in every week. (The Office, by comparison, currently pulls in eight million a week; 30 Rock, six million, including those who record their programming on TiVo). Laverne & Shirley featured four main characters: Milwaukee brewery workers and roommates Laverne and Shirley, and two addled-brained, greasy-haired hose heads from upstairs, Lenny Kosnowski and Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman.
Lots of people loved Laverne & Shirley because of comic sparkplugs Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, who played the odd-couple, dreamy-headed leads. Some of us, however, were more intrigued by their knuckle headed sidekicks. Just as many viewers of The Honeymooners sat quietly until Ralph Kramden’s sewer-worker friend, Norton (Art Carney), walked in and hollered, “Ralphie Boy!”, many fans of Laverne & Shirley loved to see Lennie and Squiggy stumble into a scene, dazed and confused, and always with Squiggy yelling, in a voice that sounded like Ethel Merman in labor, “Hello!” Long before there were Wayne and Garth or Beavis and Butthead or Dumb and Dumber, there were Lenny and Squiggy. As David L. Lander, the actor who played Squiggy, described the characters, “Squiggy is the dumb guy who sees himself as a genius; Lenny is the dumb guy who thinks Squiggy is a genius.”
Laverne and Shirley ran for eight seasons and 178 episodes, finally ending in 1983. It went into worldwide syndication and is probably still playing in Zimbabwe. The show spawned Lenny and Squiggy dolls, lunchboxes, and even a record album titled “Lenny and The Squigtones.” When it was all over, Lenny (Michael McKean) went on to become David St. Hubbins in the immortal faux-rock group Spinal Tap, and played many memorable roles in films by Christopher Guest and others. Today he stars on Broadway in the Tracy Letts play, Superior Donuts.
Squiggy, played by David L. Lander, got multiple sclerosis (MS).
That’s where this story begins. For 15 years, from 1984, when he was first diagnosed with MS, until 1999, when he finally “came out” via a headline story in People magazine, David Lander kept his MS a secret. His wife and daughter knew of his condition, as did a couple of close friends, but that was about it. David didn’t even tell his father-in-law, a very famous Hollywood agent. The only way to survive Hollywood in the dark ages of the ’80s and ’90s, David figured, was to hide his condition at all times. Although Squiggy had proven to be a great role, walking around with MS and acting like he didn’t have a care in the world presented Lander with an even bigger challenge. It proved to be a 15-year, Emmy worthy performance.
Throughout this period, David continued to work as an actor, playing a minor-league baseball announcer in the Tom Hanks movie A League of Their Own and earning guest spots on hit shows like Married…With Children, Twin Peaks, Happy Days, and Mad About You. He even reprised Squiggy in a classic episode of The Simpsons. David performed in plays, supplied lots of voiceover work for cartoons and commercials, and did all the other things that working actors do. He just did it with MS.
A disability is not a good thing to have in Hollywood. Health, youth, boundless energy, newness, and the ability to walk straight are smiled upon. Though there are some exceptions to the rule—Marlee Matlin, Robert David Hall, the coroner on CSI—the odds of having a disability and working steadily in Hollywood are not favorable, especially for actors. It is particularly hard to stroll onto a stage or in front of a camera and hide a physical disability, especially one that often gets worse in strange and unpredictable ways.
But David, seeing no other sane option, essentially lied his way through the process of finding work in Hollywood. He lied on every perfunctory physical checkup before every movie and TV show he did. “Me? No, I’m fit as a fiddle. No MS over here.” He lied to his friends if they spotted him stumbling over a curb or suddenly grabbing a hold of a railing. He lied when a casting director asked him, as David tipped a little to the right while entering a room, “Did you have an accident?”
Actress Teri Garr, also living with MS, had a pat answer for questions like these:“Yes, in fact, I had a skiing accident. Thank God nothing was broken.”
David once recalled the famous acting coach Stella Adler having said, “Every actor playing a character should know a secret that his character has. If the writer doesn’t provide it, you should invent a secret only your character knows.” David decided that each of his characters would be privately dealing with MS. “But it’s their secret,” he said, “and they’re not telling anybody.”
This approach aimed David for tricky territory. For a film David once did with the great comic actor Harvey Korman, the script called for a pivotal two-person scene to take place in a bar. “Perfect,” David thought, “I can sit the whole time.”
But the director called the night before filming and said, “David, the scene is boring. I want to make it more interesting, more filmic, so I’ve moved the whole thing to the jogging track at UCLA. You and Harvey will jog and talk.” David protested, but to no avail. He would have to jog for no doubt multiple takes, catching his breath long enough to reveal “the real murderer” to Harvey Korman.
The next morning, full of trepidation that on the 20th take his legs would collapse and his secret would be shamefully revealed, David showed up at UCLA to discover that Harvey’s wardrobe crinkled like aluminum foil after every three feet of jogging. The whole scene would have to be shot with frequent breaks from the jog-a-thon. David was saved by a wardrobe malfunction.
It was in the lobby of a casting office where David experienced an epiphany about how the “industry” generally feels about actors with MS. David was up for the part of a landlord in a youth-oriented sitcom when the receptionist,within hearing distance of David, answered the phone and told the other party,“Oh, I’m sorry, but we’ve already cast the landlord.” When David told the receptionist he was there for the part of the landlord, she responded with, “Don’t worry, we just say that to some people. That was Richard Pryor’s agent who thought he’d be perfect for the role. But how could he do it? He has MS!”
Few people in show business, and probably anywhere else, have any real idea what having MS actually means. “All they know are symptoms, David said. “Symptoms not everyone will get at the same time, with the same intensity, or may not get at all. They hear MS and think, ‘Uh-oh, he’s going to have movement problems, coordination problems, cognitive problems. What’s that? Memory? Oh, that’s no good. Okay, do we want a clumsy guy who won’t remember his lines, who’ll maybe wake up blind tomorrow, not to mention possibly slurring his words? Or do we want another guy with brown hair? Okay, we’ll go with the brown-haired guy.”
If David Lander is any indication, MS has no appreciable effect on someone’s wit. Asked if people like him and Teri Garr have a secret MS handshake, he answered, “Yes, but we can never complete it. The hand, the thumb…”
The coup de grâce for David came with an ill-fated role in a play in Chicago called The Nerd. One of the producers cast David, sight unseen, mistaking David for his Laverne & Shirley co-star Michael McKean. “She was so disappointed when I showed up,” David said. With no rehearsal time, and with a load of props to manipulate on stage, David found himself forced to hide his MS in a very physical performance. This experience, plus being dragged out to drink every night by the show’s producer, created problems for David. He was let go from the production with the excuse that his “drinking problem” disqualified him from performing.
David didn’t argue. Rather than fessing up to the MS, a disease he knew they wouldn’t understand anyway, he copped to a disease they did understand but which he didn’t have: alcoholism.
Show business forgives alcoholics all the time. Ask all those stars whose embarrassing mug shots permanently reside on YouTube. But it doesn’t forgive MS.
After a decade and a half of hiding behind couches, trying to conceal his dragging leg, telling gullible directors that he was limping because he thought it was good if his character had had polio as a kid, and faking it in a hundred other ways, David finally decided to come out of the MS closet. The impetus was a call from his old friend, Penny Marshall. She asked him outright: “Is there something wrong with you?” “No,” David said, “why do you ask?” Marshall went on to explain that the daughter of a powerful man in Hollywood, Tom Sherak, had MS, and that Sherak held an annual fundraiser at which attendees honored someone with MS who they felt was handling the disease in a sterling fashion. “They’ll honor you if you have MS,” Marshall had said, “and if you don’t, the ticket is $200 and you sit in the back.”
“So,” David recalled, “I had a choice. I could keep up the lie, or I could win an award for having a disease for 15 years and doing a good job of lying about it. I went with the award.” David finally announced to the world that he had MS at that Dinner of Champions fund-raiser on 9-9-99.
People magazine had already negotiated the exclusive print rights to David’s life of deception, and was set to run it as a cover story when two kids decided to shoot up Columbine High School. As David recalls, “Suddenly I wasn’t going to be on the cover anymore unless I got a gun, and I wasn’t that desperate.” His article ran in a later issue and, along with all the press interest in the MS Dinner of Champions, David suddenly went from “comic actor” to “comic actor with MS” or worse, “comic actor tragically, cruelly afflicted with the deadly scourge of MS.”
Still looking for a stage on which to perform, David quickly turned his lemon of a disability into lemonade. After telling People that he was taking the MS drug Avonex, he was contacted by a woman at the company that produces the medication. “She was in her dentist’s office reading a one-month-old copy of People,” David said, “and she said to herself, ‘What? Who? Where? He has? David Lander? He’s a celebrity. He actually has MS. And he’s taking Avonex! Avonex is ours! He could be a spokesman for our company! Wow!’”
For the next ten years, with the help and guidance of the National MS Society, David hit the road doing public presentations about living with MS. The MS Society stipulated that David had to mention all current MS drugs, not just Avonex, because the drugs all worked differently for different people. David traveled city after city, essentially doing a one-man stand-up routine about how he came to deal with a life altered by MS. This new speaking role “helped restore my confidence in performing,” he now says, after the multiple rejections he had to endure during his years of lying in Hollywood.
David’s speaking career has been put on hold recently because of a change in corporate management (“They actually pay me for not going on the road,” he joked) so while he invents his next comic foray, he pursues his lifelong interest in baseball, fools with the array of mobility devices crowding his living room, and thinks about what MS has taught him.
“It’s basically dress rehearsal for old age,” he said. “You really start seeing things. I have to slow down, whether I like it or not. Sometimes I think I’m turning into another person, another character. I see myself in the mirror and I go, ‘Holy shit! What a character! What’s my secret?’”
David L. Lander’s secret is an absurdist outlook far more powerful than his old secret of MS. But don’t tell anybody.
by Allen Rucker