"More Than Money" by Neil Cavuto

From Chapter Four: Squiggy's Great Adventure

HarperCollins
From 1976 to 1983, David L. Lander wasn’t just any actor. He was a star. His character, Squiggy, on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley had made him a much-loved, much- imitated sensation. I can remember several Halloweens in those years when kids would dress up as Squiggy, the lovable, spitcurled character who helped to make Penny Marshall’s show the hit it was.

Lander also has appeared in a number of highly acclaimed feature films, including A League of Their Own, Scary Movie, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He’s guest-starred in more than thirty television shows, including Mad About You, Twin Peaks, and Pacific Blue.

A longtime fan of his, I’d seen him often on the big and small screen. I’d always appreciated his stardom, the longevity of his career, and his acting achievements. But I and his thousands of other fans now know that behind the fame and success there were many years of secret darkness, pain, and suffering.

What Lander had kept secret for long so, he shared openly and honestly when he published his autobiography, Fall Down Laughing, in 2000. In telling his story, he also made us laugh very hard, bringing back memories of how Squiggy kept us cracking up.

Laughter and pain. How often they go together.

In 1983, during the sixth and last year of Laverne & Shirley, Squiggy may have been funnier than ever. But the people who worked with him knew something was wrong.

No one knew what was ailing Squiggy, and even Lander only knew what his early symptoms were: a strange numbness in fingers and limbs, a certain clumsiness, a feeling of vertigo when he wasn’t much higher than a flight of stairs.

In the months after the end of the series’ long run, the symptoms were happening more frequently and severely. Lander didn’t know what he had. He just knew it was something bad, powerful enough to make his once athletic body go haywire.

Lander had to find out the cause, but he was totally unprepared for the actual diagnose: multiple sclerosis.

Lander’s disease, as I’d find out myself fourteen years later, gradually broke down the body’s nervous system, steadily increased the duration and depth of fatigue, and caused more and more frequent stumbling episodes and blackouts. Work might be possible for a while, but at a diminishing level — and then, at some unknowable time, not possible at all.

As almost anyone who has endured a serious illness will tell you, the toughest part is hearing about it, and then deciding whom to tell. There’s great pressure in our society not to look vulnerable. Lander found that particularly acute in Hollywood, where looking good and feeling good aren’t just a way of life. They’re practically gospel.

For a still-young and successful actor, the terror was overwhelming. As disastrous and horrifying as having MS was, almost as terrifying was the prospect of the professional consequences, if the news of his disease should leak out, or he began telling people about it.

He was sure that coming out with news of his MS would mean the immediate end of his career, so he made the difficult but almost inevitable decision to keep his condition a secret, and manage his debilitating symptoms as best he could.

The foregoing is excerpted from More Than Money by Neil Cavuto. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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