Monday, June 18, 2001
By Marylynn Uricchio, Post-Gazette SEEN Editor
David Lander is an actor best known for playing Squiggy on the sitcom "Laverne & Shirley." The Carnegie-Mellon alum has made appearances on more than 30 television shows and in films such as "Used Cars," "A League of Their Own" and "1941." Lander was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 17 years ago and kept his disease a secret until he wrote "Fall Down, Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody." He will be in Pittsburgh to share his experiences and sign books on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Hilton in cooperation with the local chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Lander will also throw the first pitch at the Pirates game on Friday.
Q. Why didn't you tell anyone you had MS?
A. Job security. I was afraid that too many people didn't know what MS was, and I wasn't in a wheelchair, I wasn't having cognitive problems, so I thought as long as I wasn't showing, why tell anyone? I just felt that they wouldn't hire me if they knew I had MS.
Q. Did you feel that MS had a bad rap because of the high profile people like Richard Pryor and Annette Funicello?
A. There's nothing wrong with Richard Pryor or Annette being seen in public. It's just that there are 200 people a week diagnosed with the thing, and if the examples they see are Richard or Annette, I think the average person who just found out says is that me in two weeks or next year or the rest of my life? Seventy percent of the people who have MS probably have it closer to the way I do, where they can function and walk. Richard has a very progressive case. It took him about three months before he was relegated to a wheelchair. I'm in my 17th year and haven't seen one yet.
Q. How were you able to keep your illness a secret?
A. Most of the time when I was working, it didn't enter into it. If it did, I would say I hurt my leg the other day, or I have a bad back, can I sit down between takes or things like that. I did get fired a couple of times because they thought I was an alcoholic, and frankly I was relieved that they didn't think I had MS. That's how great the stigma of MS was to me.
Q. What changed your mind about coming out of the closet?
A. Falling out of the closet? I've been thinking about it for the past few years. When I did meet people who had MS, I would talk to them and I would think, there's a lot of advice I could give because I've lived with this for such a long time. I really would love to talk openly about this as opposed to saying now you're sworn to secrecy. There's enough stress to having this, but hiding it doubles the stress.
Q. What attitude do you encounter now?
A. I'd say most people are wonderful. The general public -- people who know are just so nice and great. I had no idea I was that popular. Show business ... I've done a lot of cartoons, which doesn't really require much physically. The two films I've done recently, while I was glad I was doing them, I looked at the parts I wasn't playing and if I didn't have MS I'd be playing that part.
Q. What early signs tipped you off that something was wrong?
A. One time, I thought I had vertigo. Another time I thought I had an ear infection or a slipped disc. And then one day when I got out of bed only half of me got out. For all intents and purposes I was paralyzed from the waist down and was, in a very dramatic moment, crawling to the bathroom screaming "What's wrong with me?" Two hours later, there was nothing wrong with me. I was walking again. Little things happened, but then they would go away as quickly as they got there.
Q. How come you're such a huge Pirates fan?
A. When I was 4 and growing up in the Bronx, I wanted to root for a baseball team. My brother was a firm believer that no one should root for a home team. He gave me a Pirates pennant and said, "You should root for them. They're the worst team in baseball." By the time you know what's going on, they got to be better. That was 1951. I think they lost 120 games, something they may do this year! I could pick up KDKA in New York and Bob Prince doing the Pirates games, and I became a big Buccos fan. In 1960, when they won the World Series, I was the happiest man in the Bronx.
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