The tingling began in her right foot. Then, jogging in New York’s Central Park, Teri Garr stumbled. That’s odd, she thought. What am I tripping on? Before long, she felt a stabbing pain in her arm.
That was 1983, and Garr was at the peak of her career. She had won audiences’ hearts in Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That same year, at 33, she’d received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the scorned girlfriend in Tootsie. No way was she going to let a little pain or clumsiness slow her down — especially since doctors couldn’t tell her what was wrong.
So Garr kept working. She hosted “Saturday Night Live” and appeared in a slew of sitcoms from “Life with Bonnie” to “Friends.” David Letterman thought she was so funny he kept inviting her back, whether she was plugging a project or not.
Over the next 16 years, her symptoms came and went, puzzling the many specialists she consulted.
“What can I do?”
“Right now,” said one doctor, “nothing.”
Finally, in 1999, she got a definitive diagnosis: multiple sclerosis — the chronic, often debilitating disease that pits the body’s immune system against the central nervous system.
This is the part in the story when the tears usually come, then depression and maybe even thoughts of suicide — at least in the classic celebrity-confronts-adversity tale. But Teri Garr, who had trained as a dancer, was simply angry. Her body had betrayed her, but along with the anger came something else — memories of her mother.
Garr grew up in a show biz family: Her father was an ex-vaudevillian named Eddie Garr, and her mother, Phyllis, was a former Radio City Rockette. But entertainment work was uneven for Eddie, and the Garrs just scraped by. Phyllis came up with one scheme after another to make money. At one point, the family split their house in half and rented out the front.
When Teri was 11, her dad died and left her mom with three kids to support.
Devastated, Phyllis managed to keep hold of her optimism. She made a pin that she wore on her blouse. It said EGBOK — Everything’s going to be OK.
To make ends meet, Phyllis Garr worked 18 hours a day mending and sewing costumes at NBC. When Teri couldn’t afford a dress for the prom, her mom borrowed one of Dinah Shore’s — a Dior — from the studio stockroom. And when Teri’s brother Ed, who was studying to be a doctor, complained he didn’t have room to study in the family’s small house, she bought a tiny 1950s trailer and parked it in the backyard. On the rear was a wooden license plate. It said: Kwit Your Bitchin.
“We have to take this off, Mom,” Teri told her. “It’s tacky.” But Phyllis refused. She ultimately put Teri and her two brothers through college. “That was my role model,” says Teri. “Someone who takes care of things, copes. So I was conditioned to do that.”
The problem was, other people didn’t share her optimism. In Hollywood, a physical handicap can be a career death sentence. So Garr kept her diagnosis quiet and tried to hide her symptoms. At her Los Angeles home, though, she routinely tumbled down stairs and dropped dishes. One Christmas, she tripped over a skateboard, crashed into the fireplace and broke her collarbone. The accidents she could handle. “Getting depressed or sad wouldn’t have helped me,” she says.
Finally she decided to let the world know her secret. Talk-show host Montel Williams had appeared on “Larry King Live,” discussing his own MS. He confessed he woke up “not wanting to get out of bed.” Later, he admitted he’d attempted suicide twice.
“I thought, there’s too much drama here,” said Garr. “What if someone went out and talked about it like a stand-up comic? If you get somebody laughing — and then stick in a point about something important — they’ll remember it.” Maybe she could use her talent to change the way people thought about MS.
On October 8, 2002, Garr went on “Larry King” and spoke publicly about her illness. King pressed her about the pain she must feel. Wasn’t she frightened? But Garr, smiling and cracking jokes, was not about to betray her mom’s legacy. “I really don’t think negatively about any of this stuff,” she said.
Garr uses the same wit that made her shine on “Letterman” to educate and uplift the spirits of MS patients and their families. As a paid spokesperson for MS LifeLines, an educational and support service funded by the drug companies Serono and Pfizer, she speaks across the country. She tells listeners about her own symptoms: the sudden, extreme fatigue, the difficulty controlling her right hand, the stumbling.
“Another big problem is memory loss,” she’ll say with a pause. “Now, what was I talking about?” Every so often, she says, her doctor asks discreetly about sexual functions. “I don’t know,” she sighs. “I haven’t been invited to any lately.”
In between the quips, Garr delivers the substance: New drugs can slow MS.
Exercise — like her Pilates class — is physically and emotionally beneficial. “It doesn’t help to contemplate how sad your life is,” she says. “You have to move on.”
A lifelong performer, Garr was used to fans’ applause. But these days, there is a different reward that has nothing to do with Hollywood opening nights. It’s ordinary people, some in wheelchairs, waiting to shake her hand. People saying that because of her, their symptoms will no longer get in the way of their dreams. Sometimes, Garr tells them about her mom. Sometimes, she mentions “EGBOK.” Sometimes, she just squeezes a hand and says, “Everything’s going to be OK.”