The actor who became famous for barging into Laverne and Shirley's apartment will speak in Buffalo on Saturday about how he thrives in spite of a disease that pushed its way into his life unexpectedly and won't let go.
David Lander, known as Squiggy on the hit '70s show "Laverne & Shirley," said multiple sclerosis "just comes out of nowhere."
But he has a positive attitude about it and tries to get that across as he travels around speaking about the disease.
"When you hear someone has MS, it doesn't mean they're going to be forever handicapped," he said in a telephone interview last week. "It's nice to tell people it isn't all bleakness."
Lander figures the disease first hit him in 1984, the year after the popular series ended. At the time, he had a movie part playing a thief sidekick to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in "Conan the Destroyer."
He was fired after disagreements with the director, a bout of the flu and overall wobbliness, which others assumed to be drunkenness. That was the beginning of unpredictable MS-related falls that would leave him feeling as if his body was nailed to the floor. The falls plagued him for 15 years as he worked in Hollywood and kept the disease a secret.
MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. The disease affects people differently. In the mild form, loss of muscle control and coordination comes and goes. In more severe cases, people must use wheelchairs or can no longer see. Other symptoms include weakness, numbness and slowed thinking, said Frederick Munschauer, chairman of the neurology department at the University at Buffalo.
In Western New York, MS incidence rates are 30 percent to 50 percent higher than in other places: 146 cases per 100,000 , instead of 90, said Munschauer.
In the five years since he revealed he has MS, Lander's career slowed to a near halt. Instead, he has replaced acting with other things that satisfy: He wrote a book, works as a baseball scout for the Seattle Mariners and tries to raise awareness about the disease. He will speak at 9 a.m. Saturday in the Marriott Hotel in Amherst.
"They all get the joke," he said of those who come to listen. "It's a wonderful thing to get to talk to your own people and getting embraced by them," said Lander, who authored "Falling Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody." (Tarcher/Penguin, $22.95)
"If I'm inspirational in any way, it's unintentional," he said, "but I'm flattered."
He also has been known to consult doctor specialists here at an MS center affiliated with the University at Buffalo. It was the late UB neurologist and professor Lawrence Jacobs who developed the medicine Lander now credits for controlling the disease.
"I was taking the drug before I knew he invented it," said Lander. "I haven't fallen down in about two years. Now I find I can catch myself, which is the amazing thing."
Once a week for the last several years he has injected himself with a dose of Avonex. It modulates the overactive MS immune systems, which attack the brain and spinal cord tissues.
Lander is a good example for patients, because he has a way of describing how overcoming his physical impairment is a source of pride, "instead of feeling shame," said Munschauer. He said such shame "is a common reaction."
Lander swims, does yoga-style exercise and traditional physical therapy three times a week. Yet he feels different than he did before MS. He walks with what looks like a limp. His body feels sluggish.
"I always feel like it's a beat behind," he said.
He now describes his years of secrecy as hell. On one appearance on the game show "Hollywood Squares," he had such trouble climbing a ladder to his second tier square in the giant tick-tack-toe-like set that he was afraid to go down for lunch.
Still, during those years he did some of the acting work he is most proud of. In the early 1990s, after a stint as a character in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" TV show, he got a part in a subsequent Lynch series. He was featured in seven episodes of ABC's "On the Air," in which he played an Eastern European from a fictional country called "Rajagotichich." It was his favorite role.
Since then his parts have dwindled to voices for animated characters, such as Henry the Penguin in the series "Oswald," a story for young children about a blue octopus. "My agents didn't want to send me out for anything," he said.
Sometimes the worry of an attack can cause problems.
Once, while doing a benefit with Michael McKean - his old Laverne and Shirley sidekick who played a gangly Polish character named Lenny - his old friend forgot his lines out of nervousness for Lander, who ad-libbed to make up for the lapse.
"In protecting me, he managed to screw up his own performance, and I don't think he's going to be anxious to work with me again," he said.
This year, acting jobs have been so few that he was in danger of losing his Screen Actor's Guild health insurance, which requires $30,000 of annual income to qualify. To help, a friend gave him a bit part in a movie with the working title "Skipping Christmas."
Lander spoke last week from his home outside Los Angeles. It was the day before he was scheduled to go to the set and walk into the wrong tanning booth, surprise Jamie Lee Curtis and walk out.
"I look at it and go, "If anyone recognizes me in this movie, they'll never hire me,' " he said. "I shouldn't be paid for the part. If it ends up in the movie it will be six seconds long, and I don't think it's going to wind up in the movie."
His wife keeps saying he would be perfect in "The Producers" as Max Bialystock, the musical's rapscallion producer. But such a thing seems out of the question to Lander, now 56, and aware that an MS attack could strike any time.
"I wouldn't take a chance on me if I was a producer. Maybe it's the wrong attitude to have, but I understand now," he said before pausing to think of a role that he could play. "I could see myself working onstage, but I think I'd better write it," he said.
Lately, he has been thinking about how he would like the MS Society to sponsor him to go to Washington, D.C., to lobby for disease research money.
"I'd just like to talk to people about what my life is like with MS," he said. "My life has been very unpredictable so far, and I hate to admit it," he said, "but I kind of like it that way."