An MS diagnosis curbed Teri Garr's film career — but not her morale

Actress Teri Garr has a three-word description for the impact that multiple sclerosis has had on her acting career.

"Over and out," said the 53-year-old star of "Young Frankenstein" and "Tootsie," with a characteristic hoot in her voice.

She quickly follows with the question: "What is the difference between an actress over 50 and an actress with a disability? Nothing. They both can't find work."

Before jumping to the conclusion that Garr is bitter or cynical about having MS, a chronic progressive disease that strikes the central nervous system, it should be noted that the Oscar-nominated actress prefers the direct, no-pity approach to dealing with the cards life has dealt her.

"When one woman found out I had multiple sclerosis, she said to me: 'My heart bleeds for you,' " Garr said. "I said to her: 'Well, my heart bleeds for you, because you're an idiot.' "

Garr wasn't always so direct and outspoken about the disease. She thinks she may have had MS for almost 20 years before she was finally diagnosed in 1999, and she started to talk openly about it only a year ago. Now she is on the lecture circuit, giving her slant on the disease and possible treatment throughout the country as a paid spokeswoman for the pharmaceutical company that makes Rebif, the drug she takes to control her symptoms.

She will be in Seattle this week to talk about her life and the type of treatment she is taking. She gives herself three shots a week of the drug, which doesn't cure the disease — there is no cure for MS — but which in some patients slows the attacks on the nervous system.

An estimated 400,000 people have MS in the United States. The progressive disease, which usually first strikes people between ages 18 to 40, affects twice as many women as men and is two to three times more likely to be found in people living in the Northwest than in other parts of the country.

The Northwest has more people with multiple sclerosis than any other section of the country (there are at least 6,500 people with the disease living in Seattle alone), but doctors don't yet know why. Theories range from lack of sunshine to something in the environment to a gene passed among the Northern European population of the area.

Specialists also point out that a large number of people with MS come to the Seattle area from other parts of the country because Seattle is a leader in MS research and medical treatment. Because the majority of the men who have MS are veterans, the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle has a large MS clinic and was recently awarded a multimillion-dollar grant to study and treat the disease.

Garr said she first noticed she was having trouble with her right leg 20 years ago. She thought it was something called "dropped foot." One doctor gave her Valium for a nervous condition.

Garr said doctors tried to find a cause for her symptoms for several years. She said she underwent all the usual tests, from spinal taps to MRIs, until doctors finally told her she had MS.

"It's a tough disease to diagnose," she said. "I can still walk OK, but I take three shots a week and I have to rest. When I need to take a nap, I need to take a nap right now. I call it ESS, which stands for Emergency Sleep Situation."

Despite the fatigue that strikes people with MS, Garr said she wants to be treated as a normal person. She told a story about a friend in a wheelchair who one day got into a dispute with another man. The man grabbed her friend and started shaking him. Suddenly the man realized what he was doing and said he was sorry.

"My friend said, 'No, you were treating me like a regular person,' " Garr said. "We just want to be treated like regular people."

Garr's daughter, Molly, 9, has adjusted easily to her condition. "If anything, Molly is perhaps more sensitive and generous of heart because of the many ways she helps me every day, such as opening jars. ... She doesn't think anything differently about me having MS than if I had a cold. The way Molly thinks about this is the way I would like the rest of the world to think about it."

Garr was born in Hollywood to Eddie Garr, a film actor, and Phyllis Garr, a dancer, and started her career dancing with a San Francisco ballet company. After attending college, she trained with acting coach Lee Strasberg and launched her Hollywood career; she was a dancer in nine Elvis Presley movies.

In 1968, she got her first speaking role in the Monkees' movie "Head," and then went on to act in dozens of films, including "The Black Stallion," "Tootsie" (for which she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar) and, more recently, "Dick" and "Ghost World."

She has also appeared on several TV shows, memorably as Phoebe's ditzy birth mother on "Friends."

With her latest role as a person with MS, Garr said she is approaching it with a good attitude and a little humor. She tells a story of going to her doctor, and the doctor asks her questions about her life.

"Then the doctor asks me about sexual functions," Garr said. "I said I don't know. I haven't been invited to one lately."

Steve Johnston:

Teri Garr

The actress will speak at two events. At 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Westin Seattle, 1900 Fifth Ave.; register online at or call 877-267-4662. And at noon Thursday at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center; a $125 donation is suggested; register at or call 800-FIGHT-MS (800-344-4867), Ext. 245.