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The Warren Report

March 08, 1992|DENNIS McDOUGAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six months ago, when Lesley Ann Warren took on the role of a wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis victim for CBS' Sunday movie "In Sickness and In Health," she launched into her research with the same vigor that won her an Oscar nomination as a dingy trollop in 1982's "Victor/Victoria."

But that was before she met Wendy Roth.

"She is an amazing woman," Warren said in a sober, solemn voice. "When I first met her, she could still operate her wheelchair by hitting a remote control. She used to operate it with her chin guard. Now she can't even do that."

Roth taught Warren how to eat, drink, use the bathroom and even have sex as an M.S. victim--all part of the drama of a wheelchair-bound Texas housewife whose marriage is threatened by a young single mother (Marg Helgenberger) who becomes Warren's caretaker as well as a close friend--and perhaps more than a friend--of Warren's husband, portrayed by Tom Skerritt.

"Does multiple sclerosis break the family up? No," said Warren, answering her own question.

"But any crisis in a family allows for things to change and not always in a way that works for everybody--or maybe anybody."

Dressed head to toe in black, Warren spoke like a frustrated zealot, shaking her red hair sadly and vehemently at the same time. Warren met Roth through her acupuncturist, who had treated Roth for the crippling disease at about the same time that Warren was seeking someone who could give her some idea how to act as an M.S. victim on the screen.

"It's a frightening disease," Warren said. "Wendy's is chronic progressive, but there are people who have only one episode and you see them at the gym, leading a normal life."

M.S. which usually afflicts young adults, attacks the protective sheath around nerve fibers, affecting balance, motor skills and muscle control. Though it is rarely fatal, it is debilitating and has no known cause or cure.

Several performers have M.S., including comedian Richard Pryor, singer Lola Falana and actress Madeline Rue. One of Warren's co-stars in "In Sickness and In Health," Sunni Walton, also has the disease.

"Both myself and my sister have M.S.," Walton said. "My sister no longer walks and I have a friend who is paralyzed from the sternum down. That's why I was so pleased about this going on the air.

"This is the first time that people will really learn what M.S. is and that we are not Jerry's Kids," she said, referring to the children with muscular dystrophy who are a staple of the annual Jerry Lewis telethon.

As the M.S.-stricken Anita, Warren even convinced Walton with her performance. Walton, who remains able to walk and perform most actions normally, has spent little time in a wheelchair. She still goes on casting calls and has also found work as a voice-over actress, doing the voice of baby Andrew on the 1983 Ted Knight sitcom "Too Close For Comfort."

But, when she and Warren had to pair up for scenes featuring wheelchair-bound patients in "In Sickness and In Health," Walton found herself becoming depressed just being around the other actress.

"It was almost scary because I had known Lesley before briefly," she said. "But when I saw her on the set, playing the part as if she were a person who had M.S., it was hard for me to come home and not feel badly. I felt like trying to tell her she would be OK; that she would be better."

Warren agreed.

"I grew to hate that wheelchair," she said. "I would see the wheelchair and this sort of rage would come up from inside. I did not want to sit in a wheelchair 14 hours a day. I was angry about it and it affected me, as a woman."

During the filming, her self-esteem took a nose dive. It became so serious at one point that Warren talked with her therapist about it.

"What I was experiencing in the making of this movie took people 10 years to work through, he told me. All these feelings of rage and helplessness and loss of self-esteem and loss of identity. So I was in a bad place in the making of this movie."

In Hollywood, charities often become pet projects of celebrities and the disease-of-the-week can be used to burnish a star's own image. But Warren shies away from such cynicism.

She supported Walton's casting and befriended Roth during the process of learning how a woman acts after having been afflicted with the disease for 17 years. Neither relationship will end with the airing of the movie, she said.

"Human beings have to create hope. They have to," she said. "You have to have something you hold onto as being a possibility. Otherwise, why go on?"

"In Sickness and In Health" creates hope, she says. So does fundraising. On April 4 and 5, a national M.S. benefit called the Super Cities Walk will attempt to raise research money to fight the disease.

Warren says she will be out walking that weekend--in part, because she can.

"In Sickness and In Health" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

For more information on the multiple sclerosis Super Cities Walk call 1-800-I-BUST-MS.

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