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Back On Her Feet

Wealth and fame couldn't save Lilly Tartikoff from tragedy. But as the former ballerina knows, you've got to pick yourself up and dance on.

March 25, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Robin Abcarian is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.

On a bright afternoon after a lot of rain, Calla Tartikoff is beginning a physical therapy session at a small gym on Melrose Avenue. Two women--both intensely focused on Calla--lean over her on a Pilates bed, one making sure her hips are in the right place, the other pushing her feet. Calla's shadow, Brigitte Poirier, is sitting nearby on a big exercise ball, bouncing slightly. Calla is having trouble paying attention. First, her mother, Lilly Tartikoff, and I are sitting right next to her, talking about her. Second, actor Eric McCormack of "Will & Grace" has just walked past and the women are atwitter. Lilly jumps up and disappears.

"You would not believe what happened one day," Calla tells me, and begins to recount a recent exchange she had with McCormack at the gym. "I said to him, 'How are you doing?' And he said, 'Better, now that I've seen you.'"

A few minutes later, Lilly returns with the actor in tow. "Calla? I'd like you to meet my friend Eric."

"We were just talking about you!" says Calla.

"You were not!" says McCormack, his voice rising just like Will's. "It's nice to meet you, sweetie."

"Again, you mean," says Calla. "I tried to hit on you once."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Lilly Tartikoff: West magazine's March 25 article on Lilly Tartikoff and her efforts to recover from family tragedies said she had funneled $30 million to $35 million to the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center. The money was raised for the Revlon/UCLA Women's Cancer Research Program.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 29, 2007 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on Lilly Tartikoff ("Back on Her Feet," March 25) said she has funneled $30 million to $35 million to the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center. The money was raised for the Revlon/UCLA Women's Cancer Research Program.

"You didn't try hard enough," he jokes.

Calla's entourage hovers: Her mother, who has walked to the gym from her nearby mansion; her mother's assistant, Laurie Hawkins, who once worked for Christopher and Dana Reeve; trainer Audrey Millstein; gym owner Juliet Kaska; and Poirier, one of two young women who take turns "shadowing" Calla to make sure she is safe.

Not exactly the entourage of your average 24 year old. That Calla is alive at all, let alone with an entourage, is something of a miracle. From the moment she was nearly killed in a car crash with her father 16 years ago, she has been surrounded by people looking after her, most notably her mother, whose refusal to accept that her daughter would never walk, talk or see again has led, improbably, to Calla's recovery and this moment in the gym.

"So, tell me about your mom," I ask, teasing Lilly, who has always been candid about her fierce need for control.

"She's a drill sergeant," says Calla, whose monotone voice, a result of her injuries, is at odds with her conversational wit.

"That doesn't hurt my feelings," Lilly interrupts. "It makes me feel like, mission accomplished!"

Last October, a review in The Times' Food section praised a modest new lunch spot near the Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles. The piece mentioned that the owners of the Colony Cafe were Lilly and Calla Tartikoff.

For anyone familiar with the Tartikoffs' story, this was startling news. Calla's late father, Brandon Tartikoff, was the wunderkind NBC programmer who conceived or championed "The Cosby Show," "The Golden Girls," "Miami Vice," "Cheers" and "Seinfeld" and put NBC on top of the TV heap for most of the '80s. The Tartikoffs were a golden couple--Lilly, charming and relentless and armed with Brandon's legendary Rolodex, created the Fire & Ice Ball with Revlon's Ronald Perelman, squeezing money from everyone she could, never taking no for an answer. It was a glittering annual party (and damn fine PR for Revlon) that raised millions of dollars for cancer research. In 1993, she co-founded the Revlon Run/Walk for Women. Her motivation was not just to help find a cure for a disease, but to support the work of one doctor in particular, Dennis Slamon of UCLA, a breast cancer researcher who had successfully treated Brandon's first recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. Over the years, Slamon estimates, Tartikoff has funneled $30 million to $35 million to the Revlon/UCLA Women's Breast Center. That money, unfettered by government rules, sped the development of the drug Herceptin, which has saved thousands of women's lives.

Then came the 1991 car accident and, in 1997, Brandon's death from cancer. Periodically, Lilly would emerge from what seemed to be hiding to pull off another fundraiser--her last Fire & Ice Ball took place in 2000--but then she'd disappear. In those years, fixing Calla and fixing cancer were all she did.

And Calla--well, outside of the Tartikoffs' circle of friends, it was a mystery what had become of her.

"She's doing fabulous," Brandon told The Times four months after the crash. She was alive, but she wasn't what any parent would consider fabulous. "No one ever knew how severe it was," says Lilly. "No one has ever read this story. People just heard and wondered."

What people had heard was a piece of dreadful news: On New Year's Day 1991, Brandon pulled onto a highway near Lake Tahoe in his Jeep, with Calla at his side. They were hit by a speeding car, leaving Brandon with major injuries and 8-year-old Calla near death with a bleeding brain. Brandon fully recovered after eight weeks in the hospital. Calla was in a coma for six weeks.

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