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Garr back on her feet, back on the big screen

June 30, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

When rumors started circulating in the late 1990s that she had multiple sclerosis, actress Teri Garr discovered a lot of Hollywood was afraid to even meet with her about potential acting gigs.

Though she managed to keep working, interviews went from rare to nonexistent for the popular comedic actress who was Oscar-nominated for "Tootsie."

"When you hear the word 'disabled,' people immediately think about people who can't walk or talk or do everything that people take for granted," Garr said in a recent interview. "Now, I take nothing for granted. But I find the real disability is people who can't find joy in life and are bitter."

Garr, 63, is anything but depressed and bitter these days despite the fact she's had the chronic and often debilitating disease involving the central nervous system for the last 25 years -- it was officially diagnosed in 1999 -- and suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm in December 2006. She's in several new movies, including "Expired," which opened last Friday.

"What's next?" she said, with her trademark laugh that has endeared her to audiences.

Though the steroids she was taking for her MS caused the former dancer to put on weight, Garr has slimmed down considerably over the last year. Svelte and youthful in pants and a tunic top, she walked slowly into the office in the home she's renting off Coldwater Canyon. There's just minimal movement in her right hand and she has a noticeable limp -- but she is steady on her feet. And she's always cracking jokes -- so much so that David Letterman called her "Shecky Garr" -- a play on the name of nightclub comic Shecky Greene -- when she was a guest recently on Letterman's show.

Garr credits a resistance trainer called NuStep (she now works with that company) and swimming for getting her back into shape after the aneurysm. "Before I moved here, I swam 27 laps a day. I think that's the answer to keep everything moving."

Before the aneurysm, Garr completed two indie films, "Expired," and "Kabluey," which is set for release on July 11.

In "Expired," she plays a dual role: the wheelchair-using stroke-victim mother of a shy meter maid (Samantha Morton), and her blowzy, white-trash sister. And in "Kabluey" she plays an eccentric woman who takes out all of her aggressions on a young man (writer-director Scott Prendergast). She always screams and swears at him as she drives to work in the morning when he's dressed up in a company's blue mascot outfit and handing out leaflets on the side of the road.

Garr's roles in "Expired" originally were to be played by two actresses. But then the film's writer-director, Cecilia Miniucchi, encountered Garr.

"The moment I met her, I turned them into twins," the filmmaker says. "I thought she would be perfect. The mute character is all about heart and feelings and the quietness. And the wacky character -- when it comes to comedic and more energy-driven characters, she is perfect for that."

Miniucchi says Garr has an amazing disposition about life. "It's a miracle she's alive and her mind is completely what it was. I think she should be working every day in film. She has so much to give."

Garr might not be alive if not for her daughter, Molly, who couldn't wake her mother after Garr suffered the brain aneurysm two years ago.

"She's very good in these kind of situations," Garr said of her daughter, who's now 14. "She called 911. They rushed me to the hospital. They drilled a hole in my head and wrapped a coil around my brain so it wouldn't bleed anymore."

Garr was in a coma for a week and in rehab for two months. "I had to learn to walk again, talk again, think again."

She smiled. "I'm still working on that. But I'm not sure [thinking is] necessary in Hollywood. I went to physical therapy, occupational therapy, voice, every kind of therapy except mental therapy -- obviously!"

Garr credits her mother, Phyllis, for her sunny outlook on life. The former Radio City Rockette had to raise Garr and her two brothers by herself after her comedic actor husband, Eddie Garr, died in 1956.

"She put two kids through school," Garr recalled. "I have one brother who is a surgeon, there's me, and my other brother builds boats. She was in wardrobe. She was a costumer at the studio. She would always say, 'We're still alive. . . . ' "

Garr wrote about her experiences with MS in the 2005 book "Speedbumps" (her original title for it was "Does This Wheelchair Make Me Look Fat?") and worked tirelessly for the National MS Society, touring the country and talking about living with MS.

"I want to do more writing," she said. "I want to write about my experiences since 'Speedbumps.' "

And her working title for the new book?

" 'I Have One Foot in the Grave and One on a Banana Peel,' " Garr said. Laughing, of course.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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