In both 1978 and 1979 the number one rated show in America was a hilarious sitcom called ‘Laverne & Shirley’. This popular show averaged 23 million viewers each week. ‘Laverne & Shirley’ was about four characters, two Milwaukee brewery workers,’ Laverne & Shirley’ and their two crazy upstairs neighbors, Lenny Kosnowski and Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman.
David L. Lander was the actor who played Squiggy. In describing his character he said this, “Squiggy is the dumb guy who sees himself as a genius.”. ‘Laverne & Shirley’ ran for a total of eight seasons, ending in 1983. Lenny and Squiggy dolls, lunchboxes and a record album were all produced based on the shows’ popularity.
David L. Lander was born in Brooklyn, New York in the year 1947. He has one older brother and his parents both worked as schoolteachers in the New York City school system. He decided he wanted to be an actor at age ten. He began formal acting classes at age 14 while he attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
He went onto study at Carnegie Tech and NYU. After finishing college he moved to Hollywood and began his first job writing for a TV variety show called ‘ROMP!’.
David then worked at a telephone answering service where a radio producer discovered him. He was given an on-the-air audition for a show called ‘The Credibility Gap’. It was there that he and Michael McKean first performed as Lenny and Squiggy. Penny Marshall saw the performance and asked them to perform for her brother Gary Marshall. Shortly after, their characters were tried in the show and it became a huge success. They appeared in over two hundred episodes in the seven seasons it ran. Many of the actors from ‘Laverne & Shirley’ went on to have great success in the acting world.
David L. Lander, better known as Squiggy, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1984.
He received his diagnosis, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he finally ‘came out’ with a headline story in People Magazine. He kept his MS a secret for 15 years. The only people who knew about his condition were his wife, his daughter and a few close friends. He kept it from his father-in-law, a well-known Hollywood agent. He wanted to save in his Hollywood career, regardless of his illness he felt that keeping it a secret would help him do so.
During this 15-year period David worked as an actor. He played as a baseball announcer in ‘A League of Their Own’, and had guest starring roles in shows ‘Twin Peaks’,’ Happy Days’ and ‘Mad About You’ to name a few. He did voice over work in commercials and cartoons. Even with his MS he managed to stay busy in Hollywood. It is extremely difficult to be ill in a place where youth, energy and newness is seen as essential. Having a disability in Hollywood often means you are out of work.
Lander knew he wanted to succeed in his career, in order to do this, he essentially lied his way through interviews and auditions. If ever questioned about his health he would respond with such things as “Me? No, I’m as fit as a fiddle.”
This dishonesty was very difficult to navigate.
One such instance was when we was in a film with comic actor Harvey Korman. In a particularly pivotal scene, David was relieved that he would be able to sit the entire time, or so he thought. The director felt it was boring and told him “David, the scene is boring. I want to make it more interesting, more filmic, so I’ve moved the whole thing to the jogging track at UCLA. You and Harvey will jog and talk.” Although David protested, it was no use. He would inevitably have to jog for numerous takes.
As he walked onto set the next day, terrified that he would collapse and his secret would be revealed he was told that due to a wardrobe malfunction there would be frequent breaks during the scene. He would be able to take breaks often, and he was saved.
The opportunity to audition wasn’t awarded to Richard Pryor because of his diagnosis of MS
It was at a casting audition when David’s opinion of how Hollywood viewed individuals with disabilities was solidified. He was there to try out for a role as a landlord, when the receptionist received a phone call. He then heard the receptionist say that the role of the landlord was filled. When Lander questioned her, she responded “Don’t worry, we just say that to some people. That was Richard Pryor’s agent who thought he’d be perfect for the role. But how could he do it? He has MS!” Lander’s colleague wasn’t even awarded the opportunity to audition because of their diagnosis of MS.
How could he tell his secret now?
In talking about getting casted with MS David stated that in show business very few people actually know what having MS really means. He said, “All they know are symptoms, David said. “Symptoms not everyone will get at the same time, with the same intensity, or may not get at all. They hear MS and think, ‘Uh-oh, he’s going to have movement problems, coordination problems, cognitive problems. What’s that? Memory? Oh, that’s no good. Okay, do we want a clumsy guy who won’t remember his lines, who’ll maybe wake up blind tomorrow, not to mention possibly slurring his words? Or do we want another guy with brown hair? Okay, we’ll go with the brown-haired guy.”
Later in his career David was cast in a Chicago play called ‘The Nerd’. The casting director had cast him, sight unseen, thinking he was his ‘Laverne & Shirley’ co-star Michael McKean. The show was extremely difficult and required of physicality. He did his best to hide his MS but eventually he was let go, with the excuse that his ‘drinking problem’ disqualified him for the role. Lander didn’t argue.
He would rather have been seen as an alcoholic than as an individual with MS. Alcoholism was an acceptable disease in Hollywood, MS was not.
But after 15 years of masking his condition in a wide variety of ways he received a phone call from a friend, Penny Marshall from ‘Laverne & Shirley’. She asked him outright if something was wrong with him. He again, told her no. She responded by explaining that a daughter of a powerful man in Hollywood had MS and he had started an annual fundraiser where someone with MS was honored. Then she stated “They’ll honor you if you have MS,” Marshall had said, “and if you don’t, the ticket is $200 and you sit in the back.”
So David admitted to having MS for the first time. He thought about it, “I had a choice. I could keep up the lie, or I could win an award for having a disease for 15 years and doing a good job of lying about it. I went with the award.”
Never losing his sense of humor, David Lander has had an incredibly successful career and life, even as he struggled with MS. In the year 2000 he published a book titled, “Falling Down, Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody”. He maintains as a very active spokesperson and advocate for MS and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
About the author:
Danielle Price was 9 years old when her mom was diagnosed with MS. She graduated with a bachelors degree in Child and Family Development from Southern Virginia University. Dani is happily married to a wonderful husband of 5 years and dedicates her time to nurture and raise her two beautiful daughters. Dani is a talented singer, enjoys music and participates in the community.