HOLLYWOOD - 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.
Although 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 past 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 is in limited release.
"What's next?" she said, with her trademark laugh that has endeared her to audiences.
Although the steroids she was taking for her MS caused the former dancer to put on weight, Garr has slimmed down considerably over the past year. Svelte and youthful in pants and a tunic top, she walked slowly into the office in the Los Angeles home she's renting. 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 this summer.
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; he's dressed 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 kinds 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.' "
Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.