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Witty Garr cruising gracefully over the speed bumps of life

Actress and author Terri Garr will be at the South Branch Library in Bountiful Tuesday.
Actress and author Terri Garr will be at the South Branch Library in Bountiful Tuesday.
Publicity photo

It's hard for anyone — including Teri Garr — to explain why her comic timing is so perfect.

"I don't know — maybe it comes from my brothers," Garr said by phone from her Los Angeles home. "But I've always been a big fan of comedy."

When she is told that it's not only her delivery of the dialogue but also the look on her face, Garr says, sounding genuinely puzzled, "I have a look? I wasn't aware of it!"

Her new book, "Speedbumps: Flooring it through Hollywood," is a memoir written with comedienne Henriette Mantel. The reason for a co-author? "I guess I needed someone to kick me in the butt to get it done. As a single mom, I'm so busy with acting and my lecture series for Pfizer that I needed someone to help me put things in chronological order.

"Besides, she's very funny. If the book gets good reviews, it's all my fault; if the reviews are bad it's all her fault!"

Garr — who says repeatedly in her book that she is "?? years old," with question marks (she never says her precise age, but she's approaching 60) — has had a lengthy, versatile career in both television and films, dating back to the 1960s.

She was a dancer in nine Elvis Presley pictures before her first speaking role, which was in the 1964 Monkees movie "Head" (co-written by Jack Nicholson), and she appeared in several TV shows, becoming a regular in skits on "The Sonny and Cher Show" (1976).

Garr has also co-starred in a number of memorable films, including "Young Frankenstein" (1974), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "Mr. Mom" (1983) and "After Hours" (1985), and earned an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress in "Tootsie" (1982).

For 10 years Garr was a frequent guest on "Late Night With David Letterman" (she appeared with Letterman again last week), and for late-night viewers the repartee between them became almost legendary. "I just needed someone to laugh at my jokes. I'm not sure Dave really liked me. Although we were married for seven years," she joked.

In her book Garr tells about the day the Letterman show unexpectedly ended up in Letterman's office, upstairs with a camera crew. In her book she said that she criticized the Letterman segment as "locker-room humor," though she seems less concerned now.

On that show Letterman goaded her into taking a shower, she said, while the show was on, and although the door was closed, (no TV nudity) she continued to carry on a dialogue with the host. "He asked me at least 25 times to take a shower. Exploitation? I don't know! It was very spontaneous, I'll say that!"

Although she claims to have no favorites among her films, she considered her part in "Tootsie" to be "very funny," and she loved "After Hours" because she was able to work with director Martin Scorsese.

Her latest acting gig is as a defense attorney on NBC's "Law & Order: SVU," which airs Tuesday. She also is scheduled to appear in at least one more episode of the series and says it may become a recurring role.

The major reason Garr wrote her memoir is to tell her story of hitting one of those "speed bumps" of life — multiple sclerosis, a chronic, degenerative disease of the nervous system that causes a variety of symptoms. Garr experienced troubling intermittent symptoms for 20 years before she was finally diagnosed with MS. There were even rumors traveling around Hollywood that she had it before she knew she had it.

She went public with an announcement that she suffers from MS in 2002 but has continued to act and to lecture in an effort to inform the public about the disease. Garr believes that she suffers less with MS than many others of the some 350,000 people who have been stricken with the disease. "I've been very lucky. I get around very well. I'm taking medication, and I now wear a brace on one leg, but I walk normally. In fact, 75 percent of those who get MS never end up in a wheelchair. There are a lot of myths out there.

"Getting older is a worse problem. I'll be talking to people and I'll mention "M*A*S*H," and no one has heard of it, and it gets me crazy." She said she is also more worried about the problems for "women over 40 getting jobs in films."

Garr admits to "pacing" herself. "I try to prioritize — and I do get tired at the end of the day — but when you get older you slow down."

Asked about "Blindsided," by Richard Cohen (husband of Meredith Vieira), about his own severe, continuing bout with MS — a book that is often devastating in its descriptions of the ill effects of MS — Garr said he is "a brilliant journalist" who told the story the way it is to him.

"I'm not as articulate as Richard," said Garr, "but I deal with MS in my own way." Which is to say that she is as pure an optimist as she can be.

She also remains as witty as ever. Exasperated because her ex-husband interrupted our conversation, she said (to me), "You know, it's legal in Brentwood to kill someone — if you're at least a semi-celebrity."

Although she has had several relationships with men, she has been married only once and has an 11-year-old daughter, Molly, whom the couple adopted during that marriage. Garr said she adores Molly and thoroughly enjoys being a mom.

Although she is not dating currently, she doesn't rule out writing another book titled "Boy Crazy at 60."

Although she seems nervous about calling herself a feminist, Garr asserted that she has always been very independent — and that "it was independence that has helped me to survive, to go on with my life."

Garr is very pleased with her new role on "Law & Order." "The show is really smart; it has a lot of wit. Richard Belzer, a stand-up comedian, has a role on it."

She also enjoys lecturing around the country about MS. She has always enjoyed being in front of people — and she tries to make her appearances cheerful and funny. "The cinematographer on 'Law & Order' has MS," Garr said. He's brilliant, and he inspires me.

"That's what I've got to do with other people — inspire them to overcome obstacles."

If you go

What: Teri Garr

Where: South Branch Library, 725 S. Main, Bountiful

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

How much: free (with tickets, limit of two per person)

Phone: 451-2322