Teri Garr leaning on a pole with a radiant smile Hess Corporation Careers ad

Teri Garr - My Life So Far

Many people would attribute Teri Garr’s success to sweat, dedication and raw talent. But she gives top billing to a Beverly Hills numerologist, who convinced her to alter her name. “It was the best $35 I ever spent,” the actress and public speaker declares in the pages of her memoir, Speedbumps. There, the artist formerly known as Terry Ann Garr, dishes dizzying details of her start in Hollywood, from her commercials for Doritos to dancing roles on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, to her part in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, which earned her the Palm d’Or nomination at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. She followed that with Young Frankenstein, Oh, God! and One from the Heart, before hitting the jackpot with Tootsie, where her part as the spurned girlfriend, Sandy, led to an Academy Award nomination.

From the outside, everything appeared sparkly. But during much of her career, Garr experienced mild symptoms that would turn out to be multiple sclerosis: tingling, tripping, muscle weakness, fatigue. The side effects were annoying, but not as much as the gossip-mill. Acting jobs began to disappear. Yet Garr pressed on. In addition to her role as an inspirational speaker, she’s recently been in a number of movies, as well as on the TV series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. On top of that, she’s a full-time parent. In her book, she reveals the wit, passion and determination that fuel her fire:

I couldn’t wait to finish high school because classes got in the way of my career. At the end of my senior year, I auditioned for the cast of the Los Angeles Road Company production of West Side Story. The movie starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Rita Moreno had just come out and was a raging success. Most of the dancers from the original Broadway cast and from the movie wanted to work in Hollywood, so they decided to be in the LA production to see if they could get some attention from the industry. As a result, the producers needed only to fill one or two spots in the supporting cast. So I went to a rehearsal hall somewhere in Hollywood with my friend, Lynn, and a bunch of other female dancers my age, to try out for a part as one of the Jet girls.

I was eliminated right away. Didn’t make it past the first round. Out. Finished. Good-bye. I was crushed.

The dancing in the audition had been a breeze, but I guess my acting had hit the wrong note. I knew I was good enough for the part, so I stayed around and watched who they were choosing. It seemed to be non-smiling tough chicks... I could do that. Then my friend Lynn told me she’d been called back. The second round of auditions was the next day. Perfect! I said to Lynn, “I’m going with you.” Lynn said, “Teri, you were dinged. You can’t go back!” To which I brazenly replied, “They’ll never remember me. Besides, I know what they want now.” I was convinced that they didn’t choose me because I smiled too much. So I went to the callback, and I was cast as a Jet girl. And Lynn, despite her legitimate callback, wasn’t. Apparently, that’s showbiz. I don’t think she ever forgave me for that.

When it came to my burgeoning career, I wasn’t going to accept rejection. If they didn’t realize how great I was, I had to give them a little “nudge.” For their own good. Of course.


Soon enough I got a part in another movie choreographed by David Winters. It was Pajama Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. I was, as you might’ve guessed, a pajama girl. We had just started rehearsing several musical numbers, one of which was a Watusi with Dorothy Lamour (don’t ask), when the assistant director came up to a bunch of us and said, “Who can do stunt dives?” From my experience on movie sets, I knew that stunts meant more money.
We pajama girls looked around at each other. No one responded. I shrugged and said, “Sure, I can do a stunt dive!”

He said, “Oh yeah? What can you do?”

I was on the spot. I’d never done a dive in my life, much less a stunt. So I said the first thing that came into my head. “I can do a... Blonya.”

He said, “What’s a Blonya?” Good question. What was a Blonya? I had no idea. “I can’t explain it. It can only be filmed once because I go up to the end of the board and I do this... thing.” I was clearly a brilliant, articulate, stunt-driving pajama girl.

He said, “How much do you want for it?”

Now we were negotiating.

“Five hundred dollars.”

He looked at me. I weakened.

“All right, I’ll do it for two hundred fifty.” I had no idea what I was doing, but I could see that if I was smart and aggressive in this business, I could get further faster. So when they said, ‘Okay, we’re rolling... and, ACTION!” I ran off the end of the diving board and did what felt like a double reverse somersault with six and a half twists. It ended in the most painful belly flop of my life, but that part of the dive didn’t appear in the movie. When I got the $250, it felt like winning a prize.

A couple of months after I finished One from the Heart, I heard about a new movie that Sydney Pollack was dong with Dustin Hoffman. Every actress in Hollywood was auditioning for Tootsie, but my agents couldn’t land me an audition, despite the fact that I’d just wrapped a starring role in Coppola’s big new movie. Even my exercise teacher at Jane Fonda had an audition! But I couldn’t get one. I was outraged. Then the great Elaine May did a rewrite of the script. I had once done a reading of one of her plays at the Phoenix Theatre in New York, and she must have liked what she saw because, apparently, when she turned in her version of the script, she told Sydney Pollack that Teri Garr was the only one who could play the role of Sandy.

Aha! Now the tables were turned, and they wanted me for the movie. But it wasn’t even the lead role. As far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late. They’d have to do their little movie without me. Except... it was Sydney Pollack, a great, talented, and powerful director. So I agreed to have a meeting and talk about it. (Nice of Queen Teri, huh?)


On my way to the meeting with Sydney, I gave myself a pep talk. “I’m gonna play the game,” said I to me. “But I’m really saying no. I’m trying to build a career here.” I guess Sydney had anticipated my reluctance, because before I could even begin to demur, he charmed me. He explained that Elaine May had championed me, and he admitted that he was persuading me for her sake. I appreciated his honesty. He was so straightforward and charismatic that I was curious to see what it would be like to be under his direction. And I like the way he talked about my character. He wanted her to be more than just a put-upon girlfriend. He knew the movie would walk a tightrope through the feminism of the day (it would be released in 1981) and explained that he believed I could make Sandy a complex character—believable, funny, and just sympathetic enough, without making Dustin’s character seem like a jerk.

Sydney was a straight shooter. The more I talked to him, the more I wanted the chance to work with him. Besides, he showed me some scenes from the script, including one in which Sandy had a line that cracked me up: “I had a wonderful time at your party. Do you have any Seconal?” Plus, really, was I going to say no? Here was my chance to make a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack! So I squelched my inner diva, who had said she’d only accept the lead, and took what turned out to be one of the most rewarding roles of my life.

I first met David Letterman when I was doing a promotional tour for Young Frankenstein in 1974. Twentieth Century Fox sent me to 10 cities in 10 days. As part of the tour, I was a guest on the Indianapolis radio show Dave was hosting at the time. We hit it off right away. Eventually, he got his own show on NBC, at 12:30, after Johnny Carson. That was Late Night with David Letterman. In the early ‘80s I went on that show every chance I got. Sometimes it was planned, sometimes—not so much. Often, I would get a call from Robert (Morty) Morton, Dave’s producer at the time, asking if I could be in New York for the next night’s show. I always asked, “Who died?” and then hopped on a plane anyway. At first I did it to promote the movies I was in, but as my rapport with Dave grew, I just did it for fun. And I mean fun in the masochistic sense of the word. Dave reminded me of my older brothers; he was always trying to get my goat, and he usually succeeded. Every time I went on the show I wound up exasperated. He’d make fun of me for being “ill prepared,” or he’d goad me into telling some story—like my story about going to the party at Elvis’s—when I had no desire to tell it. I’d toss my hair and threaten to storm off the stage, but then I’d stay for the abuse and come back for more. (It wasn’t really abuse, it was comedy. There’s a fine line.) I guess what it comes down to is that I was happy to entertain, even if it was at my own expense. I liked being in front of the live studio audience. That immediacy, the same immediacy I’d gotten used to on Sonny and Cher, was missing in the movie world.

One November night in 1985, Dave decided to do a show from his office. Not the studio, mind you, but his actual office, upstairs from the studio. It was the “Too Tired to Do a Show” show. I was the first guest to appear that night. We sat in his office. There was no audience, so there was no laughter, live or canned. He said, “This is my office. I have my own bathroom. Do you want to see it? Do you want to take a shower?”....Continued in ABILITY Magazine

by Jacob Wascalus
Wascalus is a writer, MS advocate and has MS

EDITOR’S NOTE: When ABILITY’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper arrived at Teri Garr’s house on Dec. 21st for a scheduled interview, her daughter Molly, invited him into the living room, and said, “Let me get her, I think she’s still in bed.” Twenty minutes later, Molly returned with disappointing news. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but it looks like she’s too tired and is not going to come down.” It turns out that Teri Garr had a brain aneurysm that day. After a non-invasive procedure to treat it, the actress is recovering nicely. “She’s alert. She’s sitting up. She’s talking,” says Heidi Schaeffer, Garr’s rep. “The prognosis is very, very good.” So good, in fact, that the actress celebrated the New Year by tackling a New York Times crossword puzzle. (no mention yet of her trying ABILITY’s new crossword puzzle)

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Teri Garr Issue; Senator Harkin — Promoting the Wellness Act; Humor Therapy— Don’t Go There; Headlines — Ford, GE, Carlson Hotels and more; Faces of MS — Increasing MS Awareness; Brain Aneurysm 101 — What You Need to Know; Rucker Book Excerpt — Best Seat in the House — Doidge MD Book Excerpt — The Brain That Changes Itself; Zoo Fight — Disability Legal Rights Center; Blind Leading the Blind — CA Dept of Rehabilitation; Media Access — 24th Annual Awards; Michael Weisskopf Book Excerpt — Blood Brothers; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Teri Garr Issue:

Teri Garr — My Life So Far

MS Under a Microscope — Up-to-the-Minute Research

Allen Rucker — 'The Day I Woke Up Paralyzed'

Miss Deaf America — Chelsea Tobin

Brain Aneurysm 101 — What You Need to Know

Humor Therapy — Don't Go There

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