Earlier this week, Richard posted a question at the end of the Night Owl, asking who we admire. That was too hard a question for me, so I let it pass. It’s hard because I break it down one of two ways: who do I admire without exception, and who do I generally admire? I can think of dozens of names who fit the second bill but none who fit the first. One person who came close was David Lander, and his death was announced today.
He was a comedian who rose to international fame playing a second banana on a popular television show: Squiggy, off of the television series Laverne and Shirley. Paired with Michael McKean, his comedy partner since college, he co-starred on the series for the entire eight year run. After Laverne and Shirley ended in 1983, his partner McKean went on to a short span on Saturday Night Live and a variety of prominent movie roles. Lander, on the other hand, took a handful of guest appearances on television shows.
This type of career split between former partners isn’t unique. Most roles call for single actors, not duos, so one person gets the right role and earns a bigger spotlight. For more than a decade, that was what everyone assumed had happened to Lander & McKean.
In reality, Lander had been sidelined by a far greater adversary than having trouble finding roles. In 1984, he’d been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and he worked hard to keep it a secret in order to keep from being blacklisted by the entertainment industry. The result was ever fewer roles as the disease took greater hold of him. By the mid-1990s, he was working almost exclusively as a voice actor for various cartoons.
It was at this point that he was approached for a baseball promotion, asking if he’d be an announcer for a day for the Anaheim Angels franchise. He’d played the announcer in A League of Her Own and he was known as a regular attendee to the games, so it seemed like a natural fit. He initially begged off, but the ownership was very excited by the idea. He was approached by management, who spoke with him about baseball – he’d been a stakeholder in a minor league team back in the early 1980s, and they suspected that he had enough knowledge about the game to make him a great celebrity guest. The conversations that ensued revealed that he had far more knowledge than they’d guessed; he’d been an obsessive fan since childhood and could casually recite statistics of players dating back to the 1960s. But, he explained, as he finally confessed to someone outside of his very close circle, his disease prevented him from taking the job.
In response, they offered him a position as scout, and a second career was born. David Lander was an associate scout for the Angels, attending minor league games and watching for the skills which would indicate a player could handle the majors.
His success, and the continued requests of his support group, inspired him to go public with the disease in 1999. From that point forward he became a public spokesman for MS sufferers, providing a familiar face and encouraging hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations toward treatments for the disease. In 2002, he wrote an autobiography: Fall Down Laughing, How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody.
When the Angels eventually let him go, the Seattle Mariners scooped him up as a scout of their own. It was a second career, but he excelled at it.
I appreciate him because he made me laugh. But I admire him because he took a terrible situation and made the best of it, not just for himself but for thousands of others who suffer from the disease. He died on Friday evening due to complications from MS, after battling it for more than 35 years. He was 73.
But in addition to those things which are generally known, he should be given partial credit for another famed work with which he was technically unattached: This Is Spinal Tap. While Michael McKean played David St. Hubbins (a wholly new character with no connection to Lenny) for the movie, Christopher Guest played Nigel Tufnel. The character of Tufnel had appeared before Spinal Tap… as a band member for Lenny and the Squigtones.
David Lander made a lot of people laugh and he gave many people hope. That’s a legacy of which to be proud.
Question of the night: Who are some of your favorite co-star/second banana characters from television and movies?