20 May 2012

Interview: Victor Garber on Alzheimer’s Disease

Victor Garber with Madeline Kahn in Love Letters, 1990.
Photo of a newspaper clipping from the scrapbooks of Madeline Kahn.

Victor Garber has enjoyed the kind of career that other actors must dream of, running the gamut from farce to suspense, from musical comedy to mystery, from TV sitcom to the biggest blockbuster movie of all time — to guest appearances on Glee and Ugly Betty. Gifted with a fine singing voice, he starred as Anthony, the sailor, in the first show I saw in New York, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; a few years later, he nearly landed in my lap when a pratfall sent him skidding, headfirst, across the stage and past the proscenium in Noises Off. (I was in the front row.) He played Reese Witherspoon’s law professor in Legally Blonde, and Jennifer Garner’s father on Alias; he’s played Liberace and Hemingway (albeit not simultaneously), as well as the Devil in Damn Yankees and Jesus in Godspell. He’s played the assassin (John Wilkes Booth) and the assassinated (George Moscone). He’s even played a Klingon — though his big scene was cut. Oh, well.

Along the way, Garber also appeared in two plays with Madeline Kahn: Blithe Spirit with the Santa Fe Theater Festival in the 1980s (when Madeline, an ideal Elvira at the time, was by common consent much too young to play Madame Arcati); and a limited-run engagement of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters in Toronto, in the summer of 1990. A few weeks ago, he met with me in New York for an interview about his work and friendship with Madeline.

As shipbuilder Thomas Andrews in James Cameron’s Titanic.

At the end of our conversation, the subject turned to one that’s affected both of us personally: Alzheimer’s Disease, which struck both his parents, as well as my father- and mother-in-law in France. With the Alzheimer’s Association and other organizations, as well as on his own, Garber tries persistently to raise public awareness of the disease and of the need for a cure, as he makes clear while sharing his thoughts with readers of this blog and answering a few of my questions.

VICTOR GARBER: I have just come from London, Ontario, where I was involved with the Alzheimer Society in London. And I’m hosting a benefit on June 4, at the Pierre Hotel, honoring David Hyde Pierce.* I mean, we’re in a crisis. People have to pay attention, and we have to figure out a way to stop this disease.

WVM: [Alzheimer’s] takes a terrible toll, on the family as well as on the victim.

VG: That’s all I talk about. It’s a family disease. It’s not just one person. I don’t know what the statistics are, but the illness that occurs in caregivers, the spouse, the child, or the actual worker. In my case, my mom and my dad both had it, so I have a lot of experience — too much experience — with this disease. We have to galvanize this country into really petitioning our Senate to find a way to subsidize new funding. Because we’re in trouble.

Speaking out: David Hyde Pierce goes to Washington,
with Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

David Hyde Pierce is my hero. You know, he is one of the great figures in leading this fight. I hate to call it a fight, that connotation — this search, I’m going to say, this search for the end of Alzheimer’s. I don’t like the word “war,” I don’t like the word “fight.” I think that’s the wrong way to approach it.

I believe, like everything, that there is a cure out there, and it just has to be awakened in somebody’s brain. I know that the more people are affected by this disease, the more people are galvanized to do something about it. And also the number of incidents of early-onset Alzheimer’s. People in their fifties, like [Pat Summitt] this basketball coach who’s just retired, at 59, in spite of her exemplary career, because she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

We have to address this. Because it’s happening more and more, with younger people. It’s not just — it’s one thing to find, of course, the cause, but I just want to know when we find a cure. I don’t want to know if I have a gene. That doesn’t help me. I’d rather honestly not know, because what am I going to do? There’s nothing to take. They say, “Well, there are pills.” Well, I’ve been through enough [to know that] nothing stops this disease.

WVM: What are the obstacles? Who is not getting this, who is not understanding why this is important? Whom are you trying to reach?

As Jesus in the film of Godspell, the role that also launched
his stage career in Toronto.

VG: David would know that. I’ve never gone to Washington to speak to Congress, but I know he has. I’m sure I will, at some point. But I don’t know whether it’s just the fact that we are so bombarded with causes. There’s too many. Every day I’m asked to do something, and I’ve sort of narrowed it down to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, because they affect me personally** and because I think they [are important].

More has to be done. I just think it’s a question of awareness, of people’s relationship with this disease, which is just growing daily. That will effect a change ultimately. I know there are more foundations, the Lauder Foundation is working specifically on drug therapy. Aside from the care that is going to bankrupt our health system, we have to find more money for research. Someone will find it.

As San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, with Sean Penn in Milk

WVM: It’s a matter of time.

VG: I was just at the Banting House in London, Ontario, this week. Frederick Banting woke up in the middle of the night, knowing very little about the pancreas, and had just read an article before he went to bed. And woke up at two in the morning with the idea of insulin, which changed the world. I’ve always believed this: the answers are always out there. We just haven’t somehow harnessed our consciousness to let it come out of us. But it’s there.

Victor Garber hosts the 2012 Forget-Me-Not Gala for the Alzheimer’s Association on June 4 at New York’s Pierre Hotel. Along with David Hyde Pierce, James Keach and Jane Seymour will be honored, and Broadway heartthrob Jonathan Groff will perform. For more information, click here.

*NOTE: Fans of Hyde Pierce and Frasier will recall Garber’s guest appearance as Ferguson, a paragon among butlers. (Pictured above, with Kelsey Grammer.) Off-camera, Hyde Pierce is the brother of my former colleague at CBS News, Barbara Pierce, and as a further testament to his good sense, he’s a serious Joyce DiDonato fan.

**Garber was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was a boy.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this. I am living the toll Alzheimer's takes on us all. My mother, who a year ago was living independently, is now sitting near me surrounded, out of long habit, by the Sunday Times but only actually able to read the funnies. And two nights ago she, once the gentlest and kindest of women, tried to hit me. It's so very heartbreaking. I don't discuss it at all on FB because I hate to expose her in that way to family and friends.

(If you go to my blog, there's a poem I've written about living with Alzehiemer's.)

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for sharing this. As you say, so many of these stories are painful in the telling, and yet the rest of the world needs to learn somehow and to understand what's happening.

For those who'd like to read Elizabeth's poem, her blog can be found by clicking on her name above, or by following this link directly to that page:


Theresa Muir said...

If Garber fell into your lap, you'd get hurt. He is a big man. Seriously, this is terribly moving and thought-provoking stuff. I can think of nothing (Alzheimer's) that I fear more for myself and my loved ones.