Mel Brooks still marvels at how Teri Garr clinched her audition for 1974’s Young Frankenstein. “All the other people who were up for the part of Inga had read their lines in a normal way,” Mel tells Closer. “When Frau Blücher is about to release the monster, they had all said, ‘No, no, you mustn’t.’ But not Teri! When Teri auditioned, she shouted, ‘No, no, youmozzn’t!’ in a crazy-exaggerated Germanic/Transylvanian accent. We all laughed out loud. We were so lucky to get to work with her.” 

The daughter of a Broadway performer and a Rockette, Teri, 74, studied dance as a teen and began auditioning the moment she graduated North Hollywood High School. One of her earliest credits was a dancer in Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas. She also shimmied on the variety series Shindig!, Hullabaloo and The Sonny & Cher Show before growing weary of always being in the background. “I finally asked myself, Why am I not in the front?” Teri recalled. “I didn’t study all those years to be in the back and get no money.” 

Teri Garr’s Acting Career After MS Diagnosis: Life Details

Young Frankenstein would become Teri’s big breakthrough. Before long, her versatile and effervescent presence would make her a star in films like Oh, God!, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Mr. Mom. She was even nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1982’s Tootsie. “I was proud,” Teri said in her 2005 memoir Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood. “The Academy not only knew I existed, they thought I was good.” 

The actress, who worked so hard and so often that she spent a full year living out of hotels, attributes her strong work ethic to her childhood. Teri’s father, Eddie Garr, a theater actor who started in vaudeville, died of a sudden heart attack when she was 11. Afterward, her mother, Phyllis, a former dancer and Hollywood wardrobe mistress, struggled to support the family. “I saw my mother be this incredibly strong, creative woman who put three kids through college,” Teri said. “We always had to try harder. That was instilled in me very early.’’

While filming Tootsie in New York, Teri began feeling unsteady on her feet. “I would jog in the park, and I just started tripping. I would start to trip and then that would go away. Then I would get some tingling in my arm,” she recalled. Unfortunately, it would take years to figure out what was wrong. “I went to 11 doctors. It’s a very hard diagnosis.” In 1999, it was finally determined that Teri had multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease of the nervous system that affects the brain’s ability to communicate with the body. 

Teri went public with her illness on Larry King Live three years later, although the rumors about her health had already been circulating — and hurting her ability to get jobs. “The gossip had an immediate and devastating effect on my career. The phone was ringing with inquiries about my health, but when it came to inquiries about my availability for roles, it was ‘Adios, amigos,’­” she admitted. Instead of retreating, Teri used her fame and experience with the illness to shine a light on MS. She began speaking at events for the National MS Society, among others, became a spokesperson for MS, and wrote her memoir. “I thought I could show what a difference a positive attitude could make,” Teri said. “In conjunction with drugs and medical treatment, a positive attitude and a sense of humor go a long way.”

Today, Teri’s daughter, Molly O’Neill, whom the actress adopted during her brief marriage to actor John O’Neill, remains a constant in her life. Molly, 28, “is a great example of what inspires me and what I live for,” Teri told Closer in 2015. “She is always there when I need her.” That was very true in 2006 when Molly called an ambulance after being unable to wake Teri. The actress had suffered a brain aneurysm and remained in a coma for a week, but Molly’s quick thinking had saved Teri’s life. 

Teri Garr’s Acting Career After MS Diagnosis: Life Details
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Though all these setbacks, Teri has never allowed herself to become bitter. “I just don’t see the point of wallowing in it. It’s just a waste of time,” says the actress, who likes to regard her health issues as an “odd gift” at times. “It makes you stop and settle down and focus,” Teri said. “I have to sit and read. And all of a sudden I’m reading and I’m like, ‘This stuff is great. How come I never read this before?’ Because I was too busy shopping or having 8-by-10s taken of myself.” 

She admits that slowing down didn’t feel natural to her, but she remains proud of what she’s accomplished. “Being an actress in a competitive field is very hard to do. You have to be completely driven and obsessed, but you outgrow it,” Teri said. “I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve done some wonderful movies — and I’d like to rest now.” There are some things, however, that Teri does miss. “I used to be a dancer,” she said. “So sometimes I have dreams about dancing.”

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.