Actor David L. Lander — the unforgettable Squiggy on ABC’s “Laverne & Shirley” — has died, his family confirmed to The Times.
Lander passed away Friday evening at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after having battled multiple sclerosis for 37 years. His wife, Kathy Fields Lander, daughter Natalie Lander and son-in-law Jared Hillman were by his side. He was 73.
Lander’s Andrew “Squiggy” Squiggman, opposite Michael McKean’s Lenny, was a staple of ‘70s and ‘80s television. The distinctive character — whose voice was simultaneously nasal and squeaky — was a thug wannabe minus the muscle who had a thing for neighbor Shirley and who entered every room with his signature “Helloooo.” He and McKean developed the characters in 1965 when they were freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then called Carnegie Tech, where they studied theater.
The two met while painting a chair for a school theater set and hatched Lenny and Squiggy over late-night improvisation sessions in Lander’s dorm. They remained close friends their entire lives.
“He was my oldest friend,” McKean said. “We knew this was coming for a while — we watched his physical deterioration — but nothing upstairs deteriorated. He was as funny as he always was ‘til the end. He was the funniest man I ever knew.”
Lander’s wife of 41 years, Fields Lander, described him as “a dichotomy” who was “unlike any actor I’ve ever met before. He had this sharp wit that kept everyone laughing, but he was very gentle and kind and very private in his personal life.”
Fields Lander, an actor, photographer and psychotherapist, said that unlike many Hollywood personalities, Lander “had very simple pleasures.”
“He loved baseball, he loved movies — old movies, new movies, any movies — and he loved his family. Natalie, David and I were a really tight threesome, an inseparable family unit.”
David Leonard Landau — the actor changed his name — was born in Brooklyn on June 22, 1947, and raised in the Bronx. His parents, Saul Landau and Stella Goldman Landau, were both high school teachers. His older brother, Robert Landau, is also a teacher.
While a student at New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, Lander unofficially changed his name when another student “stole his and registered it with the Screen Actors Guild,” Fields Lander said. “They were already going on auditions. He liked David’s name.” (Lander legally changed his name in 1978.)
After a year at Carnegie Tech, Lander spent a year at New York University and then, eager to launch his acting career, moved to L.A. in 1967. McKean joined him in 1970. “He said come on out, the weather’s nice and I got a job on the radio for you,” McKean said.
The job was with the comedy group The Credibility Gap — Harry Shearer and Richard Beebe were also members — which began in 1968 at the Pasadena-based KRLA-AM and later moved to KPPC-FM.
The most interesting thing about The Credibility Gap’s comedic takes on the news, 15-30 minute shows produced five days a week, Lander said in a 1999 article by Times TV critic Robert Lloyd — then with LA Weekly — was that “you would play in the course of a week as many as 15 different characters. Actors were trained with the idea that in a perfect world they’d do repertory theater, so I felt, ‘Wow, this is my repertory.’”
The group also played clubs, opening for bands, and put out albums. Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner were fans of the characters. After Marshall landed a role on “Laverne & Shirley” in 1975, she and Reiner invited them to a party celebrating the start of the series and introduced them to the show’s producers.
“At the party, Rob said ‘do those guys!’” McKean recalled, “and we launched into a routine about going to butler school.”
That Monday morning, show creator Garry Marshall called them and hired the duo as apprentice writers — they wrote themselves into the first episode.
Lander and McKean stayed on the show for all eight seasons. They also made movies together, including Steven Spielberg’s 1979 comedy, “1941,” and appeared in Robert Zemeckis’ 1980 film “Used Cars,” starring Kurt Russell. They also voiced penguins in the animated TV series “Oswald.”
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In April 1984, a year after Natalie was born, Lander was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For 15 years he hid the disease from the public, fearful it would prevent him from getting film and TV work. Then one day Penny Marshall called, his wife recalled, relaying the message that entertainment executive Tom Sherak wanted to honor Lander at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society fundraiser Dinner of Champions.
“It changed our lives,” Fields Lander said. “He went on to do speaking engagements around the country, talking about his life and how he copes. He worked with [the MS Society] for about a decade. He had a chance, for the first time in his life, to help people rather than his disease being hidden. It was very rewarding for him.”
Lander went even more broadly public with his disease in the 2000 book “Falling Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody.” He also served as a goodwill ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“I guess my biggest use now is in helping anyone with this disease by putting a face on it,” he told the Times in 2000. “And it’s a face that is still walking.”
Lander married Thea Pool Lander, who he was with for seven years, in the late ‘60s. He and Fields Lander married in 1979.
Lander appeared in dozens of TV shows, including “Happy Days,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Barney Miller,” “Rhoda,” “The Love Boat,” and “Twin Peaks,” among many others.
He was also prolific as a voice actor, giving life to the character of Smart Ass in the 1988 movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” as well as Ch’p in 2009’s “Green Lantern: Fist Flight,” among others. He had more than 100 film and TV credits, in all.
“My dad is my whole inspiration,” Natalie Lander, an actress, said. “Despite his ailments and issues he always remained so present and positive. I just hope I can continue to live the way he did.”
Fields Lander called her marriage to Lander “a karma dance.”
“He taught me perseverance,” she said. “I did things I never thought I could do. I felt so loved and such gratitude from him. We did good things for each other and the world.”
Lander is survived by Fields Lander and Natalie Lander.