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Michael Zaslow Returns to TV

May 8, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Once he started getting sick, Michael Zaslow could find no script that says he gets well. It must have been frightening. Then the actor learned this: Courage is something you have to improvise.

Watch Zaslow in rehearsal. Here, in the Upper West Side studio where ABC’s ``One Life to Live″ originates, he’s the one in the wheelchair, gaunt and poker-faced.

He used to play villainous Roger Thorpe on CBS’ ``Guiding Light.″ In 1994, he won the Daytime Emmy for best actor. Then a year ago, his health in doubt, he was fired from the show. Ah, life is cheap in the soap-opera world _ sometimes off camera as well as on.

But Zaslow, 55, is back. ``One Life to Live,″ where in the early 1980s he played charming, mysterious David Rinaldi, has returned him to its fold, for a few episodes at least. Reviving his old character, Zaslow has the respite of a drama that isn’t his own. He gets a script to mark and memorize today, then move beyond tomorrow.

Even so, the story line hits awfully close to home. Rinaldi, like Zaslow, has contracted ALS, the neuromuscular affliction better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Like the actor who plays him, Rinaldi can no longer speak. From his joystick-operated wheelchair, he types words on his laptop and a synthesizer solemnly voices them.

The scene now being blocked is set in the sun room of Llanview Hospital, where Rinaldi is a patient. It will open Monday’s episode (``One Life″ airs weekdays at 2 p.m. EDT).

From the script summary: ``Dorian stares at David in disbelief and asks what he’s doing here. David tells her to go away. Andrew tries to intervene, but Dorian perseveres and asks why David is speaking through a machine. She spoke to him last year and he had some difficulty speaking _ but ALS?″

Then long-ago lover Dorian vows to tell daughter Cassie that her father is in Llanview. ``No, no, no!″ pleads David.

But if Rinaldi is mortified that anyone might see him this way, Zaslow is thrilled to be seen. The rehearsal over, just ask him if he’s glad to be here, doing what an actor does and made welcome doing it. Even the flat voice of the synthesizer lets Zaslow’s feelings sing: ``I am delirious.″

And it’s not some kind of stunt, says cast mate Wortham Krimmer, who plays the Rev. Andrew Carpenter. Zaslow is there not to showcase his own troubles, but to inhabit a character. And he’s doing it.

``When he turned around to confront Dorian for the first time, that wasn’t Michael Zaslow. That was David Rinaldi. Michael was playing David Rinaldi’s life, not his own. The only similarity was the ALS.″

Still, Zaslow is making the most of the illness he and David share. ``I am so excited to be bringing ALS to the public,″ he says, already the founder of ZazAngels, an organization dedicated to building awareness of the disease. (Its Web site is www.zazangels.com).

He explains, ``I am blessed with my celebrity like Chris Reeve,″ with whom he says he shares a friendship that predates their respective tragedies. ``So I and my family and extended family have ways to raise this disease to eye level.″

Zaslow retreats to his dressing room where, with a bit of help, he hobbles to a lounge chair a few steps away. This is Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, and Helena, 12, bursts in and hugs her father’s neck. Then she plops into the wheelchair and begins doing homework.

``I’ve been away from acting for over a year,″ Zaslow says, ``traveling around the country in search of any diagnosis besides the dreaded initials.″ But a few months ago, he learned the dreaded truth. He has ALS which, over time, leaves its victims unable to speak, then move, and, in its final stage, breathe. Suddenly, that seemed to be his governing script.

To the obvious next question, he replies, ``Three to five years.″ Then he types this qualifier: ``I know people who live longer and longer. And we are so close to a cure.″

Helena, growing restless, is toying with the wheelchair joystick. Inching forward then backward in the dressing room’s tight space, she is trying to turn herself around. She already knows how to drive,″ says Zaslow. ``A stick shift. I taught her.″

Up and back, up and back. Helena doesn’t seem to be listening.

``I am thankful that I got to teach both my daughters to ride a bike,″ he declares. Calm yet still full of fight, he’s a man no one has to script bravery for.


Elsewhere in television ...

DENNIS MAKES 100: Fellow ``Saturday Night Live″ alums Norm MacDonald and David Spade are guests on the 100th edition of ``Dennis Miller Live,″ tonight at 11:30 p.m. EDT on HBO. Besides the chat with this lively pair of comics, Miller, as usual, will offer up a monologue, a rant about the week’s topic, viewer call-ins and a wrap-up of the week’s events. This season’s previous guests have included Tom Arnold, Drew Barrymore, John Cleese, Stephen King, LL Cool J and Burt Reynolds. It could be good. But, of course, even on this centennial edition, Miller could be wrong.


Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore ``at″ ap.org

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