October 18, 1999 12:00 PM

It is a bitter irony that, more than a decade after the 1981 release of Arthur, with Dudley Moore’s Oscar-nominated turn as a drunken millionaire, Hollywood began to whisper that Moore himself was an alcoholic. By the mid-’90s, the star was staggering and slurring words on social occasions, and in 1995, Barbra Streisand was forced to fire him from her film The Mirror Has Two Faces when he couldn’t remember his lines. Moore’s role went to Just Shoot Me’s George Segal—16 years after Moore replaced Segal as the leading man in 10. But Moore, 64, has never had a drinking problem, says his biographer and friend Barbra Paskin. After a disastrous day on the Mirror set, she recalls, “he shut himself in his trailer. So I brought him some garlic mashed potatoes. He had one teaspoonful.”

Losing that job was a terrible blow to a born performer who had been delighting audiences against formidable odds since childhood. Moore, who had begun to appear unsteady and forget simple things around 1994, was becoming a stranger in his own body. Time only made balance, speech and memory increasingly elusive, and just after leaving the Mirror set, he sought medical testing. Doctors initially declared his difficulties to be the result of a series of small strokes, and in 1997, when a hole was discovered in his heart, he hoped he would be back to normal after surgery to repair it. It wasn’t until February 1998 that neuro-ophthalmologist Martin Gizzi noticed Moore’s sluggish eye movements and diagnosed a rare brain disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a Parkinson’s-related malady that relentlessly attacks the brain and eventually leads to paralysis. The diagnosis was confirmed by Moore’s other specialists last May. The cause is murky, and there is no cure; drug treatment only occasionally provides some relief from symptoms. Although PSP isn’t itself fatal, it often kills through pneumonia or other ailments that seize upon a body no longer able to defend itself. Announcing his fate on Sept. 29, Moore typically found the strength for a joke: “One person in 100,000 suffers from this disease, and I am also aware that there are 100,000 [members] of my union, the Screen Actors Guild, who are working every day. I think, therefore, it is in some way considerate of me that I have taken on this disease for myself, thus protecting the remaining 99,999 SAG members from this fate.”

Humor was always vital armor for the boy who was born with a shorter left leg and club-foot and reared in a housing project outside London. His brilliance at the organ and piano won him a scholarship to Oxford University. Striking up a friendship with Cambridge man Peter Cook, Moore teamed with him in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. That brought Moore TV and film success in Britain in the ’60s and early ’70s and eventually drew him to Hollywood, where his group-therapy mate, writer-director Blake Edwards, thought Moore’s impish appeal made him ideal to play a songwriter facing a midlife crisis in 1979’s 10, a smash followed by the even more successful Arthur with Liza Minnelli.

Today, the single Moore, who rarely sees his sons Patrick, 23 (by second wife Tuesday Weld, 56), and Nicholas, 4 (by fourth wife Nicole Rothschild, 35), is living in New Jersey with friends. For the past six months, he has been in physical therapy at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange, N.J., where Christopher Reeve received treatment following his paralyzing 1995 accident. “It’s very, very sad,” says Bo Derek, who recalls her 10 costar as shy and sweet on the set of the film that made them both overnight stars. Derek last saw Moore five years ago, when the two posed for a reunion photo for PEOPLE’S 20th-anniversary issue. “At that point,” she says, “he seemed fine.” But 10 director Edwards recalls that about four years ago, at an awards ceremony in Chicago, “it was perfectly obvious something was wrong.” Moore’s behavior that night, Edwards says, was erratic. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, my God. He’s drunk,’ ” Edwards says. “And then I thought, ‘No, it’s not that. It’s something more.’ ” Dr. Gizzi says that when he met Moore in 1998, the actor had been falling down “a great deal” for at least a year. Paskin, who has reported on Moore’s films since 1980 and worked closely with him from 1994 to 1997 while writing Dudley Moore: The Authorized Biography, says the 5’2″ actor, a famously engaging raconteur, gradually saw his stories slip out of memory’s reach. “There was more and more of, ‘I don’t remembah, I don’t remembah,’ ” she says. “Even things that happened to us, he just forgot.” Starting in 1996, Moore was in several minor car accidents. Then there are the speech problems. “Sadly, he has his Arthur voice now,” says Dr. Gizzi, who adds that Moore’s speech is easily understood.

Moore feels strongly that, for the sake of his fellow PSP sufferers, that voice must be heard. Another 10 costar, Edwards’s wife, Julie Andrews, says she and Moore, despite his limitations, plan to stage a Philadelphia benefit in November for an unrelated charity. When the two old friends last met earlier this year, Andrews—who is herself battling throat problems—says they “hugged a lot.” Initially she says she had been “disbelieving” of the diagnosis. “[Before the disease hit], there was always a slightly defiant air about him, and it’s endearing in his case.” For Moore, she adds, the disease “must be devastating. I can only begin to imagine how terrible it must be to wake up every day and be somewhere else—other than the way you’d like to be.”

The disease began to take its toll at the same time that Moore’s personal life was coming apart. After a four-year marriage that was tempestuous even by Hollywood standards, he and his most recent wife, Rothschild, who first met the star as a college student in 1984 when she approached his Bentley for an autograph, separated several times and finally divorced in 1998. Moore (who previously wed British actress Suzy Kendall, ’60s starlet Weld and ex-model Brogan Lane and dated actress Susan Anton in the ’80s) said he had been forced to borrow $700,000 in 1997, a year in which he earned $214,000, to cover his wife’s expenses. “They obviously were addicted to each other,” one of Moore’s friends says of the couple. “Now he’s more himself.”

Doctors say Moore is a courageous and upbeat patient and still plays the piano as best he can, although he can’t walk without support and a wheelchair is probably in his future. Even now, in the early stages of the disease, he has to worry about each step. “If he turns around without stopping to think,” says an old friend, pianist Rena Fruchter, “he’s liable to fall.” “There’s a slowness in getting words out,” adds Kessler neuropsychologist Thomas Galski. “It also affects a person’s vision. One may have trouble focusing. The muscles in the throat can be so affected that in advanced cases one could easily choke and die.” As a result, Moore spends three to four hours a day, one to three days a week, in physical therapy. One exercise involves trying to retain balance on a shifting platform; another is voice-control practice. “He’s very diligent going through his paces,” says Galski. Moore is also receiving counseling to help him adjust to his illness, but the doctors say their patient has taught them a few things about character. “His sense of humor makes our job a little easier,” marvels Galski. “I’ve never seen Dudley upset.”

Kyle Smith

Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, John Hannah and Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles, and Simon Perry and Liz Corcoran in London

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