In 1982, three years after being stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a crippling neurological ailment that left her generally enervated, Rachel Levin was offered her first movie role. “I was still walking with leg braces and crutches,” she recalls. “But I had a strong walk.” The film part called for her to play a bedridden patient—stereotyping of the worst sort, so it seemed—but Levin wasn’t complaining. “Fine,” she told her family, “they’re typecasting me—but it’s apart. I’m happy.” Four days later Levin’s feet went numb. The next day the numbness crept to her thighs, and four days after that she was totally paralyzed. She spent 80 days in the hospital, many of them on the critical list, before going home to learn how to walk again. That took another two years.
Six weeks ago Rachel Levin finally made her long-delayed movie debut, playing the wheelchair-bound Mexican poet Gabriela Brimmer in Gaby—A True Story, with Liv Ullmann. Suddenly she has emerged as a star. “Rachel Levin is a miracle,” Rex Reed proclaimed, and Kathleen Carroll in the New York Daily News called her performance “simply astounding.”
Levin still keeps an ivory-handled cane with her at all times, but mostly for psychological reasons. “I’m 98 percent recovered,” she says. Her acquaintance with pain and physical helplessness created a bond between her and Brimmer, who suffers from cerebral palsy and with whom she lived for two weeks before filming began. “The illnesses are completely different, and the technical part—the actual movement—took me nine months to learn,” Levin says. “But I know what it’s like to be trapped in a body that doesn’t work.”
The daughter of a New York City attorney, Levin grew up in an atmosphere of books, music and art. “I always knew I wanted to be an actress,” she says. After majoring in drama at Goddard College in Vermont, she acted off-Broadway and in repertory companies on both coasts. Last year, following her second recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome, she starred off-Broadway in Duet for One, which was how she came to the attention of Gaby’s producers. Next spring she is scheduled to star on or off-Broadway in Separation, written by Due? playwright Tom Kempinski.
For the past 11 years Levin lived with lawyer Greg Lenert but, she says, they aren’t talking marriage. “Being sick taught me that I should seize life whenever I can,” Levin says, “and in the ultimate sense we are married already. You know ‘for better or for worse?’ Well, we know the worse. Now we are enjoying the better.”