June 01, 1998 12:00 PM

Leaning heavily on a cane, Michael Zaslow hobbles through the front door of his Manhattan apartment. Once a strapping, articulate soap opera star (One Life to Live, Guiding Light), Zaslow, 55, is now gaunt, weak and unable to utter a single word. He has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a nerve-cell disorder—better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—that strikes some 5,000 Americans annually and usually leads to death within two to five years.

Later, seated in the living room with his wife, Susan Hufford, 59, an actress turned psychotherapist, Zaslow types on a special keyboard that translates his words into an eerie synthesized voice. “I am taking over 100 pills a day,” says Zaslow, nodding toward an arsenal of medicine bottles—a mixture of organic remedies, vitamins, minerals and prescription drugs—on a coffee table nearby. He looks up at Hufford, who says, “Swallowing is hard for Michael. It takes concentration.” Adds Zaslow: “We’ve all had to make a lot of adjustments. Me, in not being the perfect[ly healthy] father,” he says, referring to the couple’s adopted daughters, Marika, 15, and Helena, 12. Yet for all his difficulties, he says, “I am delirious with excitement.”

The reason? After being put on hiatus by CBS’s The Guiding Light in April 1997, some eight months after the then-undiagnosed early effects of ALS caused his speech to slur, Zaslow returned to daytime television earlier this month. On ABC’s One Life to Live, Zaslow can now be seen and, thanks to his augmented voice device (similar to one used by renowned physicist Stephen Hawking), heard, as concert pianist David Renaldi, the role he first played on that program from 1983 to 1986. Like Zaslow, Renaldi has been coping with ALS.

Unlike Renaldi, who is confined to a wheelchair, Zaslow moves around with a cane, but, with his muscles growing progressively weaker, he may soon require a walker to help maintain his balance. Still, says the actor, “it is very good to be home again. That’s the sign they put out in front [of the Manhattan studio where the soap is taped]: Welcome Home, Michael.”

Behind the triumphant banner, though, hangs a darker tale of fear and uncertainty. “The sense of not knowing and the ongoing degeneration is terrible,” says Hufford, recalling how she and her husband spent more than a year consulting doctors, most of whom were unable to detect or confirm ALS’s early symptoms.

All Zaslow’s internist knew when he examined the actor in early 1997 was that the actor’s soft palate muscle—which directs air through the mouth for proper speech—had weakened. MRI tests and CAT scans ruled out a stroke. Later, a slew of specialists gave conflicting diagnoses. One mentioned myasthenia gravis, a brain disorder. Another neurologist actually suggested ALS. “But he made no suggestions for any kind of treatment,” says Hufford. “He told us basically, ‘Just go home.’ ”

In fact, ALS, which usually causes permanent paralysis, was the one diagnosis she and and her husband most dreaded. (At one point, they convinced themselves he had Lyme disease, which is treatable with antibiotics.) But by last fall, Zaslow, then barely able to speak, had begun to suspect the worst. “I saw Dr. Jay Lombard’s book The Brain Wellness Plan at my local health food store,” he recalls. Intrigued by the book’s alternative therapies for ALS, Zaslow and Hufford went to see the author, a New York neurologist. “He was a breath of fresh air. He gave us the fighting spirit,” says Zaslow.

On Dr. Lombard’s recommendation, Zaslow flew to Houston in November to see leading ALS specialist Dr. Stanley Appel. While Hufford stayed home to care for her ailing father, Zaslow was joined by his friend Brynn Thayer, who played Renaldi’s wife, Jenny, on OLTL in the ’80s.

After putting Zaslow through a battery of tests and charting his latest symptoms—they now included bouts of choking and a slight limp—Appel broke the grim news: Zaslow did indeed have ALS. “I think I yelled at Stan and called him a devil,” says Zaslow. “I said he was taking away my hope. He countered he was giving me my hope back by letting me know what I was fighting.”

Within moments, Zaslow, Thayer, Appel and some of Appel’s staff “were in tears together,” recalls Appel. “But he’s courageous and tough.” Three days later, says Thayer, Zaslow told her, “I will go out there and make my presence known, and we will raise as much money as we possibly can for [ALS] research.” In February, he and his wife founded ZazAngels, which lobbies for ALS patients (Web site address: http://www.zazangels.com).

Before taking on that fight, Zaslow had another one to resolve. Last fall he had threatened to sue his old employer Procter & Gamble (which owns Guiding Light) for reducing his salary when he was put on hiatus last April. But in December he got what he calls a fair settlement.

Today, in between acting and activism, Zaslow tries to stay healthy. “I still work out two or three times a week with a trainer,” he says. In addition to a self-prescribed high protein diet, “I do an IV vitamin C drip as part of an antioxidant campaign,” he says.

With his long-term prognosis uncertain at best, he and Hufford cling to any sign of hope. Last February, the night before he and Thayer persuaded ABC executives to bring back his OLTL character, they joined Hufford at a local Chinese restaurant. Zaslow’s cookie fortune read as follows: “Keep charging the enemy as long as there is life.” The next day Thayer scrawled the message on Post-it notes, leaving them stuck all over the couple’s apartment. The notes are still posted—and Zaslow is still charging.

Michael A. Lipton

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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