By Madlyn Rhue
November 16, 1987 12:00 PM

When veteran actress Madlyn Rhue was diagnosed nearly 10 years ago as having multiple sclerosis, she did what came naturally: She put on a performance. In addition to the physical impact of her illness, an incurable degenerative disease of the central nervous system that afflicts an estimated 250,000 Americans, she was faced with the desperate fear that if her secret were revealed, she might never work again. “What was best for me was to pretend to be something I wasn’t, which was well,” she explains. So she kept the diagnosis from best friends, including Suzanne Pleshette and Loretta Swit, as well as from a sister to whom she had always been close.

For a time Rhue’s performance was persuasive. In the early stages of her MS, which usually strikes people between the ages of 20 and 40, she made convincing excuses—an arthritic hip, a car accident—for her debilitating fatigue and weakness. Despite her eventual need for one cane, then two, she managed to keep her condition to herself. (Only 10 to 20 percent of victims become crippled, and the disease is rarely fatal.) But the charade could not be sustained indefinitely. The disease worsened, and two years ago Rhue became wheelchair-bound. She knew the time had come to start telling the truth. Fortunately her fears about never working again proved unfounded; this season she is appearing as Annie, a ballistics expert, on the CBS series Houston Knights. “She acts better from a wheelchair than most actresses do standing up,” says Jay Bernstein, the show’s executive producer.

Rhue, who was born in Washington, D.C., is the younger of two daughters of a mother who was a wholesaler of women’s clothes; Madlyn’s father walked out on the family when she was born. Rhue began her career, as a dancer, at 16 and appeared at New York’s Latin Quarter. In 1958 she moved to L. A., landing roles in films including Operation Petticoat and A Majority of One and later on such TV series as Bracken’s World and the soap Days of Our Lives. Divorced in 1970 from actor Tony Young, the 50-year-old actress has no children and lives alone in a two-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment cheerfully decorated with her own paintings. She spoke with National Correspondent Lois Armstrong about her struggle.

I remember the first time something strange happened. It was in 1976, and I was shopping with Suzanne Pleshette. It was too hot in the department store, and suddenly I threw up all over myself, passed out and urinated. Suzanne bought me new clothes right there in the store. When I got home, I called my internist. He said that it was probably something I ate and told me to take it easy.

Not long after, I began bumping into everything. I thought I had become a klutz. I had a big glass coffee table and would walk into it even though I knew it was there. I called my internist again and told him that I might need glasses. He said I was just preoccupied. But then I lost my eyesight completely, and the pain was intense. The eye doctor diagnosed the problem as neuralgia. He gave me cortisone eye drops, and after two days the problem disappeared. At that point the internist started to put the symptoms together—the bad eyes, the imbalance, the fainting. But there was no test for MS in those days. Instead, you were tested for other neurological diseases, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis]. If you failed them, doctors determined that what you had was MS.

Just before my 40th birthday, in October of 1977, I was finally diagnosed as having MS. I felt angry, frightened and alone. How was I going to take care of myself? I went to the library and took out every book on incurable diseases. I found a diet for MS patients, but it was so stringent that I couldn’t stay on it for even one day. I decided that if I were going to die, I would die eating what I wanted.

I was afraid that if anyone knew I had the disease, I might never work again. To get an acting job you have to pass an insurance company physical. If you don’t, and you’re not a big star, you don’t get hired. So I lied. I told the insurance people and the directors I worked with that I’d had an accident, and they believed me. In the beginning I would always wear low-heeled shoes to the set to help keep my balance, and I would hold on to furniture when I moved around. I did have pain, but I never showed it.

The hardest part of the lie was not being able to keep my word to people. I was the kind of person you could ask for anything—charity work, getting your laundry, picking up your child. But after I got sick I’d make a commitment and then wake up in the morning and be so tired and weak that I couldn’t get out of bed, and I’d have to cancel. People got very miffed. Some called me a pain in the ass to my face. Others thought I was sick for attention. Eventually I stopped accepting invitations and wound up isolating myself.

Two years ago my legs became so weakened that I had to go into a wheelchair. For a period of 11 months after that I had no work. It was scary. I was afraid that my agent, Jim Gibson, would drop me. He didn’t know what was going on, but he would explain to casting agents that, yes, I was in a wheelchair, but that I wasn’t interested in any pity stuff. I didn’t want to do parts in which the personality was the wheelchair. Then last year I got a guest shot on Houston Knights. The character was so well received that Jay Bernstein now considers me a regular on the series. Not many producers would do that.

By this time it became apparent that I would have to invent a giant accident to explain the wheelchair or start telling the truth. With the help of the psychotherapist whom I had been seeing for 2½ years I decided to go public, but very quietly. The first person I told was an extra I’d once worked with. I met her in the supermarket, and right away she said, “What’s wrong? You’re in a chair.” I told her, “I have multiple sclerosis.” She said, “Oh, God, no.” It was hard. I thought that telling people might be a big relief, but it wasn’t.

One person I did call was Daniel Travanti from Hill Street Blues. He is national honorary chairman for all MS societies this year, and he gave me the names of people to get in touch with. I thought, well, maybe I’m supposed to be out there telling people they’re not alone. So I make speeches to MS patients and their families. I say, it hurts and you get angry, but don’t take it out on your wife or kids. Get it out of your system another way. Tomorrow you’ll be up.

Until early last year I had been paying almost all my medical expenses myself. I had coverage through my union, the Screen Actors Guild, but I hadn’t filed all the claims for fear I’d be found out. Over the years I have spent more than $80,000. I just made it, but I used up all my savings. I hadn’t bought anything new to wear for six years. When friends asked me what I wanted for my birthday or Christmas, I told them bras and nightgowns. Mine were in threads.

Although my friends have been wonderful, the loneliness can be unbelievable at times. I haven’t had a date in seven years, since I began using a cane. I was in a store not long ago, and there was a man, and we were obviously attracted to one another. Here was someone who saw the wheelchair and continued to flirt. But it had been so long for me that I just didn’t know the next step, and he didn’t either.

Since I’ve been in a wheelchair, I’ve learned a lot. Most important is finding out who are truly my friends. I couldn’t have gotten through the last four years without Suzanne and Loretta Swit. They are always there when I need to talk to someone. People like Altovise and Sammy Davis Jr. and their friend Sondra Moss raised money to buy me a motorized wheelchair and a hydraulically equipped van. But there are some who, once they found out I was sick, never called me again. One guy said to me, “When are you going to get rid of that cane so we can play tennis?” When I told him the cane was permanent, I could see on his face that he wasn’t going to ask me out again.

I’ve learned the things I have to do to get me through the day. Heat, stress and fatigue exacerbate MS, so I have the air-conditioning on all the time—at home, in my dressing room, in my car. I’ve also taken up meditating to reduce stress. I’ve installed horizontal bars all over the apartment to hang on to. I sleep in my living room instead of my back bedroom because there’s no exit from the bedroom, and I would never be able to get out in case of a fire. One thing I haven’t done is put in a ramp at home. I insist on walking when I can. I believe that as long as you want to walk, you will, and my MS doctor agrees. At work I exercise by raising myself out of the chair and standing at least once or twice an hour, and I do a couple of knee bends. I have to be careful about exercising, though, because you aren’t supposed to get overheated. If I had a pool, I’d be in it every day. I need to be helped into the pool, and even the YMCA doesn’t want disabled swimmers, except on specific days when they have lifts. I can’t handle that. I cannot go into a group with senior citizens being lifted out of their chairs. I start to cry and do myself more damage than good.

I have to admit that some days are rough. There are times when I feel very alone and scared. To get through, I have to cry, I have to swear, I have to push myself not to give up.

My mother used to take my face in her hands and say, “You’re going to do something special.” I thought for a long time it was acting. Then when I got MS, I wondered if this was the something special. People forget that just waking up in the morning and getting through the day is an act of courage for everybody. If you’ve got something to overcome, you’re even more brave. I learned from my mother a long time ago to do whatever I had to do to survive. So I just keep moving straight ahead, doing what I have to to keep going. As far as I’m concerned, this is as bad as it’s going to get.