September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Montel Williams—ordinarily so full of can-do swagger that he called his 1996 autobiography Mountain, Get Out of My Way—on one cruel day a few weeks ago could barely move his feet. The TV talk show host was on the New York City set of the drama Little Pieces, making his debut as a movie director, when he was forced to lean heavily on his actress wife, Grace, in order just to hobble around. “I told people I had a sprained ankle,” says Williams: “But the pain just kept on getting worse and worse. I said to Gracie, ‘Baby, you have got to get me out of this room right now because I need to cry, and I’m not going to cry in front of this crew.’ ”

In fact, what drove Williams to tears was far more serious than a sprain, as he finally revealed at an emotional press conference on Aug. 23. Williams, 43, is suffering from multiple sclerosis, an often debilitating neurological disease that afflicts some 350,000 Americans, including Richard Pryor, Annette Funicello and David Lander. For nearly 20 years, Williams says, his occasional blurry vision, stiffness and joint pain had been misdiagnosed by doctors—and regularly shrugged off by him. “I was lifting weights, I was running, I was in great shape,” says Williams, who scoffed at one doctor’s suggestion 12 years ago that he might have MS. “How could I be sick?”

A strapping former Marine whose syndicated show kicks off its ninth season this fall, Williams has what doctors term relapsing-remitting MS, which means his bouts of pain come and go, often years apart. Williams first experienced blurred vision in 1980 and sought treatment for subsequent attacks over the next two decades. Three years ago excruciating pain prompted him to seek help from Dr. Edmund Chein, a California doctor specializing in rehabilitative medicine. “Montel was getting weaker and weaker,” says Dr. Chein, who told Williams he might have MS. “It was affecting his ability to do his show.”

Then last March, Williams felt terrible pain while filming a guest spot on the CBS series Touched by an Angel. A friend referred him to a neurologist, who put him through resistance tests. “I had a 65-year-old man yanking me around like a play toy,” Williams says. Soon after returning home to Greenwich, Conn., he went to see Dr. Michael Olek of the Harvard MS Center in Massachusetts; Olek confirmed the diagnosis. “I didn’t want to believe it,” says Williams. “I came home and told Gracie, and we held each other and cried.”

This summer, the perpetually upbeat Williams went through some uncharacteristically bleak moments. “I had four days in July where I probably wouldn’t have jumped out of the way of a moving car,” he admits. But before long he was back to his defiant self. “I’d talk to the pain,” he says. “I’d say, ‘You can go away now, you’ve made your point.’ ”

Such fierce resolve has become Williams’s trademark. Born in a Baltimore ghetto (his father was a fireman and his mother a nurse’s aide), he enlisted in the Marines in 1974 and became the first black Marine to attend the Naval Academy Prep School and graduate from the Academy in Annapolis. As a Navy intelligence officer, Williams gave antidrug speeches to teenagers, displaying the toughness that in 1991 landed him his daytime show.

Since then, Williams’s life has sometimes seemed as issues-oriented as his program. In 1992, not long after the end of his first marriage, he wed Grace Moehrle (now in her mid-30s), a Las Vegas showgirl who had appeared on a show about mother-daughter strippers. Four years later, six female former employees sued Williams for sexual harassment—charges that were eventually dismissed. In 1998, during a segment on breast-cancer survivors, Williams revealed that at 19 he had a double mastectomy after doctors discovered a lump in his chest that was later found to be benign. Now comes his latest and most serious revelation. “I hope that Montel keeps working forever,” says David Lander, the MS-afflicted actor who played Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, “so people with MS can see it doesn’t have to be crippling.”

Though there is no known cure for MS, its symptoms are often controllable, and in many cases the frequency of relapses can be reduced by drugs such as Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone. Most patients, including Williams, have a good chance to lead largely normal lives for many years. Going public with his plight, he says, was an important step in overcoming the fear that comes with having the disease—and a way for him to help others. “God picks different people to do different things,” he says. “I will run my mouth about this.”

Williams, who is undergoing experimental hormone-replacement therapy with Dr. Chein and plans to seek out more conventional drug treatments this month, has already had one of the more important conversations he’ll ever have about MS—with his children Montel II, 5, and Wynter-Grace, 4. (He has also informed his two daughters from his previous marriage.) “When I sat my son down and told him I was sick, his first question was, ‘Are you going to die?’ ” says Williams. “I said, ‘That’s not happening.’ He said he wanted to be able to play with me for a long time. I told him, ‘You know, if I can’t run and do it, I’ll roll and do it. But we are going to play.’ ”

Alex Tresniowski

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