By Susan Schindehette
November 29, 1999 12:00 PM

It is Nov. 2, and 6-year-old Montel Williams II waits anxiously in his pajamas for his father to arrive home from work. The boy, who wants to be a doctor some-IB day, then watches intently as his mother, Grace, helps give her husband an injection in his upper back to mitigate the effects of multiple sclerosis, the disease whose symptoms he first began to experience some two decades ago. “The medicine will help you up here,” little Montel tells his father, pointing to his own head. “But you will always have MS in your body. But it’s okay, because you’re going to be fine. You need to take a bunch of fruit every night before you go to bed. And I’ll make you a healthy lunch.”

Despite the fact that Manhattan’s Unitel 53 Studio has a professional caterer on staff, its best-known tenant, talk show host Montel Williams, 43, usually arrives at work with a small brown bag of nectarines and fruit juice, lovingly packed by his son. To hear Williams tell it, it is one of the small and unexpected blessings following the Aug. 23 press conference in which the 6’2″ former Marine and Naval officer disclosed that he is suffering from the debilitating neurological disease.

“At one point I said, ‘Little man, do you think Daddy’s going to die?’ ” recalls Grace, 35, Williams’s wife of seven years, as she sits in the wood-paneled study of their palatial Greenwich, Conn., home. “And my son said, ‘Oh, you mean from MS? No, he’s not going to die from MS and not going to end up in a wheelchair.’ I asked him how he knows that. Did God tell him? He said no. When I asked how he knew, he said, ‘Because I looked with my own eyes.’ ”

In the days since Williams stood before the cameras with Grace and tearfully announced that “this disease will not stop me,” he has been deluged with nearly 100,000 e-mails and letters from fans and fellow sufferers in a touching display of concern and support. “They just kept pouring in, saying, ‘Our prayers are with you,’ ” says Williams. “And the day I got the first comment about people praying for me, that is when the weight lifted. Maybe it is the power of my mind. Maybe it is the power of remission. But my pain really kind of dissipated.”

While the 350,000 Americans who suffer from MS face a bewildering array of symptoms ranging from tremors to virtual paralysis, today, as Williams bounds up the stairs of the studio where he tapes six nationally syndicated shows a week, he shows few outward signs of his incurable ailment, a poorly understood condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective covering around its own nerves. Celebrities including Annette Funicello, Richard Pryor and Laverne & Shirley‘s David Lander have all suffered the visible ravages of MS, but in Williams’s case, “I would never have known he was sick until he confided in me,” says his manager for the past five years, Melanie McLaughlin. “He has superhuman energy.”

People with MS have a nearly normal life expectancy but still endure terrible symptoms. Williams sporadically feels tingling in his feet, weakness in his left leg and an occasional loss of balance that causes him to bump into walls and objects. He had his first flare-up in 1980—years before his condition was diagnosed. During the past 10 years, his severe symptoms appear to arrive at two-year intervals, around February or March, and usually last for several months. By now he has come to grips with the unpredictability of MS. “You may have the best day or eight great hours,” he says, “then all of a sudden, bam! I’ll trip and fall, and the pain will be back.”

On the hopeful side, Williams’s physician Dr. Michael Olek, of the Harvard MS Center, says his patient “is doing really well. On our disability scale, he is 2 out of 10, with 10 the worst. His progression is slow.” And since Williams’s symptoms have not progressed rapidly, “the odds are that he is not going to wind up in a wheelchair.” And that is important to Williams. “When this disease knocks you down, you don’t always come back,” he says. “That scares me. I have four children. I want to walk my daughters down the aisle, and I don’t want to do it with a cane.”

Hoping to forestall the disease’s sporadic attacks, doctors recently put Williams on regular injections of one of three FDA-approved drugs designed to slow the disease’s progression. The most difficult aspect of this, he says, came when a visiting nurse arrived to show him how to inject himself. “She came with all these bottles with skulls on them and a big hazardous-material container to discard my stuff in after I use it,” he says. “I thought, ‘Isn’t there another way to do this?’ That day I wept. It was tough.”

Since 1994, Williams has also been taking alternative hormone therapy developed by Dr. Edmund Chein of Palm Springs, Calif., a self-described specialist in rehabilitative medicine. Though most mainstream physicians do not endorse the regimen, it is “relatively benign, so I’m not that concerned,” says Dr. Olek. Beyond medical treatments—traditional or otherwise—Williams never lacks for encouragement. Earlier this month his boss at Paramount’s television division, Bobbee Gabelmann, announced that “as long as Montel wants to do his television show, that’s how long we’ll do it. He’s not someone who I think any disease will stop.”

Still, says Williams, his strongest support comes from his family: Grace, a former Las Vegas showgirl turned actress whom he began dating after they met during a taping of his show; their children, Montel II and Wyntergrace, 4; and Williams’s children from his marriage to first wife Rochele—Ashley, 15, and Maressa, 10. Soon after learning of his diagnosis on March 15, Williams came face-to-face with his greatest fear: that both his career and his life would implode. Then, as always, Grace was by his side. “I said, ‘If you want, you can leave me, because I am not going to be the man you married. I’m weak now,’ ” he recalls telling her tearfully.

Struggling to regain her own composure, Grace replied bluntly, “Listen, you selfish little bastard. Who do you think you are? There is a reason why you got this. The Man Up There picked you for a reason, and you should count it as one of your blessings. There are a lot of people out there who need you.” After that, she says, “Montel said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ And that was strength for both of us.”

Immediately after his diagnosis “there were some pretty long faces,” recalls Dr. Wirt “Andy” Hines, a Salt Lake City plastic surgeon and one of Williams’s best friends. “But he spent a lot of good quality time with Grace and found that he had a great ally and supporter. Together they had the attitude that they could whip the world. And a few days later Montel was figuring out how to educate the entire world about MS and turn this into something very positive.”

In the eight months since, “Grace’s the reason I’m able to get out of bed every morning,” says Williams, sitting next to her in his study, which is decorated with memorabilia including photographs of Michael Jordan and autographed boxing gloves from Sugar Ray Leonard. “She’s taken care of everything, allowing me to keep it together.”

For her part, says Grace, “I don’t think I’m so strong. I think it’s just pure belief and love in this person I know. I know his courage and strength and heart, and I believe that what you put out in the world, you’ll get back. Montel is who he is. He’s just a person who is loved.”

The two are beginning to reach a point of acceptance about what cannot be changed. Her husband “has had his moments,” says Grace, “and I’m there for him. But when he has his pain, there’s nothing I can do. I can try to take his mind away from it. But when he falls down the stairs, there’s nothing I can do. And he will fall down those stairs.”

Adds her husband: “Why should I be angry at God for this when he’s given me so much? To whom much is given, much is expected. So I’m not going to complain about it. I don’t want to get any worse, but if I can stay here, or get better, I’ll be fine.”

In the months since his announcement, Williams has struck back against MS with a vengeance. Maintaining a grueling workout schedule (he deadlifts as much as 375 pounds daily), he has also made plans to visit Stockholm’s noted MS research center, the Karolinska Institute, as well as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the UCLA Medical Center, in his quest to “see everyone out there” for possible treatment.

Beyond looking out for his own health, Williams devoted his Oct. 25 show to discussing MS and is planning to produce two public-service announcements and an as yet unscheduled Hollywood MS fund-raiser. In August he founded the Montel Williams MS Fund, which has already raised more than $80,000, under the auspices of the Foundation for Neurological Diseases. “Where is my inspiration coming from?” says Williams. “Before learning I had the disease, I’d probably met 50 MS sufferers. I think about them a lot now. If everybody gave a dollar, this disease could go away, and your family would never have to suffer the pain I’ve been suffering.”

Within days of Williams’s announcement, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Web site was barraged with inquiries. “People with disability ask themselves, ‘Why me?’ ” says the organization’s president, Michael Dugan. “And when they find out that someone who is famous has something like MS, they better understand that they haven’t been singled out by fate. Montel talking about MS has been helpful.”

To Grace, her husband’s resolve is just an extension of his fighting spirit. “Montel’s nature is to help people, and now he feels he can,” she says. “This disease is another mountain that he can climb to the top of, to look around and see who he can help.” He won’t have to look far. Since 1993, the so-called ABC drugs—Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone—have demonstrably slowed down the progress of the disease as well as the severity and frequency of attacks. “MS is the most important cause of disability from a nervous-system disease in young adults,” says Dr. Stanley van den Noort, chief medical officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and a professor of neurology at the University of California at Irvine. But, he adds, “it is often a very subtle, difficult disease to recognize,” in part because its symptoms can mimic such illnesses as lupus and Lyme disease.

For Williams, recognition finally came last spring. Over the years, the dizziness and sporadic pain and numbness he suffered had been diagnosed as everything from a pinched sciatic nerve to inner-ear infections. During a guest appearance in Utah for the series Touched by an Angel, “my feet and legs hurt so bad that I spent an hour crying. I could barely walk,” recalls Williams, a part-time actor who has also appeared on JAG and Matt Waters. At first he blamed the pain on a new workout routine. But in March, after an MRI, Williams heard the definitive diagnosis: relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, a form of the disease in which symptoms come and go, often years apart. “I didn’t want to believe it,” he says. “I didn’t want to have it. But after all this time, after all these years of having things wrong with me, I now knew what the cause was.”

If his diagnosis provided some sense of relief, it also presented a difficult decision: whether or not to go public with the news. It was not Williams’s first encounter with serious illness. At 19, he was diagnosed with a condition known as gynecomastia. Doctors, fearing cancer, removed glands and muscles in his breasts; the condition ultimately proved benign. But with MS, “I feared people telling me I was weak, or not giving me another gig because I might have another bout [of the disease], or that my insurance would be too high,” says Williams. “For a lot of people, I’m kind of like a rock. And from March until mid-July, the rock was chipping.”

Ultimately, hoping to avoid becoming tabloid fodder, he decided, “I’d rather control this than have someone else control it.” And so, on the night of Aug. 22, he sat down and broke the news to his younger children. “I just said, ‘Daddy’s sick right now, but I’ll be okay,’ ” he recalls. ” ‘It can get worse. I don’t know. When I get tired, it’s not because I don’t want to do it. It’s just because I can’t right now.’ ”

For the moment, Williams’s promise to slow his pace seems little more than wishful thinking. “He has to keep working,” says Grace knowingly, “because otherwise he’d get worse.” But now, for relaxation, Williams can often be found tooling around his at-home 1/3-mile go-cart track with Montel II.

In retrospect, Williams—who grew up in Glen Burnie, Md., as the youngest of four children of Herman Williams, 68, now the Baltimore fire chief, and his wife, Marjorie, 67, a former nurse’s aide—believes the first true symptoms of his MS struck in 1980, when, as a young graduate of the Naval Academy, he suddenly lost 60 percent of the vision in his left eye. The condition, which doctors now know can be triggered by damage caused by MS to the optic nerve, lasted only three weeks, but left him unable to see most colors until this fall, when, for reasons doctors cannot explain, he suddenly regained the ability.

No one knows how long the reprieve will last, but for now at least, Williams regards it as something of a miracle, and a portent of the good luck he is determined to have in conquering the enemy within. “I got to see the colors of fall foliage for the first time in 20 years,” he says, adding wonderingly, “and I finally got to see the color of Grace’s eyes.”

Susan Schindehette

Giovanna Breu and Bob Meadows in Greenwich