By Susan Schindehette
June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

As Dana Carvey tells it, he was lying on a hospital gurney in May of 1998, after undergoing a diagnostic angiogram at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, awaiting word on the effect of a double-bypass operation performed two months before. That’s when Dr. Neal Eigler gave him the news.

“They bypassed the wrong artery,” the cardiologist said. “You’re hilarious,” Carvey recalls saying, “but let me be the comedian. Seriously, Doctor, what happened?”

“They bypassed the wrong artery.”

It could have been one of Carvey’s absurdist skits on Saturday Night Live. Instead it was probably the least amusing moment in all of his 45 years. Now, as a consequence, the onetime SNL funnyman is a plaintiff in San Francisco superior court, seeking $7.5 million in damages from Dr. Elias Hanna, 64, the respected cardiac surgeon who performed the bypass at Marin General Hospital near San Francisco in March 1998. According to testimony at the trial, which began May 15, Hanna attached a healthy segment of Carvey’s artery not to the damaged arterial section nearby but instead to a healthy diagonal vessel, leaving the patient’s heart still dangerously susceptible to an attack. “I could have died,” says Carvey. “Immediately all I thought about was my two children”—Dex, 8, and Thomas, 6, his sons with Paula, 40, his wife of 17 years. “I said, ‘Please, God, let me live until they’re 18.’ That’s all I really wanted. You find out, ‘Oh, my God, this is why I’m here. I’m a father first.’ ”

It was a sobering epiphany for Carvey, who rose from comedy clubs and small TV parts to a place in SNL’s pantheon and from 1986 to 1993 played an assortment of memorable characters, including the Church Lady, Hans the bodybuilder, a nebbishy George Bush and geeky Garth, immortalized in the Wayne’s World films he made with pal Mike Myers. In his heyday, “Dana could do anything,” said former SNL castmate Tim Meadows, who is still with the show. “If you could be half as good as Dana Carvey, you could survive on Saturday Night Live.”

But now, as he lay on the gurney, Carvey, who had first experienced severe chest pain the year before, wasn’t thinking of his career. Immediately, surgeons at Cedars-Sinai performed an emergency angioplasty, his fourth in less than a year, to clear the dangerous blockage, and Carvey knew that if the procedure wasn’t successful, he would have to go through another arduous three-hour bypass. “When I got out of the hospital, I went back to the hotel in L.A. and had a kind of Days of Wine and Roses moment [referring to Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-nominated 1962 portrayal of an alcoholic forced to confront his condition]. I’d be looking in the mirror shaving and say, ‘I can’t believe they bypassed the wrong artery.’ It’s like removing the wrong kidney. It’s that big of a mistake.” Adds Paula: “You don’t want to see your husband undergoing open-heart surgery when he’s 42. You certainly don’t want to see it twice.”

Dr. Hanna’s attorney Dane Jones, 50, argues that over the course of a three-decade career Hanna has performed some 30,000 such procedures—and this time made an honest mistake. “I can tell you what the evidence will prove: Carvey had an unusual anatomy,” he says. “He had an artery that was in the muscle of his heart, so it wasn’t visible to surgeons.” But even if Carvey’s cardiac configuration were indeed atypical, says Dr. Mamdouh Bakhos, 53, chairman of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Loyola University Medical Center near Chicago, who notes that the abnormality occurs in 5 to 10 percent of all patients, “if the surgeon takes his time, he should be able to identify the correct artery and do the bypass. I have seen cases where [a surgeon] bypassed the wrong location, but it should be very rare.”

For six months after his final corrective angioplasty, Carvey simply waited, along with his doctors, to see if the procedure would succeed. “It was torturous,” he says. “That summer I lived day to day. I’d hike up a hill or walk up the stairs and feel the burning in my chest, meaning they might crack me open again like some kind of fabulous crab.” Ultimately the procedure did prove successful, and Carvey’s health was restored. By that summer he was taking the occasional stand-up gig, and this past March he pinch-hit for David Letterman while the talk show host was recovering from his own quintuple bypass. “It was joyous, like Carnival in Rio,” says Late Show executive producer Barbara Gaines. On April 7, Carvey earned $32,000 for charity with an appearance on a celebrity episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And he recently completed a cameo appearance in the New Line comedy Little Nicky with SNL alum and good friend Adam Sandler. Says Carvey’s physician Dr. P.K. Shah, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai: “His prognosis is excellent.”

Professionally the odds on Carvey haven’t until recently seemed so promising. Unlike Myers, who went from SNL and Wayne’s World to the megahit Austin Powers series and who recently signed a $20 million deal to play Dieter, his avant-garde film-critic character on SNL, in a feature for Universal, Carvey has seen his career do a slow fizzle. In 1996 his prime-time The Dana Carvey Show lasted just seven episodes before ABC pulled the plug amid a furor over such skits as one in which Carvey, as President Clinton, breast-fed a baby. “We made a big miscalculation with the kind of material we were doing at that time of night, following Home Improvement,” says the show’s co-executive producer Robert Smigel, one of Carvey’s closest friends. “Dana wanted the show to look as different from SNL as possible, but it was a little ridiculous. We didn’t think it through, I guess.”

Carvey’s ensuing health problems only made matters worse. After the angioplasty that followed his botched surgery, Carvey, an Emmy winner for his work on SNL, was advised by doctors to curtail his schedule. For six months he was only able to perform a handful of stand-up dates and was forced to turn down a guest spot on Hollywood Squares, as well as offers of commercials and a new network series. All told, his heart problems, by his attorney’s estimate, cost him nearly $7 million. But his motive for suing isn’t primarily financial, insists Carvey. “I didn’t want to go to court, and I don’t seek this kind of publicity,” he says. “But I felt this was a matter of right and wrong. There was no letter of apology or explanation, no phone call. I wanted to be satisfied that the surgeon would not be hurting someone else and would acknowledge his error.”

In court, Carvey testified that in 1997 he began suffering from a burning sensation in his chest, prompting his first angioplasty. “My son Tom gave me a little cup with toothpaste in it and a spoon,” says Carvey. “He said, ‘Here, Dad. Here’s some medicine for your heart.’ My kids didn’t really understand what was going on, but we just kept everything really positive.”

That became increasingly difficult as he underwent three more angioplasties, none of them successful. Then in 1998, in an effort to open blocked arteries, he opted for the double bypass. “Let’s bite the bullet and do a horrific thing—this open-heart surgery,” he told the court, “so I can get on with my life.”

But instead of going to Dr. Shah in L.A., Carvey chose to have the surgery performed by Dr. Hanna, closer to his Mill Valley, Calif., home. “I pleaded with Dana to take a private plane [to L.A.],” says Shah, who had been his cardiologist for two years. “But his local internist suggested that it might be unsafe to fly. I told him, ‘Look, you have to do what you have to do.’ ”

Carvey approached the bypass with characteristically puckish élan. “When they were wheeling me down the hallway, I was doing Woody Allen,” he recalls. “‘Maybe I could just, you know, take an aspirin.’ The last thing I said was, ‘Make sure the knife is sharp.’ “At first the surgery seemed to have worked. But two months later, in May 1998, “Dana called me and said he was having the same symptoms again—chest pain,” says Shah. “My first instinct was, ‘Oh, God, something got messed up in surgery.'”

“Dana was extremely depressed after the bypass failed,” says Paula, a homemaker. “We’d thought, ‘We’re young. We’ve got these kids.’ I wasn’t worried that something like this would happen.” In fact her husband was dealing with a longstanding family health problem. “I have had tremendously high cholesterol, and so has he—it’s a hereditary thing,” says William “Bud” Carvey, 75, a retired high school teacher who with his wife, Billie, 74, an artist and musician, raised Dana and four siblings in San Carlos, Calif., south of San Francisco. Furthermore, “getting started in the entertainment business is awfully stressful,” adds William, “and I think it affected Dana’s health.”

To be sure, his time with SNL had been grueling. “What [the show’s creator] Lorne Michaels does is breed those comedians to compete against each other to the death, and it works,” says Penelope Spheeris, who directed Carvey in the original 1992 Wayne’s World movie. “It’s healthy competition—it makes for very funny people. But you’d judge yourself by Lorne’s reaction. If it made him happy, your life was good.” The show’s pace was surely a strain, and Carvey’s foray into features didn’t help. “Poor Dana,” recalls Spheeris, who wrapped Wayne’s World in just 34 days. “The day we finished shooting his last scene, he ran from the set, still in his Garth outfit and wig, and jumped in a limo to the airport to go back to New York for Saturday Night Live. He never lost his temper on the set, never had a frown on his face or a grouchy mood. But that’s a lot of stress.” Yet despite the time pressure, Carvey, a runner in high school, always kept up with his exercise. On the Wayne’s World set, “he was always on the treadmill,” says Spheeris. “I couldn’t understand it. I’d say, ‘Dana, what have you got, an eating disorder?'”

During his heart crisis, Carvey has been encouraged by fellow SNL alum, including Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller and Sandler, who told him, “Carvey, if you need an artery maybe I got a couple to spare.” But his greatest source of support has been Paula. “Like any tragedy it’s made us tighter,” she says. “Nothing can separate us.” Now, as in years past, Carvey is once again jogging the streets of Mill Valley, a quaint bayside city outside San Francisco, and a prescription drug has lowered his cholesterol from 400 to 150. “The cholesterol,” says Carvey in the voice of Hans the bodybuilder, “has gotten its proverbial ass kicked.”

Carvey’s wit, meanwhile, is as sharp as ever. “When I was walking by Drew Carey’s and Dana’s dressing rooms,” says Kathie Lee Gifford, a fellow contestant on Millionaire, “I laughingly suggested to them that they pray, and I was delighted that they wanted to. Dana really cracked me up when he said to God, ‘I’m so sorry we didn’t study in high school!'” As for Carvey’s old boss Lorne Michaels, he’s predicting a renaissance for his onetime top banana because talent, he believes, will prevail. “There are only a handful of people who can do what Dana does,” he says. “He’s a long-distance runner.”

That’s one prediction Carvey seems determined to fulfill—literally. “I just want to say one last thing in terms of how I feel now,” says Carvey. “I challenge every comedian in Hollywood to a race to the top of the Hollywood sign. All comedians, all comers. I’ll take them all night.”

Susan Schindehette

Tom Cunneff, Ken Baker and Michelle Bowers in San Francisco, Michelle Caruso and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Cynthia Wang and Bob Meadows in New York City and Giovanna Breu in Chicago