May 13, 1991 12:00 PM

DANA ELCAR PROPS HIMSELF IP IN HIS hospital bed as his friend Richard Dean Anderson stares out the window. “I’ve always been Mr. Indispensable,” says Elcar after an agonizing pause. “I’ve always been independent. Now I’m going to have to live by a whole new set of rules.” Anderson takes Elcar’s hand. Glaucoma is robbing his friend of his sight, and neither of these tough guys knows how to handle it. All they can do is smile taut smiles.

“Okay, cut it!” shouts the director. Anderson releases Elcar’s hand. It’s apparently business as usual on the set of ABC’s six-year-old action-adventure series MacGyver, on which Elcar plays Pete Thornton, boss and buddy to Anderson’s secret agent MacGyver. But some things can’t simply be cut. Among the dozen crew members hustling about is one who helps Elcar put on his robe, then slips his hand around the linebacker-size actor and leads him away. This MacGyver episode may be make-believe, but Elcar’s blindness is all too real.

When the producers learned a year and a half ago that Elcar, 63, was losing his sight, they offered to write his plight into the show. “Our friendship had built to the point where we wanted to keep him in,” says co—executive producer Steve Downing. “The obvious answer was just to tell his story.” But telling the story meant Elcar would have to go public with his condition.

Elcar’s response: “I’ve never lied in my life. Let’s do it.” Thornton’s glaucoma was introduced last March, and on the May 6 episode he undergoes an operation to save some of his sight—an operation Elcar had last year with limited success. (The surgery was intended to relieve the buildup of pressure in the eye caused by the accumulation of fluids behind the lens.) Now legally blind—though he can make out shapes if the light is directly overhead—Elcar must have his assistant read his scripts to him. Despite his enthusiasm for the Thornton character, acting out his loss has been painful. “There have been times when I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I don’t know if I want to do this again,’ ” says Elcar, a veteran of more than 350 television shows, including a stint on Baretta. “But it was good therapy.”

Glaucoma, which afflicts 2.5 million Americans, lakes its toll gradually, usually in advanced age. Elcar, although originally diagnosed some 25 years ago but asymptomatic until recently, wasn’t fully aware of how poor his vision had become until a couple of seasons ago when he became disoriented on a location shoot at night.

At home in the small town of Santa Paula, Calif., about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles, Elcar’s life too has been disrupted. He can no longer drive, bike or take walks by himself, so he graciously accepts the helping hands of his wife, Marianne, their son, Alex, 7, and daughter Marin, 10. “At first it was a shock to everybody,” says Marianne, 39, who met her husband 16 years ago when both were members of an L.A. theater company and who now manages the professional Santa Paula Theater Center. “We operated first on fear. Dana was the breadwinner. Would he be able to continue? But we got into a routine. The kids are very helpful.” Among other things, she and the children have learned to share the kind of information they and Dana would once have taken for granted. “We tell him, for example, ‘The mountains have snow on them today.’ ”

Elcar grew up in Ferndale, Mich. His father, James, was an interior decorator who during leaner times worked in a meat market. His mother, Hedwig, took care of the house and his brother, sister, two stepbrothers and two stepsisters. Before enrolling at the University of Michigan, Elcar served in the Navy, working for a year as a weatherman in Newfoundland. A childhood love of theater brought him to New York City in the mid-’50s, and he found steady work off-Broadway. His TV career took off when he moved to Los Angeles in 1967, and later he landed parts in such films as The Sting and All of Me. From a first marriage Elcar has two daughters, Chandra, 20, an English major, and Nora. ’31, an actress and script coordinator.

MacGyver has been picked up for another season, but with middling ratings the show is hardly a security net. “Unemployment is part of an actor’s life,” says Dana, “so we have made reasonable provision for that. I have the willingness and energy to find whatever acting work it takes to get by.” Elcar gets residuals from MacGyver, already in reruns. He is also writing a book and a play, dictating into a tape recorder, and is starting to learn Braille (and may buy an optical scanner, a computer that reads print aloud). And he’d like to act in a one-man show. Jokes Dana: “Maybe Prometheus Bound, tied to a rock.” He would also like to be a spokesman, educating the public about glaucoma. “Life doesn’t have to end,” he says. “But you learn how much you depend on others.”



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