December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

Reunited with his former Guiding Light castmates at his last major public appearance, Michael Zaslow wept with joy. It was Nov. 15 at a Flushing, N.Y., fund-raiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—Lou Gehrig’s disease—the debilitating neuromuscular disorder that struck Zaslow (as it has physicist Stephen Hawking and, more recently, Baseball Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter). Zaslow, who had won a 1994 Emmy as GL’s villainous Roger Thorpe, had been banished from the CBS soap in April 1997 after losing his ability to speak clearly—an early symptom of his then-undiagnosed illness. Now, at the party, which raised $37,000 for ALS research, he was serenaded by Ron Raines (GL’s Alan Spaulding). “He sang ‘The Impossible Dream,’ ” recalls Robin Strasser, Zaslow’s costar on One Life to Live. “It was gorgeous, and Michael was moved to tears.”

“The Impossible Dream” could well serve as a requiem for Zaslow, who died Dec. 6 at 56 of heart failure at the Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, psychotherapist Susan Hufford, 59, and their adopted daughters Marika, 16, and Helena, 13. After leaving GL, a defiant Zaslow told PEOPLE in 1997 that he was “still an actor. I’m not going to have my trade taken away.” Sure enough, last May, Zaslow was back on TV as concert pianist David Renaldi, the very role he had originated in 1983 on OLTL before jumping to Guiding Light six years later. In the new episodes, the once-dashing Renaldi like Zaslow and 5,000 other Americans each year, most between ages 40 and 70—had been felled by ALS, able to speak only with the aid of a keyboard-activated synthesized voice (as the actor did in real life).

“The show doesn’t pull punches,” Zaslow said last month. “When I fell and gave myself a shiner, they wrote it in. When some guy on the other end of the telephone heard my digitalized voice and hung up on me, they included that. Once enough people understand what ALS sufferers go through, we will put an end to this rotten disease.”

Though he considered his recurring role on OLTL spiritually “healing” (his final appearance aired Dec. 1), Zaslow admitted that the disease exacted a toll on his family. “It’s not only hard for Marika and Helena to see their dad falling, unable to walk or run or play,” he said. “It is also hard in terms of the demands made on their time. Because I do need more help. I can no longer go to the refrigerator and get what I need.”

Even his wife’s fortitude was severely tested. “I sometimes think of it as being in a war, something that is so frightening it doesn’t seem it’s going to end,” Hufford reflected in November. But she’d had reason to hope for a truce, at least. Unlike his OLTL character, Zaslow was still able to get about by cane or scooter. And, she noted, he was “getting strength back in his right hand.”

Nothing—not even the prospect of a mere two to five years that most ALS victims may expect to live—deterred Zaslow from pursuing his other quest: finding a cure for ALS by the year 2000. Last February he and former OLTL costar actress Brynn Thayer, a close friend, helped cofound ZazAngels, which lobbies for ALS patients and research (its Web site is “It’s impossible to say how much closer we are to a cure,” says Dr. Jay Lombard, Zaslow’s neurologist. “[But] I think Michael’s spirit had given a lot of people hope not to take this disease lying down.”

Through both his OLTL and fund-raising appearances, “Michael has made an enormous difference,” says Neelam Mehra, development coordinator for the Greater New York Chapter of ALS. Even off-camera, says Thayer, “he was always a great listener. People who had ALS would talk to him about getting through day by day, and Michael always had great words of wisdom for them. I don’t even think he thought they were wise words. They were just what he thought from the heart. He had so much courage and energy,” Thayer adds, “and he had it until his last moment on earth.”

Michael A. Lipton

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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