Chris Kattan just wanted to make people laugh.
In fact, that’s what he was trying to do when he suffered an injury that would plague him for the next 20 years.
“I was doing a stunt and I knew something was wrong but I didn’t think it was serious,” Kattan tells PEOPLE exclusively. “It wasn’t until, maybe, two day later — when my arm started to atrophy — that I got checked out and the doctor told me that I’d broken my neck.”
But rather than ask his friends and colleagues for support, Kattan chose to keep his condition private.
“My dad was once fired from a job on a sitcom because he said he couldn’t do a certain physical thing on the trampoline,” Kattan says of his father, actor Kip King. “I remember how upset my dad was. I think that was one of the reasons I decided not to tell anyone. I thought telling people about a physical drawback might cost me a job.”
Kattan was advised he might become paralyzed if he didn’t have surgery as soon as possible, so he had a minor procedure to try and fix his neck.
“I just couldn’t imagine a piece of a car or a machine or a piece of metal in my back. It just didn’t make sense to me, so I got what was called a noninvasive surgery from a gentleman that was [practicing Eastern medicine],” he says of the procedure, which consisted of a fusion of levels in his neck.
Though it was a “noninvasive” surgery, Kattan still had to spend weeks in the hospital and follow up with physical therapy.
“My body had to learn to communicate with my nerves again. I wanted to go outside, but I was bedridden. The nurse was, like, ‘You can’t, you have to stay in bed,’ ” says the actor, now 46, who is featured in the upcoming issue of PEOPLE. “What really sucked is that I felt I couldn’t tell other people. I didn’t tell my agents, I didn’t tell my managers. I lied about what was really going on. I didn’t let them see me because I didn’t want my work to be affected.”
Kattan was advised to spend up to six months in recovery, but he returned to work just after just 60 days.
“When I went back to work, I was hiding my own wounds or my bandages and my posture and things like that,” says the actor. “People started saying, ‘Chris, you don’t look very good,’ and ‘You look sick,’ and ‘Are you on drugs?’ and all these things. I just said, ‘I’m not. I’m doing okay, I’m fine.’ But I never told them what was really happening because I just wanted to be polite.”
But soon it was evident that the surgery didn’t completely fix his problems.
“The pain was still there. I was getting numbness in my fingers, my toes. The doctor said my blood was not reaching my nerve endings. I started developing very dry skin and my hands would start to bleed from it, the dry skin,” he says. “People at work were, like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I let people judge me because I thought, ‘I needed to just keep going.’ “
A Second Surgery
A few years later, Kattan underwent a more invasive and conventional procedure.
“The doctor said I’d been so close to almost being paralyzed for the rest of my life,” he says of why he finally had the surgery.
“The rehabilitation process was really serious this time. I mean, the doctor put bolts in my back,” says Kattan.
He attempted dating during his recovery, but that proved to be challenging.
“I was just beginning a relationship and it was really hard to say on the second date, ‘Would you bathe me?’ ” he says. “I couldn’t bathe myself, I couldn’t dress myself. The fourth week I had to start on a walker. These are things you just don’t want to be seen doing.”
Suddenly trips to the grocery store became fodder for paparazzi and fan speculation.
“People were like, ‘What’s wrong with Kattan? He looks sick. He’s on drugs, look at him. What’s wrong? No wonder he’s not working.’ ” he says. “But I didn’t take their criticisms personally because I knew what the real answer was. But then they started comparing me to others. Like, ‘Why isn’t he working and Will Ferrell is? He left SNL and he’s not doing anything, what’s wrong with him?’ It was hard but I just kept saying, ‘Okay, I got three months left. I got two months left. I’m going to get better.’ “
His Third Surgery, Marriage and Divorce
And things did get better. Kattan began working again and thought his life was back on track until two years later when the numbness in his fingers returned and he had to have another surgery.
“It was the same process, just a different area on my back,” says Kattan. “So that was another six months to a year of not being able to work and for me to be silent again and people criticizing, ‘What’s happening again? Why isn’t he working? Why is he off the radar?’ And then it became, ‘He was this A-level, great comedian but he’s not doing anything. Look at Will, he’s doing so great!’ That hurt me a great deal.”
To top things off, the surgery could not have come at a worse time: the day after his 2008 wedding to model Sunshine Tutt.
“I actually postponed my surgery until the day after my wedding so we could go through with the ceremony,” says Kattan, who admits his recovery was a major reason the marriage lasted just two months. “When you are on morphine, it’s not a very good time to decide whether you should get divorced or not. But emotions were so high between Sunshine and me.”
The divorce made headlines and Kattan was left questioning his decision to keep his health battle quiet.
“Again, I didn’t know, Should I tell the world? Should I tell people that, ‘Hey, I’m having surgery, that’s why we’re getting a divorce. Maybe I should have been honest about that and tell everybody, but I didn’t,” says Kattan, who leaned on his mother and his good friend, actress Parker Posey during his split and recovery.
His Fourth Surgery and the Death of His Father
Kattan found himself back under the knife just two years later. This time as his father was dying in a hospital across town.
“He went in for a blood transfusion and he stayed in the hospital for a year, never made it out,” Kattan says of his dad, who died in 2010. “That was really heartbreaking because he was my best friend. I had to get someone to drive me to see him because I was still learning how to walk again. That was probably the hardest time of my life.”
“I thought about telling people what was going on, but I would see other actors, big names that I won’t share, in the hospital or rehab getting the same procedures I was,” he says.”I’d ask them, ‘What are you telling people?’ and they said the same thing I did, ‘Nothing.’ I realized it wasn’t just me and I thought that meant it was the right choice.”
His “Erratic Behavior” and DUI
Over the next few years, as the comedian rehabilitated his body he also attempted to rehabilitate his career. He began doing standup around the world and was booking great gigs, but traveling by plane was also hard on him because of the pain medication he was still taking.
“I was on 15-, 16-hour flights and had to be on pain medication in case my back starts acting up. It’s not like when people an take Ambien or a Xanax. I had to be on a little bit more medication in case. It wasn’t always a problem, but every so often I did need it,” says. Kattan. “But people would videotape me. I would be up in first class and somebody would just walk by me and videotape me or just get me on video while I’m going to the bathroom.”
“And if someone got me in a vulnerable moment, that was enough for them to sell it to some outlet and then I was labeled with ‘erratic behavior’ ” he continues. ” Then, once again, it looks like ‘Chris Kattan is all f—ed up.’ ‘He’s gone mad or crazy’ or ‘he’s on drugs’ — all that stuff.”
Kattan says his prescription painkillers were also to blame for his February 2014 DUI arrest.
“I’m not a drinker. I don’t drink. But I was on my meds and I drove — like an idiot — to see a friend late night. I wanted to see her but she was being difficult. She said, ‘I’m not driving there, you drive to me.’ I was like, ‘But you’re fine. I don’t feel medically fine right now. I don’t think I should drive.’ “
But he did.
“I drove and I fell asleep and I hit a car. I hit a parked trans car on the 101 freeway,” says Kattan. “When I crashed my car, I actually got out and ran to the police. Nobody pulled me over, nobody stopped me. I said, ‘Hey, I just crashed my car back up there. You might want to report it.’ “
“My face was bleeding and I was kind of in shock. They immediately said, ‘Are you on drugs or you been drinking? Let’s get a Breathalyzer.” So they did the Breathalyzer. I was not intoxicated. They did it three times, they got no level of that,” he says. “Then they made me do the walk and I can’t do any balance walk, even right now. Because of the surgeries I can’t walk the line. But they didn’t care.”
“They didn’t know what I was on. I kept saying, ‘I’m on pain meds because of my surgery and I shouldn’t have been driving.’ They didn’t know what to do with me, so they put me in jail and then they let me go within an hour,” he continues. “However, someone got video of them making me walk the line and sold it and within hours it was everywhere. I saw it on the news. I was like, ‘God, they’re making me look like this? How do I explain that I had surgery and I shouldn’t have been driving?’ That was a big mess, but it, again, was the cost of not being honest.”
“But I was hiding. I was hiding because I was embarrassed. People would ask, ‘Why were you so late?’ or ‘Why didn’t you come?’ and I didn’t want to tell them, ‘It’s because I couldn’t tie my shoe.’ ” he says. “It was embarrassing to say I needed help, so I would just stay home.”
“I thought, ‘This is my chance,’ ” says the comedian, who was partnered with pro dancer Witney Carson on the ABC reality dance competition. “But when I finished my first dance and got feedback from the judges, all the comments were about how stiff I was. I realized, ‘They don’t know why my neck is so stiff.’ “
Kattan had mentioned his broken neck in his video package before his dance, but either the judges hadn’t heard the interview or it hadn’t sunk in.
The audience at home was also not forgiving.
“There were a lot of things I saw in social media in the last couple weeks in regards to the footage that was being put out with Witney and I rehearsing,” he says. “There were comments like, ‘He’s a hunchback, he moves like a robot.’ It was a lot of hurtful things.”
Between online comments and the judges critiques, Kattan said “something clicked” and he realized it was time to share his complete story.
“It really opened my eyes. I think this is going to be the last time I ever hide any kind of ailment or problem that I have,” he says. “It just doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work in my favor at all. It just doesn’t.”
Kattan’s low judges scores from DWTS premiere week led to him being the first contestant eliminated from the competition on Monday, but even after all his injury led to, Kattan has found a silver lining.
“Living through that misery made me stronger,” he says. “I’m just grateful to get another shot.”