David L. Lander has died. Best known for his eight-season run as beloved doofus Andrew “Squiggy” Squiggman on Laverne & Shirley, Lander spent his life acting, pursuing a life-long love of sports, and working as an activist and advocate for multiple sclerosis research, after being diagnosed with the disease in 1984. Per Variety, he died from MS last night, at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was 73.
A New York native, Lander’s comedy career came into focus in 1965, when he and Michael McKean encountered each other at Pittsburg’s Carnegie Mellon University (then still just Carnegie Tech), and immediately fell into each other’s comic rhythms. In a Random Roles interview with us in 2013, McKean described their budding comedy partnership thusly:
We hit it off right away, just started chatting, and we both started doing these dumb assholes who went to our respective high schools. He had a couple of specimens, I had a couple of specimens, and they were very similar. And we just found each other’s rhythm with that stuff, and we started doing them all the time, along with a lot of other stuff. David was kind of a 24-hour performance artist at that point, and he fancied himself kind of like a talk-show host, and we were all on his show. It was called The Malt Shop, because “The Malt Shop” was the nickname for his dorm room over in Boss Hall, across the way from mine in McGill Hall. So it was just kind of ongoing. He was the host, and he’d just kind of pull you over, give you a character or a name, and he’d pull you into his show. It was just really fun. We were all into improvising, anyway, because we were learning jump improvisation in class, and we all just kind of dug that whole idea.
After college, the two men moved to Los Angeles, quickly forming the latest cohort of long-running comedy team The Credibility Gap (teaming up with Richard Beebe and Harry Shearer in the process). The group’s rising success won Lander his first major TV appearances, and, in 1979, opened the door to the role that would make him nationally famous. Here’s McKean again, discussing how their friendship with Penny Marshall led to the appearance of iconic comedy duo Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley:
Penny wanted us to be on Laverne & Shirley, and she said, “You guys could write on the show,” with “you guys” in this case meaning myself, David, and Harry Shearer. At the time we were The Credibility Gap, and we were kind of looking for ways to survive while still keeping that going. So we said, “Yeah! We’ll do that!” So we became writers on the show, and Penny said, “Look for a place to maybe get your characters in there.” So we wrote ourselves into the first episode… and every other episode.
With his nasal “Hello!” and dumb-guy greaser charm, Squiggy became an instant hit—even releasing his own album (with McKean) as Lenny And The Squigtones in 1979. Although sometimes dismissed by critics of the day for its low-brow stylings, Laverne & Shirley remains a textbook example of the power of good comic timing, and no one nailed it better than Lenny and Squiggy, bursting into rooms with an energy and precision that wouldn’t be matched until Cosmo Kramer first made the sitcom scene a decade later.
Lander appeared on all 8 seasons of Laverne & Shirley, even as other commitments pulled his castmates in other directions. He and McKean also expanded the characters out into multiple other mediums, from Steven Spielberg’s 1941, all the way up to a whole host of 21st century vocal reunions on shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and The Grim Adventures Of Billy And Mandy. After Laverne And Shirley wrapped up, he continued to work regularly, appearing on shows like Twin Peaks (as taxidermist Tim Pinkle), Galaxy High School, and David Lynch’s short-lived On The Air. (He also developed a sideline in the world of professional baseball, serving briefly as a talent scout for the Anaheim Angels and Seattle Mariners.)
But while he continued to serve as a minor part of TV royalty, Lander also struggled with a secret: He was diagnosed with MS in 1984, and spent 15 years hiding the disease from the public. He finally came forward in 1999, embracing his role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and co-writing a book, Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis And Didn’t Tell Nobody in 2002. And while his ability to perform physical roles diminished in later years, his performances as a voice actor only continued to grow; it’s his sneer that brings head weasel Smart Ass to life in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and he appeared in dozens of other voice roles across his career.
McKean commemorated his long-time friendship with Lander today with the above photo on Twitter. Lander’s wife, Kathy Fields Lander, was reportedly by his side when he died on Friday night.