A gun is fired from somewhere off-screen directly at actor Angela Lansbury, who sits calmly, speaking into the camera. As the slow-motion bullet travels straight toward her, she explains this is how amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks your body. “You know what’s coming, but you can’t do anything about it.”
Then, after an appeal to the audience to support global research efforts, she stands and walks boldly off-screen, dodging the bullet just in time. “It’s a powerful metaphor, and it gets your attention,” says Lansbury, who turns 83 in October. The veteran star of Broadway, film, and television (memorable for her role as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote) recently became the spokeswoman for The ALS Association, and the commercial is part of the association’s new “Cure ALS” campaign.
Lansbury’s advocacy work is personal. In 1987, her sister, Isolde, died from the disease at 67. Like many others with ALS, Isolde’s initial symptoms were puzzling to her family. Early symptoms can include muscle weakness, twitching, and slurred speech. The sisters were living a continent apart -- Lansbury in Los Angeles, her sister in England -- leaving Lansbury to piece the clues together by phone, with the help of her niece. She ultimately spoke with Isolde’s doctor, who explained the condition. “He said there really is no cure for this.”
Two decades later, little has been learned about ALS, its causes, or how to treat this progressive disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. In later stages, people become paralyzed, but their minds remain alert. About 5,600 Americans are diagnosed each year, but the causes of the disease remain unclear. Genetics may play a role for some.
When ALS first deeply touched Lansbury’s heart, her career allowed little time to help work for its cure. Now, she says, “I have a family and grandchildren. I have a full life still, but nevertheless I can take the time to do something in which I can give back, and that pleases me tremendously.”