In the Image and Spirit of Terry Fox, Amputee Eric Fryer Runs to Stardom

updated 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Canadian summer of 1980 belonged to Terry Fox. Fighting the cancer that had taken his right leg, the curly-haired collegian vowed to run across the country—5,000 miles—on one good leg. Fox's courage as he hobbled 26 miles a day moved the nation. Strangers swapped news of his progress. Radio and TV news programs reported phenomenal interest and a vast swelling of support for Terry. Ultimately his Marathon of Hope raised more than $22 million for cancer research.

When Terry Fox entered Toronto to a hero's welcome, a young man watching the scene on television in a local hospital was strangely unmoved. Eric Fryer was undergoing chemotherapy after amputation of his cancerous right leg, yet he felt no empathy with Fox. "I admired him for his willpower, but I thought he was crazy," says Eric, 21. "I didn't know what he was trying to prove."

That September Terry Fox collapsed and was hospitalized. He had covered 3,339 miles and his race was over. The cancer had spread to his lungs, and 10 months later flags across Canada were lowered to half-mast to mark his death. "It's a cold thing to say," Fryer admits, "but I didn't have strong feelings when Terry died. I never met him, never talked to him. I just saw him running on TV. I thought he was a glory-seeker, shoving his leg in people's faces."

Eric Fryer makes his acting debut this month, playing Terry Fox in The Terry Fox Story, HBO's first made-for-TV feature film, which co-stars Robert Duvall. The movie will have a theater release this week in Canada. The casting was a gamble: With $3 million riding on the outcome, HBO hesitated to cast an unknown in the lead role. Michael (The Great Santini) O'Keefe and Val Kilmer (recently on Broadway in Slab Boys) were favored candidates. Producer Robert Cooper, convinced an amputee could bring more authenticity to the film, spent $30,000 searching for the star. More than 200 handicapped young men were interviewed.

One of Cooper's ads for "an above-knee amputee to play Terry Fox" appeared in a newspaper in Fryer's hometown of Toronto. His parents thought he should try out, but Eric balked. "When I told him he could probably make enough money to buy a Corvette—well, that got the wheels rolling," recalls his mother. Connie Fryer thought her son was a natural because he was the same age as Fox and like him in many ways. "Actually, the similarities are rather spooky," she says. Though Eric had never acted before, reviewers have praised the intensity of his performance. "We were lucky to find an amputee who could act," says Cooper.

Eric found the clue to Terry Fox's blazing energy in his own bitterness. "Anger," Fryer says. "He ran because it was the only way to get rid of his anger." Eric's own trauma began when he was playing ice hockey, just a typical Canadian 18-year-old. "One day I got hit in the knee with a hockey puck," he says. "The injury never healed and steadily got worse. I thought it was a pulled ligament or torn cartilage." Within a month doctors discovered a malignant tumor and were forced to remove his right leg. "I kept asking, 'Why me?' " he remembers. An avid sketcher, Eric drew pictures in the hospital that were somber with the themes of anger and death. The ordeal continued through a year of chemotherapy. Like Terry, Eric lost all his hair. "My friends were freaked out," he says. "When I got comfortable with being bald, then they got comfortable with it."

Fryer, who had only a month to prepare for his film role, learned to act with the cameras rolling. "Acting is a weird feeling," he says. "It's like taking your clothes off and running around naked in front of a bunch of people." Co-star Duvall helped him over that awkwardness with tension-splitting jokes and advice. But during the nine weeks of filming Eric worked grueling hours—12 to 18 a day—and came to feel exploited. The filmmakers were not always sensitive to the extraordinary physical effort the role required of him. The running sequences, usually no more than 200 yards, left him panting. Yet in one scene, his mother recalls, "He ran a mile without hearing anyone yell 'cut.' When he got back he found out that the crew had gone to lunch. They'd forgotten to tell him to stop running."

Money was another issue. Eric, who also complains of an exhausting publicity tour to promote the film, won't discuss specifics. But Bert Fryer, a salesman with Canadian General Electric, says his son "just got paid scale." Producer Cooper says only Duvall was paid more, and that "Fryer stands to make a lot of money when the film goes into foreign distribution."

Eric never got the Corvette, but he is driving around in a new cross-country Honda dirt buggy. Using the drafting skills he honed at art school in the year after his release from the hospital, he has designed a three-bedroom ranch house. When he finds a 200-acre spread north of Toronto, where he currently lives with his folks, he hopes to build the house, and even assist with the interior. Once an all-round athlete, he now plays a little Frisbee with girlfriend Diane Delisle. He pumps iron to stay in shape and has learned to ski. "With one leg," he laughs, "you can't cross your tips." Fryer's sense of humor is coming back. When his mother asked him to get his squeaking artificial leg repaired, he refused: "It would cost me an arm and a leg," he explained.

His future is unsettled, and a source of frustration. "I'd like to act," he says, but so far he has landed only a small role as a hospitalized World War II vet in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series. Every three months he sees his doctors for precautionary blood tests and X-rays. His cancer has been in remission for three years. "At first I wondered if the cancer would come back. It happened to Terry," says Eric. "But you can't live if you think about it all the time."

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said of Terry Fox that his "courage and awesome determination inspired this country as no one else has ever done." Eric Fryer, who came to know and live Fox's life onscreen, has his own tribute. "I have great respect for him. Terry was one of the most determined, courageous people that ever lived."

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