07/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
HE WAS—LIKE—SO GROSS. EVEN HIS name was to gag on—Squiggy. A greaser with a spit curl and pale, spaghetti arms hanging from a sleeveless shirt, Andrew Squiggman and his buddy Lenny Kosnowski were two of the most geekific nerds ever to haunt the TV airwaves. Yet David Lander, the comic actor whose dorky alter ego brought him fame and fortune on Laverne and Shirley a decade ago, says it loud: He's Squiggy. And he's proud. Greeting a visitor at the door of his spacious, ivy-covered Hollywood Hills home, Lander spreads his arms as if leading a grand tour of Xanadu. "This," he says with a loopy grin, "is the house that Squiggy built."
Rather than lowering the property values in these oh-so-hip parts—neighbors include Billy Idol and Lou Diamond Phillips—being the nerd next door has its advantages. It was a series of chats over the backyard fence with fellow gardening enthusiast David Lynch that landed Lander, 44, back in prime time after a decade's drought. Lynch, who had cast his neighbor in a small part in his 1990 Twin Peaks, wrote a lead character in his new ABC sitcom, On the Air, with Lander in mind. The show, which began its six-week run on June 20, deals with the craziness on a live, 1950s variety show and stars Lander as the program's wacko director, Vladja Gochktch. "I play a funny character with a funny voice," Lander says. "It's the perfect sitcom for me."
Lander's daughter, Natalie, 8, wishes it weren't. "Dad," she says, after watching her father chew up scenery the way Squiggy once did, "when are you gonna play someone who's just a nice guy like you?"
It ain't gonna happen, kid. Clowning since he was a child, Lander grew up in the Bronx, where his late parents, high school teachers Sol and Stella Landau, and elder brother Robert, put high stock in shtick. "My dad was a great raconteur," says Lander, who changed his name in 1968. "He'd always say, 'If you think I'm good, wait'll you see my kid. He's a natural.' "
A 1965 graduate of New York City's High School of the Performing Arts, Lander met his alter ego's alter ego, Michael (Lenny) McKean, that year at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech. Almost immediately, Lenny and Squiggy were born. "These types made you cringe," says Lander of the high school losers who inspired the characters. "They didn't have any idea how stupid or funny they were."
But just about everyone else got the joke. After a 1967 move to Los Angeles, where they joined the Credibility Gap improv comedy group. Lander and McKean would perform their routine at the drop of a party invite. In 1976, pal Rob Reiner and his then wife Penny Marshall helped persuade Marshall's brother, director Garry Marshall, to include Lenny and Squiggy in Laverne and Shirley's cast of oddballs. "We were the amyl nitrate twins," says Lander. "You pop us and laugh for two minutes."
For a while it looked like nothing short of a can of Raid could stop the pair. During Laverne and Shirley's seven-year run, the pair became household nerds, recorded an album, Lenny and the Squigtones, in 1979, and even marketed a line of Lenny and Squiggy dolls. "We had no genitals, which can be kind of frightening to a 29-year-old," Lander says.
When Laverne ended production in 1983, Lander retired with his pregnant wife, Kathy Fields, whom he'd married in 1979, to the house in the Hills he had purchased the year before. "I made a lot of money, and I wanted to sit back and watch my kid grow," says Lander. Still, a mortgage had to be paid, and when work later failed to materialize, Lander began to suspect that "I had become typecast as Squiggy. There have been periods of real droughts, of wondering if I'll ever work again."
Lander credits Kathy, 44, as his "grounding force. When Laverne ended I had to do some hustling. That's when I realized the strength of our relationship. She's helped me grow. I'm not as self-centered as I used to be."
Or Squiggy-centered. After shoring up his bank account by doing cartoon voice-overs, including Smart Ass, the head weasel in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Lander finds his career back on the upswing. While doing On the Air, he also plays the ballpark announcer in old castmate Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (see page 40). Next he'll be heard as the voice of Frankie Da Flea in the animated Tom and Jerry: The Movie.
Between gigs, Lander spends time at home, entertaining new friends like Lynch ("He's a great neighbor; he doesn't play his music too loud") and ex-partner McKean, Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins. (He appears with Jack Nicholson in the upcoming film Man Trouble.) Though still close, their manic, always-in-character relationship has mellowed. Says Lander: "We rarely do 'the boys' anymore."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles