06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
Faced with the news that his foot might have to be amputated because of a diabetes-related infection, actor Stephen Furst had only one thing on his mind—well, three things, actually: fried rice, kung pau soup and egg rolls. The 5'10" Furst, best known as bumbling pledge Kent "Flounder" Dorfman in the 1978 frat-boy farce Animal House, was tipping the scales at 260 lbs. in 1996 as he lay in that hospital bed in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Doctors had ordered him to slim down, but he called a local Chinese delivery joint anyway. "I was like an alcoholic," Furst recalls, "and food was something I could always turn to. Whether I was happy or scared, it never let me down."
It did this time. Thanks to a misdirected delivery boy, the order landed at the nurses' station, and the only thing Furst was served that night was a scolding. The incident, though, was "the ultimate wake-up call," he says. "Being caught, embarrassed and knowing I wasn't more powerful than the disease finally made me sit up and pay attention." Luckily, powerful antibiotics saved his foot, and once out of the hospital he dieted down to his current svelte 175. Grateful for his reclaimed health, Furst, 47, recently made an educational video for the American Diabetes Association. In Diabetes for Guys, he re-creates scenes from James Bond and Austin Powers movies, "spoofing the funniest guy flicks I could find in an effort to get men to learn how diabetes can impact your health."
For years the disease had little effect on Furst's lifestyle. Growing up in Norfolk, Va., the youngest of three kids of insurance salesman Nathan and homemaker Lillian, Furst says, "They knew us on a first-name basis at Sizzler." Although he was diagnosed at age 17—the same year his father died of diabetes-related heart problems (his mother died of leukemia in 1975)—he rarely exercised or ate properly.
When he moved to Hollywood in 1976, Furst's girth actually worked in his favor. "Because of his weight, Stephen came across as a little nerdy, which is exactly what we were looking for," says Animal House producer Matty Simmons. After that breakout role, he was typecast in other teenage romps before winning the part of Dr. Elliot Axelrod on St. Elsewhere in 1984.
All the while, Furst confesses, he was a chronic "closet eater," keeping his food addiction a secret even from his wife, homemaker Lorraine, 49, and their two sons, aspiring actor Griff, 19, and composer Nathan, 22. But after his hospital scare, Furst went on a low-fat diet and shed 85 lbs. in the next eight months, with the bulk of the weight coming off during a four-month hiatus from his role in the mid-'90s as an alien on the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. When he returned to the set slimmed down, he says, "the wardrobe people were frantic. On the first episode of the fourth season, you'll see that my back is never to the camera because my costume was full of safety pins." As his St. Elsewhere pal Howie Mandel attests, "The change was so drastic, I thought he had to be incredibly ill."
In fact, he has never been better. Furst, who lives with his family in Moorpark, Calif., and has been directing indie films since 1992, "is much happier now," says Griff. Adds Nathan: "He takes his insulin, goes to the doctor more than once every two years and watches everything he eats." With his video, in which he humorously shares his own struggles, Furst hopes he can convince others to do the same. "Guys are like me," he says. "They're not going to listen to somebody in a white coat saying, 'This is how to test your blood sugar.' " But someone who chugged beer with a bunch of guys in white togas? Now that commands respect.
Johnny Dodd in Moorpark