Two decades later, Sperber is still giving others a leg up, but the stakes have changed considerably. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998—it has since spread throughout her body—Sperber, now 43, has turned her ongoing health battles into a crusade to provide information and emotional support to others facing the disease. Last November, after three years of fund-raising, she opened weSPARK (Support, Prevention, Acceptance, Recovery, Knowledge), a cozy cancer support center in Sherman Oaks, Calif. , where some 200 people come for everything from therapeutic drumming classes and drama lessons to nature walks and grief counseling. Says longtime pal Nancy Allen, Sperber's costar in the 1979 Spielberg film 1941: "She's turned this into a mission."
Sperber got the idea for the center after working on a 1998 Murphy Brown episode with cancer survivors Tracy Nelson and Marcia Wallace. "All these actresses had already gone through what I was about to," says Sperber, who had been diagnosed just a few weeks earlier. "It was my very first support group." To raise money she launched a celebrity golf tournament the following year, recruiting such famous friends as Dennis Franz and Katey Sagal, and in late 2000 kicked off weSPARK with casual meetings at her Santa Monica home. "What she's done is remarkable," says Franz, whose wife, Joanie, has battled cervical cancer. "In the face of so much adversity, her up spirit makes all of us count our blessings."
Sperber, a Northridge, Calif., native, has long had the qualities required for her new role. On the Buddies set, "I remember her lifting me up when I felt bad," says costar Telma Hopkins, 53. "Wendie had this great giggle. Tom and Peter would draw faces on their underwear and flash us while we were doing a scene, and she and I would bust up laughing."
Sperber's upbeat attitude belies her own struggle, which began when a small lump was detected at a routine doctor's visit in July 1998. "A lot of people think death, but I never did," says Sperber, who elected to have her right breast removed. Although her then boyfriend broke ties with her soon after her diagnosis, Sperber's family rallied. Her parents, home-maker Charlene, 71, and landscaper Burton, 72, now take her to all her treatments. Her three siblings are all weSPARK volunteers as well.
And her children Preston, 16, and Pearl, 12, from her 1983-94 marriage to television producer Richard Velasquez, 53, pitch in with emotional support. "I spent many years with low self-esteem," says Sperber. "But the cancer has given me the gift of seeing how many people love me."
That support was crucial last August when Sperber discovered the cancer had spread to her bones. Within a month she was in so much pain it was difficult to get out of bed. "I was dying," she says. Then "I thought, 'I'm a single mom—I can't die now. I've got to wait until they're in their 20s.' "
Sperber still has her bedridden days, and chemo and radiation treatments no longer provide much benefit. But medication has built up her strength and is keeping her comfortable. And although she doesn't date ("Cancer is a big thing to throw on somebody"), Sperber says that after years of battling weight problems, she is no longer insecure about her body. "Having a boob doesn't matter when you're dying," she says.
But having a purpose does. With evangelical zeal, she dreams of setting up weSPARK centers in other communities—"like Starbucks, one on every corner," she says. "I get e-mails and letters from people saying weSPARK has changed their life. And I know that's healing me." Her friends hope so. "If anyone's due for a miracle," says Nancy Allen, "it's Wendie."
William Keck in Los Angeles