Braving the Storm

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

EBULLIENT, DEVOTED DAD PROBABLY ISN'T how viewers think of Wallace Langham, who plays arrogant, cynical Phil, the head writer for an insecure late-night talk show host (Garry Shandling) on HBO's hit sitcom The Larry Sanders Show. Phil, after all, is the office prankster who, after egging Hank Kingsley's car—and displaying the carton on his own desk—coolly tells the pompous announcer, "I like protein.... I am 100 percent not guilty." But Langham, his castmates insist, is absolutely not Phil. "He's a straight-up guy with the biggest heart," says Jeffrey Tambor (Hank).

Nowhere is that more evident than on California's Mammoth Mountain, where, parked outside a ski lodge, the actor turns and grasps the hand of his 7-year-old son, Alex, who's seated behind him in the family van. "You ready to ski?" Langham asks, smiling. "Yes!" says Alex, his eyes aglow. "I wanna ski!"

With that, Langham, 31, and Alex head for the slopes, where Langham's wife, Laura, 29, and daughter Chloe, 5, are already waiting. At the top of the "Sesame Street" run, Alex is strapped into a bi-ski, a fiberglass and aluminum chair fastened to a pair of children's skis. Born with a rare, congenital malformation called Klippel-Trenaunay (or K-T), Alex uses a wheelchair because of his partially developed legs. He has had six operations to correct various abnormalities. But as the second-grader takes off downhill, it's Chloe and their parents, one always tethered to Alex by a long nylon cord, who trail behind. "Skiing gave Alex confidence to do things on his own," says Laura. Wally agrees: "The first time Alex did it, it was just magic. His self-esteem went up."

It was Laura's lifelong passion for the sport that persuaded the Langhams to pull up roots in L.A. in June 1995 and move into an airy, four-bedroom house in the ski-resort town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Langham says he doesn't mind the twice-weekly, six-hour commute to and from L.A., where he usually stays at the home of Sanders cast member Scott Thompson (Brian, the gay secretary). When he embarked on his new lifestyle, his career, after a decade of character roles in such series pilots as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and low-budget films like The Chocolate War, followed by five high-profile seasons on Sanders, was percolating. Last April he nabbed the small but showy role of an unctuous tabloid assistant in the John Travolta hit Michael.

But big things keep happening to the Langhams, not all of them good. Last August a tumor was discovered in Laura's chest, and she was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkins lymphoblastic lymphoma. "It was devastating," says Wallace. "But we knew from the get-go that it was treatable and that she would get through it."

Indeed, following a grueling 12 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, the tumor has shrunk, and next month marks Laura's final chemo session. "I've put out a message to the universe," she jokes, "that we will not accept any more bad stuff after this."

Langham's Sanders colleagues marvel at her resilience—and his. "Wally is really stoic. He never complains," says Thompson. "He is always up," agrees Penny Johnson (Larry's secretary, Beverly). Sometimes, though, she says, "it just hits him. I'll tell him, 'You have the right not to be perfect today.' Then he comes back up."

Being a father didn't come naturally to Langham. Hearing that Laura was pregnant with Alex was, he says, "tremendously scary. I had no blueprint. My dad"—James, a Fort Worth elevator repairman who divorced his mother, Sunni, when Wally was 6—"lived in Texas, and I would see him once a year." An only child, Wally grew up in L.A., where Sunni was a costume designer for ABC's Donny and Marie.

Hooked on showbiz, he enrolled in an acting class at age 10, and at 16, he made his first commercial—hawking yogurt. That same year he graduated from an L.A. private high school and enrolled in Los Angeles City College. He later entered Cal State Northridge but left at 20 after landing a bit part in the 1985 comedy Weird Science.

While shooting the film at a Chicago mall, Langham met Laura, then 17 and a local high school senior. "We totally clicked right away," she says. For the next nine months the couple—he back in L.A., she completing her final year—ran up "huge Sprint bills," he says. That summer, they moved into a West Hollywood apartment. A year and a half later, they married.

"We had this terrific rabbi," he recalls of their Dec. 28, 1986 nuptials. "His whole speech to us was about staying friends. Through hard times, it's the one thing that has kept us from getting upset with each other."

Today's ski trip, though, is nothing but laughs. After three runs down the hill, the Langhams head home. "I hate that it takes something drastic to get you to see things in a different way, but it did," he says. "Laura's illness taught me that life is precious. If you don't capture those moments," he adds, cradling his sleepy son, "you're gonna miss it."

PAULA YOO in Mammoth Lakes

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