He sat stiffly behind a desk, one hand in front of him, one down at his side. His words had the familiar slurred sound of a stroke victim. But his cadence was brisk, he made himself clear, and most of all, he was there — on national TV.
Stroke survivors and their advocates said Tuesday they were cheered and inspired by Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve appearance, ringing in 2006 a year after his debilitating stroke.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Leanne Hendrix, who was 26 when she had a stroke three years ago. “It was a tremendously courageous thing to do.”
Hendrix, a former Miss Arizona who lives in Phoenix, echoed a hope common among stroke survivors interviewed: that the public might begin to treat them with the respect and admiration given those who’ve overcome cancer or heart attacks.
“So for him to get up on national TV and say: “This is what I am now” — I have nothing but respect for him,” she said.
Diane Mulligan-Fairfield of the National Stroke Association, a public education organization, called Clark a “hero” for showing the world his condition.
“Hero is not normally a word we associate with stroke survivors,” she said. “We are trying to change that.”
Heroic or inappropriate?
Clark’s appearance on “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” came a full year after the December 2004 stroke that forced him to miss last year’s show. There had been intense speculation beforehand whether he’d be up to the task. The 76-year-old entertainer has given no interviews since his stroke.
On New Year’s Eve, seated inside a studio at Times Square, Clark began by immediately acknowledging his condition, saying it had been a “long, hard fight” learning to walk and talk again. But, he said, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
His words were muffled, but he kept a quick pace and was, for the most part, easy to understand during his brief appearances sprinkled through the telecast. At midnight, he counted down the seconds as the ball dropped, then kissed his wife, Kari, sitting next to him at his desk.
While some found the appearance moving, others seemed to find it inappropriate or depressing to see the ever-boyish, handsome Clark display his impaired condition in a TV universe where appearance is everything.
“Viewers ... may well have been hoping the famous giant ball was the only thing that would drop before the night was over,” wrote Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. He said Clark looked “seriously debilitated,” and called his appearance “a gesture likely to strike some observers as courageous and others as morbid.”
In the New York Times, reviewer Virginia Heffernan called Clark’s description of his speech (“not perfect”) an “understatement,” and wrote that sometimes, “his impaired speech seemed comical,” although mostly it was touching.
The negative comments deeply angered Karl Guerra of Annapolis, Md., who has been recovering from a stroke for the last five years. For the first three years, he spent 10 hours a day working on his speech. He called Clark’s recovery so far “remarkable.”
“Let’s face it, there are certain aspects of a stroke that make people feel uncomfortable, and one of those is speech,” Guerra said in a telephone interview. “But he’s doing a great job as far as I can tell. For me, he epitomizes the ‘Go out there and make it happen’ spirit.”’
Will Clark hand off his New Year's duties?
A doctor who treats stroke survivors said Clark’s determination to go ahead with his appearance is just the kind of goal that often helps patients with their recovery.
“In many diseases the emotional component — the determination to fight and pursue recovery — is part of the recovery itself,” said Dr. Pierre Fayad, medical director of neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
One stroke survivor said he would have preferred to see Clark use his appearance to spend some time promoting stroke awareness. “It’s great to see that he’s come back, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Haven Moses, a former NFL player with the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos who suffered a stroke at age 56.
Though it may be unusual to see a celebrity like Clark display impairment from a stroke so publicly, other well-known entertainers such as Kirk Douglas, Julie Harris and Patricia Neal have done so. Both Douglas and Neal appeared in films following their strokes. A rehabilitation center in Tennessee is named after Neal.
Preliminary ratings from big-city markets showed that Clark’s broadcast on ABC drew more people than competitors Carson Daly on NBC and Regis Philbin on Fox combined, according to Nielsen Media Research. “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” ratings were up 15 percent over last year, when Philbin filled in.
Television analyst Marc Berman of Media Week Online said that while Clark’s appearance was brave, he’s not sure ABC would want him to continue playing a major role in future New Year’s Eve broadcasts if his condition doesn’t improve markedly. ABC and Clark’s production company have already signed a long-term deal with Ryan Seacrest, who co-hosted this year, to make the “American Idol” host the New Year’s Eve heir apparent.
“We’ve already seen what [Clark] looks like,” said Berman. “The curiosity factor is gone.”
As for Clark himself, he was in a “terrific” mood after the show, said his spokesman, Paul Shefrin. “He got done and five or six of us went out for a hamburger,” he said. “He absolutely feels like he did the right thing.” He said Clark will likely sit down in the next few weeks to decide what he wants to do about the future.
“He has never said this would be his last year,” he said. “It’s up to him.”