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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

Portrait of frustration: In 'Saving Milly,' a family fights a debilitating disease

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Portraying the Kondracke family in CBS  Saving Milly are, from left, Bruce Greenwood as Morton, Kylee Dubois as Alexandra, Jessica Lowndes as Andrea, and Madeleine Stowe as Milly.
Portraying the Kondracke family in CBS Saving Milly are, from left, Bruce Greenwood as Morton, Kylee Dubois as Alexandra, Jessica Lowndes as Andrea, and Madeleine Stowe as Milly.
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It's an unabashed love story, and at times it's a tear-jerker. But Saving Milly, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS, doesn't qualify for membership in network TV's infamous "Disease of the Week Club."

That's due in part to the fact that it's a true story, based on the best-selling book by hard-bitten political journalist Morton Kondracke, a panelist for many years on The McLaughlin Group and currently co-host of the Fox News Channel's The Beltway Boys.

But Saving Milly also paints a clear-eyed portrait of a family's frustrating fight against Parkinson's disease, a relentless and debilitating foe - and it reveals that the weapons available for that fight are limited in no small part by a puzzling lack of resources committed to finding a cure for the affliction.

Kondracke (Bruce Greenwood, Being Julia; I, Robot) was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1960s when, while covering a student protest at Roosevelt University, he encountered the fiery Milly Martinez (Madeleine Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans, We Were Soldiers), a part-Mexican, part-Catholic, and part-Jewish liberal activist.

When she was arrested at the protest, Kondracke bailed her out of jail - a premise that's a bit hard to swallow on a couple of counts. First, it raises questions about Kondracke's journalistic objectivity. Second, cub reporters usually don't have that kind of money to throw around.

Despite his expectations of marrying a Vassar grad who would help him reach his goal of becoming an influential Washington journalist, Kondracke wound up falling for Milly. The two eventually headed off to Washington to build their lives and careers together, he as a journalist and she as a therapist and political activist.

They have two daughters, spend lots of time debating their beliefs with each other, and Kondracke develops a growing fondness for the bottle.

In 1987, their lives take a fateful turn when Milly begins noticing a subtle change in her handwriting and occasional numbness in her fingers. After several tests, her worst fears are confirmed and, at the age of 47, she is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder.

Early symptoms can include tremors in the hands, arms, and legs, as well as rigidity and impaired balance. Eventually, sufferers may have difficulty walking, talking, and swallowing.

After Milly's diagnosis, Kondracke re-examines his own life and his priorities. He stops drinking and changes his focus from his career to helping his wife resist the debilitating effects of the disease. As the illness steadily progresses and Milly is confined to a wheelchair, the couple become passionate advocates for increased government funding for medical research.

For the most part, Milly faces her afflictions with her own tough brand of resiliency, but at times it gets to be almost too much, and she lapses into despair. "I've always believed in God," she says one day, "so why is he punishing me?"

At a particularly low point, she even asks her husband to consider helping her end her life.

In their efforts to lobby for more Parkinson's research funding, the Kondrackes' journey eventually intersects with that of actor Michael J. Fox, who walked away from his TV sitcom Spin City in 2000 after revealing that he had Parkinson's. Since then, he, too, has become a vocal advocate of increased federal funding to develop a cure for the disease.

In addition to a brief appearance in the film, Fox also taped a short but powerful message that is played at the end:

"In the '80s, doctors said with the right attention and resolve - and with the funding - Parkinson's could be cured in a matter of 5 to 10 years," Fox says. "Well, now two decades later, they're still saying the same thing."

Though ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt to save his wife (she died last summer), Kondracke's story is a truly compelling one that will make most viewers glad they had the opportunity to meet Milly.

Saving Milly is sponsored by the Family Friendly Programming Forum, which comprises dozens of major advertisers that joined together five years ago to help develop more wholesome prime-time network TV programs that can be watched by families. Among shows it has funded are American Dreams, Clubhouse, Complete Savages, Eight Simple Rules, and Gilmore Girls.

Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade.com

or 419-724-6131.



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