?Her left arm flailed as if she was trying to wipe something off the airplane window with her elbow.
From across the aisle, her mother couldn’t figure out what she was doing.
Neither could Lynn-Holly Johnson.
Her arm was acting as if it had a mind of its own.
When the plane landed at John Wayne Airport, she was barely able to negotiate her way, zigging and zagging, to the baggage claim area.
No doubt people in the terminal thought the former actress, who starred in “Ice Castles” in 1978 and became a Bond girl in “For Your Eyes Only” in 1981, was drunk. She fell down three times before her mother helped her into a taxi.
It was late Sunday night, Jan. 4, 2010, and Lynn-Holly Johnson was having a very public stroke.
What Lynn-Holly didn’t know then was that she had been doomed to have this moment from the second she was born, and that a person very close to her was doomed as well.
Unless she could help him.
What a life.
Lynn-Holly Johnson was an ice skating champion, model and actor before she was a teen-ager. As a kid in Chicago, she starred in a stage version of “The Miracle Worker” with Rita Moreno. She appeared in television commercials for McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Sears. She was good enough on the ice to dream about making the U.S. Olympic team, but an injury in 1974 ended her chances.
At 19, she landed the role of Lexie Winston, the skating whiz who falls in love with Robby Benson and goes blind because of a blood clot in her brain, in “Ice Castles.” (She had no idea at the time that she and Benson, the 1970s sensation, both were keeping a secret that would haunt them as they grew older.)
At 22, she played the role of “Bibi Dahl” and went to bed with James Bond in “For Your Eyes Only.” She giggled through a sexy scene with Roger Moore, who was more than 30 years older than her.
She married George Clooney in one television show. She worked with Bette Davis on the Disney film “The Watcher in the Woods.” She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She met Lady Diana and Prince Charles. She was friends with Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg. She dated, among others, Dean Paul Martin and John Denver.
She also won a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress in “Where the Boys Are ’84. (Lynn-Holly is quick to point out that Sylvester Stallone, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Demi Moore are all Razzie winners too.)
“I got in and out of the movie business safely,” said Lynn-Holly, who is now a full-time Mom living in Newport Beach with her husband, Kelly Givens, and her children, KellenDane and Jensie.
She starred in more than a dozen movies, but no major films since the mid-1980s. Her career, she said, was derailed when she refused to do nude scenes. On the set of “Ice Castles,” she shut down production for a day when she was asked to take her clothes off.
She was considered for a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club.” But when she saw the script called for nudity, she said no. She was asked to read for the raunchy “Caddyshack,” but said no.
“There was a line, and I couldn’t cross it,” she said. “I made the perfect decision for me. My life is swell. Wonderful husband, great kids, living in Orange County.”
She really does say things like “Life is swell” and “Life is a picnic.”
And for her, right now, any life at all is just peachy.
A hiccup nearly killed her.
For some still unexplained reason, while on that flight from Florida to Orange County three years ago, a blood clot formed in Lynn-Holly’s heart.
She didn’t know it, but Lynn-Holly had a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) which is a hole in her heart that, in most people, closes at birth. In about 25 percent of the population, like Lynn-Holly, the PFO stays open. In most people, the PFO is not dangerous.
Her late father, Alan, who had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when Lynn-Holly had the stroke, also had a PFO. He suffered a stroke in 1985. Her brother Gregg, also had a PFO but had left it untreated. Gregg would become Lynn-Holly’s great project in life after her stroke. Despite what happened to her and her father, Gregg refused to get tested for a PFO.
When she hiccupped on that flight, the blood clot shot through the PFO and lodged in her brain. And after she stumbled out of the airport, her mother helped Lynn-Holly into the back of a cab.
When she got home, her husband immediately took her to Hoag Hospital, which is seven minutes away.
Lynn-Holly remembers her husband carrying her into the Hoag emergency room and hearing a nurse yell, “CODE 20” – translation: stroke victim. The hospital handles about 600 stroke cases a year.
Because she couldn’t talk, Lynn-Holly couldn’t tell her doctor when the symptoms started. So the physician, Dr. David Brown, medical director for Hoag’s stroke program, had a decision to make:
If he caught the clot early enough he could give her a drug that would dissolve it. But if he gave it to her too late, the drug might cause an aneurysm …
“She could have died,” he said.
Brown chose not to give her the drug.
It was a call that saved her life.
Brown asked Lynn-Holly what year it was. She said, “1968.” He asked her the identity of the man standing in the back of the room. She said “My boyfriend.”
Close. The man in the back of the room was her husband, Kelly.
Her mind refused to cooperate.
And, at times, that was a good thing.
Lynn-Holly Johnson, the star of “Ice Castles” and a Bond girl in “For Your Eyes Only,” had a stroke in 2010. Luckily, she retained her ability to walk and talk. But for three years, she has struggled to reclaim her brain.
She lost a lot during that fight. For example, she has very little memory of her father’s death. He died of pancreatic cancer just a few months after her stroke. (“I guess God didn’t want me to see my Dad falling apart,” she said. “I remember his smile.”)
She had surgery to close the hole in her heart, which is called the Patent Foramen Ovale, or PFO, and appears in 25 percent of the population. Her father, before he fought cancer, suffered a stroke as a result of his PFO. And she was sure her brother, Gregg, had it too, though he didn’t want to get tested.
But Lynn-Holly’s PFO was no longer her biggest problem.
She would start a sentence, but couldn’t finish it. Or she would blurt words out of context. “Rice and beans,” she remembers saying to no one in particular. She would be given a minute to name as many animals as she could; she could come up with four.
In those early days she could only stay awake for three hours at a time. Once, about a month after the stroke, a vacuum cleaner salesman came to her door and she bought one for $2,600. She doesn’t know why she did it.
She would be asked to spell a word backward, and she couldn’t figure out why someone would need a word spelled backward. So she didn’t answer. She would get lost inside the hospital. She would forget where she was. She would be shown a page full of numbers, “and they looked like worms on a page.” She had a bracelet made to commemorate her stroke, and she got the date wrong.
She grew depressed; angry. She thought her mind was gone for good.
In Hoag Hospital’s Acquired Brain Injury Program, Lynn-Holly made a list of her goals: “Step 1 – take naps. Step 2 – rest between assignments. Step 3 – take baby steps. Step 4 – prevent emotional fall-apart.”
“My brain just wanted to go to sleep,” Lynn-Holly said. “That’s what it needed to recover.”
Then, with more than a year of therapy at Hoag, her mind started coming back. She worked puzzles and started figuring them out. She walked to unfamiliar parts of a building and found her way back.
Today, she still has difficulty with her memory. And long conversations are “like running a marathon.” But she also says she’s “walking and talking, which is good.”
This month, Lynn-Holly called Robby Benson, her “Ice Castles” co-star. It was their first phone conversation since they walked off the movie set in 1978. Benson, post “Ice Castles,” starred in movies like “One on One,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Death Be Not Proud” and “Running Brave.” He was the voice of the beast in “Beauty and the Beast.” He also directed movies and TV shows, including several episodes of “Friends.”
Bensen also knows heart trouble. He’s had four open-heart surgeries, and he’s written a book “I’m Not Dead… Yet.”
When he heard from Lynn-Holly, the reconnection was instant.
“Just had the most spectacular conversation with Lynn-Holly,” Benson wrote in an email to the Register. “She is inspirational, just as lovely and compassionate as she was when we worked together. We discussed our families, and how they keep us going. So it’s not just a ‘line’ that sounds good as a p.r. byte — it’s oh so true. Thank goodness for the ones we love.
“Our conversation felt like it could’ve been a week after the movie wrapped.”
Both former teenage stars said they were told by doctors that something was wrong with their hearts. But they kept their health issues quiet so they kept their roles.
“Mentors like Rod Steiger and John Marley told me that if anyone in the business ever gets a hint that you have heart problems, it’s career suicide,” Benson said. “And I did so many athletic roles … while I was deteriorating physically.”
Benson was so impressed that Lynn-Holly had been giving speeches on behalf of the American Heart Association. Benson will be the host for the AHA Ball in Washington D.C. on Feb. 23.
When she got her senses back, Lynn-Holly turned her attention to her brother. She had survived a stroke on a cross-country flight, had battled to regain her cognitive function for more than a year. Still, her brother wasn’t moved.
Gregg Johnson saw his father have a stroke, then his sister. But he didn’t get his heart examined. Lynn-Holly was persistent, mailing him articles about the connection between PFO and stroke.
“She was on me, ‘You have to do this,'” said Gregg, who is 57. “I resisted. In the back of my mind, I felt this couldn’t happen to me.”
Then he started having migraines. He still resisted. Then his hand went numb. He still resisted.
It wasn’t until a follow-up visit, after the numb hand, that Gregg decided to get his heart checked out. Lynn-Holly was right. He had a PFO.
In December, he had surgery to close the PFO that, like his sister, had been open since his birth.
“I thought my sister would say, ‘I told you so.’ But she didn’t.”
Lynn-Holly has said all along that if her story could help just one person, then she would be happy to tell it.
“I helped my one person,” Lynn-Holly said with a smile.
Or did she?
Gregg Johnson is a pilot for United Airlines. His normal flight is 10 hours to Brazil.
To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.