Glee's Bully Shares a Softer Side with MDA

Actor Max Adler is 'making a muscle for MDA' in honor of his late mother and grandmother with FSHD

Max Adler's character on the Fox TV show "Glee" is known for throwing Slushees on students
Article Highlights:
  • "Glee's" Max Adler has joined the MDA Muscle Team in honor of his late mother and grandmother, both of whom had facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD).
  • His mother Lisa, a former dancer and art teacher, received an FSHD diagnosis  in her early 40s after experiencing gradual weakness in her shoulders and arms. Her death motivated Max to become a professional actor.
by Tiana Velez on July 1, 2011 - 4:20pm

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 3

The hit TV show “Glee” launched actor Max Adler into the national spotlight as football player and bully Dave Karofsky. But it’s his late mother’s fight with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy that launched him toward MDA’s Muscle Team.

Affable, well-spoken and polite, the 25-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz., is far removed from the bully he plays on “Glee.” Last fall, Max reached out to MDA, expressing his desire to help raise awareness of muscular dystrophy in honor of his mother, Lisa, who encouraged him to become an actor.

“Many young people don’t even know about MD, or they often confuse it with MS [multiple sclerosis],” he says.

FSHD in the family

Max, Jake, Lisa and Doug Adler
Max, Jake, Lisa and Doug Adler (Photos courtesy of Doug Adler)

As a boy, Max watched as both his grandmother and mother struggled daily with the effects of FSHD.

His grandmother, Ruth Kobrin, had a severe form of the disease and, by the end of her life, had extreme difficulty chewing food or swallowing and relied almost entirely on a power wheelchair.

His mother always knew FSHD was “lingering somewhere in her genes, and in her body,” he says, adding that his mother’s brother never showed any signs of the disease, “and I think my mom was hoping for the same.”

But, in her early 40s, FSHD hit suddenly and progressed quickly.

A childhood full of arts and culture

A former New York dancer who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lisa Adler (née Kobrin) performed in off-Broadway productions and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1977, she met Max’s father, Doug Adler, and they married three years later.

Max was born in 1986 — followed in 1992 by brother Jake. By then, the family had moved from their Queens, N.Y., apartment to a home in Arizona. Although Lisa’s health curtailed her ability to dance, she found work as an art teacher at an elementary school and later taught both her sons as students.

“She spent all her time with Max, which is what she wanted to do,” says Doug Adler, 61, now department chair of special education at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. “She would keep him busy all the time — going to libraries, shows. She was always running around exposing him to the arts, to culture.”

And Max thrived with the attention. He recalls taking his father’s camera and recording “commercials” in his bedroom. Eventually, he started acting in community theater and school plays. By middle school, the idea of being a professional actor took root.

It was also around this time that Lisa’s health took a considerable downward turn.

FSHD didn’t stop her

Max and his mother, Lisa
Max and Lisa in 2002

The exact age at which Max’s mother began exhibiting FSHD symptoms is difficult to determine. Since her early 20s, she’d endured a spate of illnesses that affected her strength and immune system and may have masked signs of FSHD.

As a young woman she developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, for which she received radiation and later had surgery to remove her spleen. Years later, she was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease.

“[My mother had] diseases all around her, threatening her career and her passions, stopping her from doing what she loved,” Max says. “Still, she powered through to be the most amazing mother ever.”

As she entered her 40s, Lisa’s shoulders and arms weakened and her posture worsened as she gradually became unable to hold herself upright. Where previously she could stand on tiptoes and touch the ceiling, Lisa came to rely on assistive devices like extenders for simple tasks such as getting items down from kitchen cabinets.

“When she wanted to lift a heavy bowl of pasta, she just didn’t have the strength, and had to have me, my little brother or my dad assist her,” Max recalls. “She felt so helpless, and it broke my heart.”

Despite his mother’s struggles, it was not FSHD that ultimately caused her death. One evening in 2003, while the family slept, Lisa succumbed to heart failure. Her death caught the family completely by surprise. Max was 17.

“We knew that she would be needing assistance [because of her FSHD],” Doug Adler says. “But no one, not even Lisa, thought that she wouldn’t wake up one morning.”

Following his mother’s advice all the way to ‘Glee’

Prior to her death, Lisa and Max — then a high school senior — had discussed his dreams of becoming an actor and whether he should attend college. The artist and former Broadway dancer believed that if Max truly wanted to act, he should simply move to Los Angeles and get started — no college degree necessary.

At first, he had laughed off his mom’s advice — what teenage boy (or girl) doesn’t? But her sudden death gave Max a new perspective on life and, with the help of some money his father had set aside for his college, he moved to L.A.

Bit roles in commercials and television shows followed. There was even some work on a play, where he met current girlfriend Jennifer Bronstein.

In 2009, he made his first appearance as bully Dave Karofsky on “Glee.” Originally that, too, was meant to be a small role, but that changed in the show’s second season, when the script called for him to kiss the show’s openly gay character, Kurt Hummel.

The episode drew a huge response and piqued fans’ interest in this suddenly complex character. “Most messages I get are just so inspiring and humbling — people thanking me for playing such an important role in the show and connecting with Karofsky because they may have been a Karofsky, or knew one,” Max says of his newfound fame.

Giving back for Mom and MDA

Jake, Doug and Max Adler
Jake, Doug and Max Adler

This spring, Max flexed his muscles for a series of public service announcements for MDA’s “Make a Muscle, Make a Difference” campaign. He also posted a request to fans on his Facebook and Twitter accounts to get involved with their local MDA Muscle Walks. Washington, D.C., resident Marcie Zimmerman readily accepted the challenge.

Zimmerman, 26, does not have an MD diagnosis, nor does anyone in her family. She admits that until she read Max’s posts, she had little idea about any of the neuromuscular diseases covered by MDA.

Still, she created a donation link on her local Muscle Walk’s registration page and reposted the information to her personal Tumblr blog, as well as her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Her original goal: $1,000. But by late April, Zimmerman’s page had raised more than $2,000, garnering donations from Max Adler fans as far away as Cambodia, Brazil, Europe, Japan and Russia. Her next goal: $3,000.

(Editor's note: The conclusion of MDA's annual Muscle Walk campaign signaled an end to Zimmerman's donation page, but in the time it was up, fans donated more than $3,600 in honor of Max and Lisa.  Zimmerman's company nearly matched that amount, bringing the total to almost $7,000.)

“I think it’s the fact that we can tell [Max] is really passionate about it,” Zimmerman says. “As fans, it makes it worthwhile for us.”

Says Max, “I felt it was time to start giving back now and returning the favor, now that I have found some success in this super-hard and competitive industry.

“In all ways, it’s for my mom and my grandma — and maybe later, me or my brother.”

Be the next to flex!

View the 30-second PSA Max filmed for MDA's "Make a Muscle, Make a Difference" campaign.

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