Garr began her career with small roles in film and television, including appearances as a dancer in nine Elvis Presley musicals of the early 1960s and a featured guest slot in the 1968 Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth". She is perhaps best known for appearing in comedy films, including Young Frankenstein (1974), Mr. Mom (1983) and Tootsie (1982) which earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Garr was born in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Her father, Eddie Garr (born Edward Leo Gonnoud), was a vaudeville performer, comedian, and actor whose career peaked when he briefly took over the lead role in the Broadway drama Tobacco Road. He changed his surname before Teri's birth. Her mother, Phyllis Lind (born Emma Schmotzer), was a dancer, a Rockette, wardrobe mistress, and model. Her father was of Irish descent and her maternal grandparents were Austrian immigrants.
Early in her career she was credited as Terri Garr, Terry Garr, Teri Hope, or Terry Carr. Her movie debut was as an extra in A Swingin' Affair (1963). At the end of her senior year at Magnificat High School, she auditioned for the cast of the Los Angeles road company production of West Side Story, where she met one of the most important people in her early career, David Winters, who became her friend, dance teacher, and mentor. Winters cast her in many of his early movies and projects.
Garr began as a background dancer in uncredited roles in youth-oriented films and TV shows choreographed by Winters, including Pajama Party (a beach party film), the T.A.M.I. Show, Shindig!, Shivaree, Hullabaloo, Movin' with Nancy, and nine Elvis Presley features (many of which were also choreographed by Winters, including Presley's most profitable film, Viva Las Vegas.
When asked in a magazine interview about how she landed jobs in so many Presley films, Garr answered, "One of the dancers in the road show of West Side Story (David Winters) started to choreograph movies, and whatever job he got, I was one of the girls he'd hire. So he was chosen to do Viva Las Vegas. That was my first movie."
Her first speaking role in a motion picture was a brief appearance as a damsel in distress in the Monkees film Head (1968), written by Jack Nicholson. She landed her first significant motion picture role in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Her career breakthrough came in the Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein (also 1974) as Inga.
She appeared in a string of highly successful films, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as the wife of Richard Dreyfuss's character, Oh, God! (1977) as the wife of John Denver's character, The Black Stallion (1979) as the mother of Kelly Reno's character, Mr. Mom (1983) as the wife of Michael Keaton's character, After Hours (1985), and Let It Ride (1989), also opposite Dreyfuss. Garr was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role as Dustin Hoffman's character's actress friend in Tootsie (1982).
She often appeared on television. She began as a go-go dancer on several musical variety shows, along with friend Toni Basil, such as Shindig! and Hullabaloo. In 1966 Garr made one appearance on Batman (episode 7, uncredited). In 1968, she appeared in both The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. and was in two episodes of It Takes a Thief.
In 1968 she was featured as secretary Roberta Lincoln in the Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth", designed as a backdoor pilot episode for a new series which was not commissioned. In the early 1970s, she was a regular cast member on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, dancing and acting in comedy sketches.
She had a recurring role on McCloud, and appeared on M*A*S*M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Maude, Barnaby Jones, and Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. She hosted Saturday Night Live three times (in 1980, 1983, and 1985), and was a frequent visitor on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
As a recurring guest on Late Night with David Letterman, she was renowned for her unscripted banter with David Letterman, who once goaded her into showering in his office while the camera rolled. She landed a role as recurring character Phoebe Abbott in Friends, the estranged birth mother of Phoebe Buffay.
Garr's daughter, Molly O'Neil, was born in November 1993. Garr married contractor John O'Neil on the day their adopted daughter was born. Garr and O'Neil divorced in 1996.
In October 2002, Garr publicly confirmed that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
After years of uncertainty and secrecy surrounding her diagnosis, Garr explained her reasons for deciding to go public: "I'm telling my story for the first time so I can help people. I can help people know they aren't alone and tell them there are reasons to be optimistic because, today, treatment options are available."
In interviews, she has commented that she first started noticing symptoms while in New York filming Tootsie. After disclosing her condition, she became a National Ambassador for the National multiple sclerosis Society and National Chair for the Society's Women Against MS program (WAMS). In November 2005, Garr was honored as the society's Ambassador of the Year. This honor had been given only four times since the society was founded.
In 2006, Garr suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. After therapy, she regained speech and motor skills, and, in 2008 appeared on Late Show with David Letterman to promote Expired, a 2007 film in which she played a set of twins.
Garr has not acted in films or television since 2007, though she did publicly appear at the 19th Annual Race to Erase MS (multiple sclerosis) event in 2012.
Closer reported in 2015 that she credited her positive attitude and support of her family as helping her fight the disease.Academy Award (Oscar)1983: Nominated for "Best Supporting Actress" in TootsieBritish Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA)1984: Nominated for "Best Supporting Actress" in TootsieNational Society of Film Critics, USA1983: Third Place "Best Supporting Actress" in TootsieNational Board of Review, USA1994 Winner: "Best Acting Ensemble" in Prêt-à-PorterAcademy of science fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA1978: Nominated for "Best Supporting Actress" in Close Encounters of the Third KindCableACE Awards1983 Nominated for "Actress in a Dramatic Presentation" in Faerie Tale Theatre For episode "The Tale of the Frog Prince".Where Is the Bus? (1966)The Absent-Minded Waiter (1977)Java Junkie (1979), shown on Saturday Night LiveSave the Rabbits (1994)God Out the Window (2007)